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Nabokov's interview. (21) Vogue [1972]

Simona Morini came to interview me on February 3, 1972, in Montreux. Our exchange appeared in Vogue, New York, April 15, 1972. Three passages (pp. 200-1, 201-2 and 204), are borrowed, with modifications, from Speak, Memory, G. P. Putnam's Sons, N. Y., 1966. The world has been and is open to you. With your Proustian sense of places, what is there in Montreux that attracts you so? My sense of places is Nabokovian rather than Proustian. With regard to Montreux there are many attractions-- nice people, near mountains, regular mails, headquarters at a comfortable hotel. We dwell in the older part of the Palace Hotel, in its original part really, which was all that existed a hundred and fifty years ago (you can still see that initial inn and our future windows in old prints of 1840 or so). Our quarters consist of several tiny rooms with two and a half bathrooms, the result of two apartments having been recently fused. The sequence is: kitchen, living-dining room, my wife's room, my room, a former kitchenette now full of my papers, and our son's former room, now converted into a study. The apartment is! cluttered with books, folders, and files. What might be termed rather grandly a library is a back room housing my published works, and there are additional shelves in the attic whose skylight is much frequented by pigeons and Alpine choughs. I am giving this meticulous description to refute a distortion in an interview published recently in another New York magazine-- a long piece with embarrassing misquotations, wrong intonations, and false exchanges in the course of which I am made to dismiss the scholarship of a dear friend as "pedantry" and to poke ambiguous fun at a manly writer's tragic fate. Is there any truth in the rumor that you are thinking of leaving Montreux forever? Well, there is a rumor that sooner or later everybody living now in Montreux will leave it forever. Lolita is an extraordinary Baedecker of the United States. What fascinated you about American motels? The fascination was purely utilitarian. My wife used to drive me (Plymouth, Oldsmobile, Buick, Buick Special, Impala-- in that order of brand) during several seasons, many thousands of miles every season, for the sole purpose of collecting Lepidoptera-- all of which are now in three museums (Natural History in New York City, Comparative Zoology at Harvard, Comstock Hall at Cornell). Usually we spent only a day or two in each motorcourt, but sometimes, if the hunting was good, we stayed for weeks in one place. The main raison d'etre of the motel was the possibility of w! alking out straight into an aspen grove with lupines in full bloom or onto a wild mountainside. We also would make many sorties on the way between motels. All this I shall be describing in my next memoir, Speak On, Memory, which will deal with many curious things (apart from butterfly lore)-- amusing happenings at Cornell and Harvard, gay tussles with publishers, my friendship with Edmund Wilson, et cetera. You were in Wyoming and Colorado looking for butterflies. What were these places like to you? My wife and I have collected not only in Wyoming and Colorado, but in most of the states, as well as in Canada. The list of localities visited between 1940 and 1960 would cover many pages. Each butterfly, killed by an expert nip of its thorax, is slipped immediately into a little glazed envelope, about thirty of which fit into one of the Band-Aid containers which represent, with the net, my only paraphernalia in the field. Captures can be kept, before being relaxed and set, for any number of years in those envelopes, if properly stored. The exact locality and date are written on every envelope besides being jotted down in one's pocket diary. Though my captures are now in American museums, I have preserved hundreds of labels and notes. Here are just a few samples picked out at r! andom: Road to Terry Peak from Route 85, near Lead, 6500-7000 feet, in the Black Hills of South Dakota, July 20, 1958. Above Tomboy Road, between Social Tunnel and Bullion Mine, at about 10,500 feet, near Telluride, San Miguel County, W. Colorado, July 3, 1951. Near Karner, between Albany and Schenectady, New York, June 2, 1950. Near Columbine Lodge, Estes Park, E. Colorado, about 9000 feet, June 5, 1947. Soda Mt., Oregon, about 5500 feet, August 2, 1953. Above Portal, road to Rustler Park, between 5500 and 8000 feet, Chiricahua Mts., Arizona, April 30, 1953. Fernie, three miles east of Elco, British Columbia, July 10, 