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Nabokov's interview. (15) Novel [1970]

During a visit in the last week of August, 1970, Alfred Appel interviewed me again. The result was printed, from our careful jottings, in the spring, 1971, issue of Novel, A Forum on Fiction, Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island. In the twelve years since the American publication of Lolita, you've published twenty-two or so books-- new American or Antiterran novels, old Russian works in English, Lolita in Russian-- giving one the impression that, as someone has said-- John Updike, I think-- your oeuvre is growing at both ends. Now that your first novel has appeared (Mashenka, 1926), it seems appropriate that, as we sail into the future, even earlier works should adhere to this elegant formula and make their quantum leap into English. Yes, my forthcoming Poems and Problems [McGraw-Hill] will offer several examples of the verse of my early youth, including "The Rain Has Flown," which was composed in the park of our country place, Vyra, in May 1917, the last spring my family was to live there. This "new" volume consists of three sections: a selection of thirty-six Russian poems, presented in the original and in translation; fourteen poems which I wrote directly in English, after 1940 and my arrival in America (all of which were published in The New Yorker), and eighteen chess problems, all but two of which were composed in recent years (the chess manuscripts of the 1940-1960 period have been mislaid and the earlier unpublished jottings are not worth printing). These Russian poems constitute no more than one percent of the mass of verse which I exuded with monstrous regularity during my youth. Do the components of that monstrous mass fall into any discernible periods or stages of development? What can be called rather grandly my European period of verse-making seems to show several distinctive stages: an initial one of passionate and commonplace love verse (not represented in Poems and Problems)-, a period reflecting utter distrust of the so-called October Revolution; a period (reaching well into the nineteen-twenties) of a kind of private curatorship, aimed at preserving nostalgic retrospections and developing Byzantine imagery (this has been mistaken by some readers for an interest in "religion" which, beyond literary stylization, never meant anything to me); a period lasting another decade or so during which I set myself to illustrate the principle of making a short poem contain a plot and tell a story (this in a way expressed my impatience with the dreary drone of the anйmie "Paris School" of emigre poetry); and finally, in the late thirties, and especially in the following decades, a sudden liberation from self-imposed shackles, resulting both in a sparser output and in a belatedly discovered robust style. Selecting poems for this volume proved less difficult than translating them. Why are you including the chess problems with the poems? Because problems are the poetry of chess. They demand from the composer the same virtues that characterize all worthwhile art: originality, invention, harmony, conciseness, complexity, and splendid insincerity. Most of your work in Russian {1920-1940} appeared under the name of "Sirin. " Why did you choose that pseudonym? In modern times sirin is one of the popular Russian names of the Snowy Owl, the terror of tundra rodents, and is also applied to the handsome Hawk Owl, but in old Russian mythology it is a multicolored bird, with a woman's face and bust, no doubt identical with the "siren," a Greek deity, transporter of souls and teaser of sailors. In 1920, when casting about for a pseudonym and settling for that fabulous fowl, I still had not shaken off the false glamour of Byzantine imagery that attracted young Russian poets of the Blokian era. Incidentally, circa 1910 there had appeared literary collections under the editorial title of Sirin devoted to the so-called "symbolist" movement, and I remember how tickled I was to discover in 1952 when browsing in the Houghton Library at Harvard that its catalogue listed me as actively publishing Blok, Bely, and Bryusov at the age of ten. An arresting phantasmagoric image of Russian emigre life in Germany is that of film extras playing themselves, as it were, as do Ganin in Mashenka and those characters in your story "The Assistant Producer, " whose "only hope and profession was their past-- that is, a set of totally unreal people, " who, you write, were hired "to represent 'real' audiences in pictures. The dovetailing of one phantasm into another produced upon a sensitive person the impression of living in a Hall of Mirrors, or rather a prison of mirrors, and not even knowing which was the glass and which was yourself. " Did Sirin ever do that sort of work? Yes, I have been a tuxedoed extra as Ganin had been and that passage in Mashenka, retitled Mary in the 1970 translation, is a rather raw bit of "real life." I don't remember the names of those films. Did you have much to do with film people in Berlin? Laughter in the Dark {1932} suggests a familiarity. In the middle thirties a German actor whose name was Fritz Kortner, a most famous and gifted artist of his day wanted to make a film of Camera Obscura [Englished as Laughter in the Dark]. I went to London to see him, nothing came of it, but a few years later another firm, this one in Paris, bought an option which ended in a blind alley too. / recall that nothing came of yet another option on Laughter in the Dark when the producer engaged Roger Vadim, circa I960-- Bardot as Margot?