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Nabokov's interview. (16) The New York Times [1971]

A second exchange with Alden Whitman took place in mid-April, 1971, and was reproduced, with misprints and other flaws, in The New York Times, April 23. You, sir, will be seventy-two in a few days, having exceeded the Biblical three score and ten. How does this feat, if it is a feat, impress you? "Three score and ten" sounded, no doubt, very venerable in the days when life expectancy hardly reached one half of that length. Anyway, Petersburgan pediatricians never thought I might perform the feat you mention: a feat of lucky endurance, of paradoxically detached will power, of good work and good wine, of healthy concentration on a rare bug or a rhythmic phrase. Another thing that might have been of some help is the fact that I am subject to the embarrassing qualms of superstition: a number, a dream, a coincidence can affect roe obsessively-- though not in the sense of absurd fears but as fabulous (and on the whole rather bracing) scientific enigmas incapable of being stated, let alone solved. Has your life thus far come up to expectations you bad for yourself as a young man? My life thus far has surpassed splendidly the ambitions of boyhood and youth. In the first decade of our dwindling century, during trips with my family to Western Europe, I imagined, in bedtime reveries, what it would be like to become an exile who longed for a remote, sad, and (right epithet coming) unquenchable Russia, under the eucalipti of exotic resorts. Lenin and his police nicely arranged the realization of that fantasy. At the age of twelve my fondest dream was a visit to the Karakorum range in search of butterflies. Twenty-five years later I successfully sent myself, in the part of my hero's father (see my novel The Gift) to explore, net in hand, the mountains of Central Asia. At fifteen I visualized myself as a world-famous author of seventy with a mane of wavy white hair. Today I am practically bald. If birthday wishes were horses, what would yours be for yourself? Pegasus, only Pegasus. You are, I am told, at work on a new novel. Do you have a working title? And could you give me a precis of what it is all about? The working title of the novel I am composing now is Transparent Things, but a precis would be an opaque shadow. The façade of our hotel in Montreux is being repainted, and I have reached the ultimate south of Portugal in an effort to find a quiet spot (pace the booming surf and rattling wind) where to write. This I do on scrambled index cards (my text existing already there in invisible lead) which I gradually fill in and sort out, using up in the process more pencil sharpeners than pencils; but I have spoken of this in several earlier questionnaires-- a word whose spelling I have to look up every time; my traveling companion, Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, 1970, defines, by the way, "Quassia" as derived from "Quassi," a Surinam Negro slave of the 18th centu! ry, who discovered a remedy for worms in white children. On the other hand, none of my own coinages or reapplications appears in this lexicon-- neither "iridule" (a mother-of-pearl cloudlet in Pale Fire), nor "racemosa" (a kind of bird cherry), nor several prosodie terms such as "scud" and "tilt" (see my Commentary to Eugene Onegin). There has been a variety of critical reaction to Ada. Which critics, in your views, have been especially perceptive, and why? Except for a number of helpless little hacks who were unable to jog beyond the first chapters, American reviewers have been remarkably perceptive in regard to my most cosmopolitan and poetic novel. As to the British press, the observations of a few discerning critics were also most welcome; the buffoons turned out to be less clever than usual, whilst my regular spiritual guide, Mr. Philip Toyn-bee, seemed even more distressed by Ada than he had been by Pale Fire. I am bad at remembering reviews in detail, and for the moment several mountain chains separate me from my files, but generally speaking my wife and I have long stopped stuffing clippings into forgettable boxes, instead of which an efficient secretary pastes them in huge comfortable albums, with the result that I am informed better than before of current gloss and ! gossip. In direct answer to your question I would say that the main favor I ask of the serious critic is sufficient perceptiveness to understand that whatever term or trope I use, my purpose is not to be facetiously flashy or grotesquely obscure but to express what I feel and think with the utmost truthfulness and perception. Your novel Mary is having a success in the United States. What have been your feelings about seeing in print a novel of so long ago in an English version? In my preface to the English translation of my first Russian novel, written forty-eight years ago, I point out the nature of the similarities between the author's first love affair in 1915 and that of Ganin who recalls it as his own in the stylized world of my Mashenka. Owing perhaps to my having gone back to that young romance in my autobiography begun in the nineteen forties (that is, at the centerpoint of the span separating Mashenka from Mary), the strangeness of the present resurrection cannot help losing something of its thrill. Yet I do feel another, more abstract though no! less grateful, tingle when I tell myself that destiny not only preserved a fragile find from decay and oblivion, but allowed me to last long enough to supervise the unwrapping of the mummy. If you were writing the "book" for Lolita as a musical comedy, what would you select as the main comic point? The main comic point would have been my trying to do it myself.

Last-modified: Sat, 25 Jul 1998 20:44:30 GMT
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