1958. Granite Pass, Bighorn Mts., 8950 feet, E. Wyoming, July 17, 1958. Near Crawley Lake, Bishop, California, about 7000 feet, June 3, 1953. Near Gatlinburg, Tennessee, April 21, 1959. Et cetera, et cetera. Where do you go for butterflies now? To various good spots in the Valais, the Tessin, the Grisons; to the hills of Italy; to the Mediterranean islands; to the mountains of southern France and so forth. I am chiefly devoted to European and North American butterflies of high altitudes, and have never visited the Tropics. The little mountain trains cogwheeling up to alpine meadows, through sun and shade, along rock face or coniferous forest are tolerable in action and delightful in destination, bringing one as they do to the starting point of a day-long hike. My favorite method of locomotion, though, is the cableway, and especially the chairlift. I find enchanting and dreamy in the best sense of the word to glide in the morning sun from valley to timberline in that magic seat, and watch from above my own shadow-- with the ghost of a butterfly net in the ghost of a fist-- as it keeps gently ascending in sitting profile along the flowery slope below, among dancing Ringlets and skimming Fritillaries. Some day the butterfly hunter will find even finer dream lore when floating u! pright over mountains, carried by a diminutive rocket strapped to his back. In the past, how did you usually travel, when you were looking for butterflies? Did you go camping, for instance? As a youth of seventeen, on the eve of the Russian Revolution, I was seriously planning (being the independent possessor of an inherited fortune) a lepidoptero-logical expedition to Central Asia, and that would have involved naturally a good deal of camping. Earlier, when I was, say, eight or nine, I seldom roamed further than the fields and woods of our country estate near St. Petersburg. At twelve, when aiming at a particular spot half-a-dozen miles or more distant, I would use a bicycle to get there with my net fastened to the frame; but not many forest paths were passable on wheels; it was possible to ride there on horseback, of course, but, because of our ferocious Russian tabanids, one could not leave a horse haltered in a wood for any length of time: my spirited b! ay almost climbed up the tree it was tied to one day trying to elude them: big fellows with watered-silk eyes and tiger bodies, and gray little runts with an even more painful proboscis, but much more sluggish: to dispatch two or three of these dingy tipplers with one crush of the gloved hand as they glued themselves to the neck of my mount afforded me a wonderful empathic relief (which a dipterist might not appreciate). Anyway, on my butterfly hunts I always preferred hiking to any other form of locomotion (except, naturally, a flying seat gliding leisurely over the plant mats and rocks of an unexplored mountain, or hovering just above the flowery roof of a rain forest); for when you walk, especially in a region you have studied well, there is an exquisite pleasure in departing from one's itinerary to visit, here and there by the wayside, this glade, that glen, this or that combination o! f soil and flora-- to drop in, as it were, on a familiar butterfly in his particular habitat, in order to see if he has emerged, and if so, how he is doing. What is your ideal of a splendid grand-hotel? Absolute quiet, no radio playing behind the wall, none in the lift, no footsteps thudding above, no snores coming from below, no gondoliers carousing across the lane, no drunks in the corridor. I remember one awful little scene (and this was in a five-turret palace with the guidebook sign of a red songbird meaning luxury and isolation!). Upon hearing a commotion just outside the door of my bedroom, I poked out my head, while preparing my curse-- which fizzled out when I saw what was happening in the passage. An American of the traveling-executive type was staggering about with a bottle of whisky and his son, a boy of twelve or so, was trying to restrain him, repeating: "Please, Dad, please, come to bed," which reminded me of a similar situation in a Chekhov story. What do you think has changed over the last sixty years in the traveling style? You loved wagons-lits. Oh, I did. In the early years of this century, a travel agency on Nevski Avenue displayed a three-foot-long model of an oak-brown international sleeping car. In delicate verisimilitude it completely outranked the painted tin of my clockwork trains. Unfortunately it was not for sale. One could make out the blue upholstery inside, the embossed