-- and of course the novel finally reached the no-longer silver screen in 1969, under the direction of Tony Richardson, adapted by Edward Bond, and starring Nicol Wil-liamson and Anna Karma (interesting name, that), the setting changed from old Berlin to Richardson's own mod London. I assume that you saw the movie. Yes, I did. That name is interesting. In the novel there is a film in which my heroine is given a small part, and I would like my readers to brood over my singular power of prophecy, for the name of the leading lady (Dorianna Karenina) in the picture invented by me in 1931 prefigured that of the actress (Anna Karina) who was to play Margot forty years later in the film Laughter in the Dark, which I viewed at a private screening in Montreux. Are other works headed for the screen? Yes, King, Queen, Knave and Ada, though neither is in production yet. Ada will be enormously difficult to do: the problem of having a suggestion of fantasy, continually, but never overdoing it. Bend Sinister was done on West German television, an opera based on Invitation to a Beheading was shown on Danish TV, and my play The Event [1938] appeared on Finnish TV. The German cinema of the twenties and early thirties produced several masterpieces. Living in Berlin, were you impressed by any of the films of the period? Do you today feel any sense of affinity with directors such as Fritz Lang and Josef von Sternberg? The former would have been the ideal director for Despair {1934}, the latter, who did The Blue Angel, perfect for Laughter in the Dark and King, Queen, Knave {1928], with its world of decor and decadence. And if only F. W. Murnau, who died in 1931, could have directed The Defense {1930}, with Emil Jannings as Luzhin! The names of Sternberg and Lang never meant anything to me. In Europe I went to the corner cinema about once in a fortnight and the only kind of picture I liked, and still like, was and is comedy of the Laurel and Hardy type. I enjoyed tremendously American comedy-- Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, and Chaplin. My favorites by Chaplin are The Gold Rush [1925], The Circus [1928], and The Great Dictator [1940]-- especially the parachute inventor who jumps out of the window'- and ends in a messy fall which we only see in the expression on the dictator's face. However, today's Little Man appeal has somewhat spoiled Chaplin's attraction for me. The Marx Brothers were wonderful. The opera, the crowded cabin {A Night at the Opera, 1935], which is pure genius . . . [Nabokov then lovingly rehearsed the scene in detail, delighting particularly in the arrival of the manicurist.] I must have seen that film three times! Laurel and Hardy are always funny; there are subtle, artistic touches in even their most mediocre films. Laurel is so wonderfully inept, yet so very kind. There is a film in which they are at Oxford [A Chump at Oxford, 1940]. In one scene the two of them are sitting on a park bench in a labyrinthine garden and the subsequent happenings conform to the labyrinth. A casual villain puts his hand through the back of the bench and Laurel, who is clasping his hands in an idiotic reverie, mistakes the stranger's hand for one of his own hands, with all kinds of complications because his own hand is also there. He has to choose. The choice of a hand. How many years bas it been since you saw that movie? Thirty or forty years. [Nabokov then recalled, again in precise detail, the opening scenes of County Hospital, 1932, in which Stan brings a gift of hardboiled eggs to relieve the misery of hospitalized Oilie and consumes them himself, salting them carefully.] More recently, on French TV I saw a Laurel and Hardy short in which the "dubbers" had the atrocious taste to have the two men speak fluent French with an English accent. But I don't even remember if the best Laurel and Hardy are talkies or not. On the whole, I think what I love about the silent film is what comes through the mask of the talkies and, vice versa, talkies are mute in my memory. Did you only enjoy American films? No. Dreyer's La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc [1928] was superb, and I loved the French films of Renй Clair-- Sous les Toits de Paris [1929], Le Million [1931], А Nous la Libertй [1931]-- a new world, a new trend in cinema. A brilliant but self-effacing critic and scholar bas described Invitation to a Beheading {1935-36] as Zamiatin's We restaged by the Marx Brothers. Is it fair to say that Invitation to a Beheading is in many ways akin to the film comedies we've been talking about? I can't make the comparison between a visual impression and my scribble on index cards, which I always see first included quite a number of scenes that I had discarded from the novel but still preserved in my desk. You mention one of those scenes in The Annotated Lolita-- Humbert's arrival in Ramsdale at the charred ruins of the McCoo house. My complete screenplay of Lolita, all deletions and emendations restored, will be published by McGraw-Hill in the near future; I want it out before the musical version. The musical version? You look disapproving. It's in the best of hands: Alan Jay Lemer will do the adaptation and lyrics, John Barry the music, with settings by Boris Aronson. I notice that you didn't include W. C. Fields among your favorites. For some reason his films did not play in Europe and I never saw any in the States, either. Well, Fields' comedy is more eminently American than the others, less exportable, I suppose. To move from movies to stills, I've noticed that photography is seen negatively (no pun intended, no pun!) in books such as Lolita and Invitation to a Beheading. Are you making a by now traditional distinction between mechanical process and artistic inspiration? No, I do not make that distinction. The mechanical process can exist in a ludicrous daub, and artistic inspiration can be found in a photographer's choice of landscape and in his manner of seeing it. You once told me that you were born a landscape painter. Which artists have meant the most to you? Oh, many. In my youth mostly Russian and French painters. And English artists such as Turner. The painters and paintings alluded to in Ada are for the most part more recent enthusiasms. The process of reading and rereading your novels is a kind of game of perception, a confrontation of novelistic trompe l'oeil, and in several novels ("Pale Fire and Ada among others) you allude to trompe l'oeil painting. Would you say something about the pleasures inherent in the trompe l'oeil school? A good trompe l'oeil painting proves at least that the painter is not cheating. The charlatan who sells his squiggles to йpater Philistines does not have the talent or the technique to draw a nail, let alone the shadow of a nail. What about Cubistic callage? That's a kind of trompe l'oeil. No, it has none of the poetic appeal that I demand from all art, be it letters or the little music I know. The art teacher in Pnin says that Picasso is supreme, despite his commercial foibles. Kinbote in Pale Fire likes him too, gracing his rented house with "a beloved early Picasso: earth boy leading rain-cloud horse, " and your Kinbotish questioner recalls a reproduction of Picasso's Chandelier, pot et casserole йmaillйe on your writing desk, 1966 (the same one Kinbote had up on his wall during his reign as King Charles). Which aspects of Picasso do you admire? The graphic aspect, the masterly technique, and the quiet colors. But then, starting with Guernica, his production leaves me indifferent. The aspects of Picasso that I emphatically dislike are the sloppy products of his old age. I also loathe old Matisse. A contemporary artist I do admire very much, though not only because he paints Lolita-like creatures, is Balthus. How are you progressing with your book on the butterfly in art? I am still working, at my own pace, on an illustrated Butterflies in Art work, from Egyptian antiquity to the Renaissance. It is a purely scientific pursuit. I find an entomological thrill in tracking down and identifying the butterflies represented by old painters. Only recognizable portraits interest me. Some of the problems that might be solved are: were certain species as common in ancient times as they are today? Can the minutiae of evolutionary change be discerned in the pattern of a five-hundred-year-old wing? One simple conclusion I have come to is that no matter how precise an Old Master's brush can be it cannot vie in artistic magic with some of the colored plates drawn by the illustrators of certain scientific works in the nineteenth century. An Old Master did not know that in different species the venation is different and never bothered to examine its structure. It is like painting a hand without knowing anything about its bones or indeed without suspecting it has any. Certain impressionists cannot afford to wear glasses. Only myopia condones the blurry generalizations of ignorance. In high art and pure science detail is everything. Who are some of the artists who rendered butterflies? Might they not attribute more symbolism to the insect than you do? Among the many Old Masters who depicted butterflies (obviously netted, or more exactly capped, by their apprentices in the nearest garden) were Hieronymous Bosch (1450-1516), Jan Brueghel (1568-1625), Albrecht Durer (1471-1528), Paolo Porpora (1617-1673), Daniel Seghers (1590-1661), and many others. The insect depicted is either part of a still-life (flowers or fruit) arrangement, or more strikingly a live detail in a conventional religious picture (Durer, Francesco di Gentile, etc.). That in some cases the butterfly symbolizes something (e.g.. Psyche) lies utterly outside my area of interest. In 1968 you told me you hoped to travel to various European museums for research purposes. Have you been doing that? Yes, that's one reason we've been spending so much time in Italy, and in the future will be traveling to Paris and the Louvre, and to the Dutch museums. We've been to small towns in Italy, and to Florence, Venice, Rome, Milano, Naples, and Pompeii, where we found a very badly drawn butterfly, long and thin, like a Mayfly. There are certain obstacles: still-lifes are not very popular today, they are gap-fillers, generally hanging in dark places or high up. A ladder may be necessary, a flashlight, a magnifying glass! My object is to identify such a picture if there are butterflies in it (often it's only "Anonymous" or "School of -- "), and get an efficient person to take a photograph. Since I don't find many of those pictures in the regular display rooms I try to find the curator because some pictures may turn up in their stacks. It takes so much time: I tramped through the Vatican Museum in Rome and found only one butterfly, a Zebra Swallowtail, in a quite conventional Madonna and Child by Gentile, as realistic as though it were painted yesterday. Such paintings may throw light on the time taken for evolution; one thousand years could show some little change in trend. It's an almost endless pursuit, but if I could manage to collect at least one hundred of these things I would publish reproductions of those particular paintings w^hich include butterflies, and enlarge parts of the picture with the butterfly in life-size. Curiously, the Red Admirable is the most popular; I've collected twenty examples. That particular butterfly appears frequently in your own work, too. In Pale Fire, a Red Admirable lands on John Shade's arm the minute before he is killed, the insect appears in King, Queen Knave just after you've withdrawn the authorial omniscience-- killing the characters, so to speak-- and in the final chapter of Speak, Memory, you recall having seen in a Paris park, just before the war, a live Red Admirable being promenaded on a leash of thread by a little girl. Why are you so fond of Vanessa atalanta? Its coloring is quite splendid and I liked it very much in my youth. Great numbers of them migrated from Africa to Northern Russia, where it was called "The Butterfly of Doom" because it was especially abundant in 1881, the year Tsar Alexander II was assassinated, and the markings on the underside of its two hind wings seem to read "1881." The Red Admirable's ability to travel so far is matched by many other migratory butterflies. The painters you admire are for the most part realists, yet it would not be altogether fair to call you a "realist. " Should one find this paradoxical? Or does the problem derive from nomenclature? The problem derives from pigeonholing. Your youngmanhood coincides with the experimental decade in Russian painting. Did you follow these developments closely at the time, and what were (are) your feelings about, say, Malevich, Kandinsky, or, to choose a more representational artist, Chagall? I prefer the experimental decade that coincided with my boyhood-- Sornov, Benois (Peter Ustinov's uncle, you know), Vrubel, Dobuzhinski, etc. Malevich and Kandinsky mean nothing to me and I have always found Chagall's stuff intolerably primitive and grotesque. Always? Well, relatively early works such as The Green Jew and The Promenade have their points, but the frescoes and windows he now contributes to temples and the Parisian Opera House plafond are coarse' and unbearable. What of Tchelitchew, whose Hide and Seek (another version of Speak, Memory's Find What the Sailor Has Hidden?^ inpart describes the experience of reading one of your novels? I know Tchelitchew's work very little. The latter artist recalls the Ballets Russes. Were you at all acquainted with that circle, painters as well as dancers and musicians? My parents had many acquaintances who painted and danced and made music. Our house was one of the first where young Shalyapin sang, and I have foxtrotted with Pavlova in London half a century ago. Mr. Hilton Kramer, in a recent article in the Sunday New York Times (May 3, 1970) writes, "The accomplishments of at least two living artists who are widely regarded as among the greatest of their time-- George Balanchine and Vladimir Nabokov-- are traceable, despite the changes of venue and language and outlook, to the esthetic dream that nourished Diaghilev and the artists he gathered around him in St. Petersburg in the nineties. " This is, I suppose, what Mary McCarthy meant when she characterized Pale Fire as a "Faberge gem. " Are these analogies just? I was never much interested in the ballet. "Faberge gems" I have dealt with in Speak, Memory (Chapter Five, p. III). Balanshin, not Balanchine (note the other mistransliterations). I am at a loss to understand why the names of most of the people with whom I am paired begin with a B. All of which brings to mind another outspoken emigre, Mr. Stravinsky. Have you had any associations with him? I know Mr. Stravinski very slightly and have never seen any genuine sample of his outspokenness in print. Whom in Parisian literary circles did you meet in the thirties, in addition to Joyce and the editorial board of Mesures? I was on friendly terms with the poet Jules Supervielle. Him and Jean Pauhan (editor of Nouvelle revue franзaise) I especially remember. Did you know Samuel Beckett in Paris? No, I did not. Beckett is the author of lovely novellas and wretched plays in the Maeterlinck tradition. The trilogy is my favorite, expecially Molloy. There is an extraordinary scene in which he is crawling through a forest by dragging himself, 'by catching the crook of his walking stick, his crutch, in the vegetation before him, and pulling himself up, wearing three overcoats and newspaper underneath them. Then there are those pebbles, which he is busily transferring from pocket to pocket. Everything is so gray, so uncomfortable, you feel that he is in constant bladder discomfort, as old people sometimes are in their dreams. In this abject condition there is no doubt some likeness with Kafka's physically uncomfortable and dingy men. It is that limpness that is so interesting in Beckett's work. Beckett has also composed in two tongues, has overseen the Englishing of his French works. In which language have you read him? I've read him in both French and English. Beckett's French is a schoolmaster's French, a preserved French, but in English you feel the moisture of verbal association and of the spreading live roots of his prose. I have a "theory" that the French translation of Despair (1939)-- not to mention the books she could have read in Russian-- exerted a great influence on the so-called New Novel. In his Preface to Mme. Sarraute's Portrait d'un inconnu (1947), Sartre includes you among the antinovelists, a rather more intelligent remark-- don't you think?-- than his comments of eight years before when, reviewing Despair, he said that as an emigre writer-- landless-- you bad no subject matter. "But what is the question?" you might ask at this point. Is Nabokov precursor of the French New Novel? Answer: The French New Novel does not really exist apart from a little heap of dust and fluff in a fouled pigeonhole. But what do you think of Sartre's remark? Nothing. I'm immune to any kind of opinion and I just don't know what an "anti-novel" is specifically. Every original novel is "anti-" because it does not resemble the genre or kind of its predecessor. / know that you admire Robbe-Grillet. What about some of the others loosely grouped under the "New Novel" tag: Claude Simon? Michel Butor? and Raymond Queneau, a wonderful writer, who, while not a member of l'йcole, anticipates it in several ways? Queneau's Exercices de style is a thrilling masterpiece and, in fact, one of the greatest stories in French literature. I am also very fond of Queneau's Zazie, and I remember some excellent essays he published in Nouvelle revue franзaise. We met once at a party and talked about another famous fillette. I do not care for Butor. But Robbe-Grillet is so unlike the others. One cannot, one should not lump them together. By the way, when we visited Robbe-Grillet, his petite, pretty wife, a young actress, had dressed herself а la gamine in my honor, pretending to be Lolita, and she continued the performance the next day, when we met again at a publisher's luncheon in a restaurant. After pouring wine for everyone but her, the waiter asked, "Voulez-vous un Coca-Cola, Mademoiselle? It was very funny, and Robbe-Grillet, who looks so solemn in his photographs, roared with laughter. Someone has called the New Novel "the detective story taken seriously" (there it is again, the influence of the French edition of Despair). Parodistic or not, you take it "seriously, " given the number of times you've transmuted the properties of the genre. Would you say something about why you've returned to them so often? My boyhood passion for the Sherlock Holmes and Father Brown stories may yield some twisted clue. You once said l hat Robbe-Grillet's shifts of levels belong to psychology-- "psychology at its best. "Are you apsychological novelist? All novelists of any worth are psychological novelists, T guess. Speaking of precursors of the New Novel, there is Franz Hellens, a Belgian, who is very important. Do you know of him? No, I don't. When was he active, in which period did he write? The post-Baudelaire period. Could you be more specific? Hellens was a tall, lean, quiet, very dignified man of whom I saw a good deal in Belgium in the middle thirties when I was reading my own stuff in lecture halls for large emigre audiences. La femme partagйe (1929), a novel, I like particularly, and there are three or four other books that stand out among the many that Hellens wrote. I tried to get someone in the States to publish him-- Laughlin, perhaps-- but nothing came of it. Hellens would get excellent reviews, was beloved in Belgium, and what friends he had in Paris tried to brighten and broaden his reputation. It is a shame that he is read less than that awful Monsieur Camus and even more awful Monsieur Sartre. What you say about Hellens and Queneau is most interesting, in part because journalists always find it more "colorful" to stress your negative remarks about other writers. Yes, "good copy" is the phrase. As a private person, I happen to be good-natured, straightforward, plain-spoken, and intolerant of bogus art. A writer for whom I have the deepest admiration is H. G. Wells, especially his romances: The Time Machine, The Invisible Man, The Country of the Blind, The War of the Worlds, and the moon fantasia The First Men on the Moon. And as final food for thought, sir, what is the meaning of life? [A rather blurry reproduction of Tolstoy's photographed face follows this question in the interviewer's typescript]. For solutions see p. 000 (thus says a MS note in the edited typescript of my Poems and Problems which I have just received). In other words: Let us wait for the page proof.

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