leather lining of the compartment walls, their polished panels, inset mirrors, tulip-shaped reading lamps, and other maddening details. Spacious windows alternated with narrower ones, single or geminate, and some of these were of frosted glass. In a few of the compartments, the beds had been made. The then great and glamorous Nord-Express (it was never the same after World War I when its elegant brown became a nouveau-riche blue), consisting solely of such international cars and running but twice a week, connected St. Petersburg with Paris. I would have said: directly with Paris, had passengers not been obliged to change from one train to a superficially similar one at the Russo-German frontier (Verzhbolovo-Eydtkuhnen), where the ample and lazy Russian sixty-and-a-half-inch gauge was replaced by the fifty-six-and-a-half-inch standard of Europe, and coal succeeded birch logs. In the far end of my mind I can unravel, I think, at least five such journeys to Paris, with the Riviera or Biarritz as their ultimate destination. In 1909, the year I now single out, our party consisted of eleven people and one dachshund. Wearing gloves and a traveling cap, my father sat reading a book in the compartment he shared with our tutor. My brother and I were separated from them by a washroom. My mother and her maid Natasha occupied a compartment adjacent to ours. Next came my two small sisters, their English governess, Miss Lavington (later governess of the Tsar's children), and a Russian nurse. The odd one of our party, my father's valet, Osip (whom, a decade later, the pedantic Bolsheviks were to shoot, because he appropriated our bicycles instead of turning them over to the nation), had a stranger for comp! anion (Feraudi, a well-known French actor). Gone the panache of steam, gone the thunder and blaze, gone the romance of the railroad. The popular train rouge is merely a souped-up tram. As to the European sleeping-cars, they are drab and vulgar now. The "single" I usually take is a stunted compartment with a corner table concealing inadequate toilet facilities (not unlike those in the farcical American "roomette," where to get at the necessary utensil one has to rise and shoulder one's bed like Lazarus). Still, for the person with a past, some faded charm remains clinging to those international sleepers which take you straight from Lausanne to Rome or from Sicily to the Piedmont. True, the dining-car theme is muted; sandwiches and wine are supplied by hawkers between stations; and your plastic breakfast is prepared by ! an overworked, half-dressed conductor in his grubby cubicle next to the car's malodorous W. C.; yet my childhood moments of excitement and wonder are still brought back by the mystery of sighing stops in the middle of the night or by the first morning glimpse of rocks and sea. What do you think of the super-planes? I think their publicity department, when advertising the spaciousness of the seat rows, should stop picturing impossible children fidgeting between their imperturbed mother and a gray-templed stranger trying to read. Otherwise, those great machines are masterpieces of technology. I have never flown across the Atlantic, but I have had delightful hops with Swissair and Air France. They serve excellent liquor and the view at low elevations is heartbreakingly lovely. What do you think about luggage? Do you think it has lost style, too? I think good luggage is always handsome and there is a lot of it around nowadays. Styles, of course, have changed. No longer with us is the kind of elephantine wardrobe trunk, a specimen of which appears in the visually pleasant but otherwise absurd cinema version of Mann's mediocre, but anyway plausible, Death in Venice. I still treasure an elegant, elegantly scuffed piece of luggage once owned by my mother. Its travels through space are finished, but it still hums gently through time for I use it to keep old family letters and such curious documents as my birth certificate. I am a couple of years younger than this antique valise, fifty centimeters long by thirty-six broad and sixteen high, technically a heavyish necessaire de voyage of pigskin, with "H. N." elaborately interwoven in thick silver under a similar coronet, it had been bought in 1897 for my mother's wedding trip to Florence. In 1917 it transported from St. Petersburg to the Crimea and then to London a handful of jewels. Around 1930, it lost to a pawnbroker its expensive receptacles of crystal and silver leaving empty the cunningly contrived leathern holders on the inside of the lid. But that loss has been amply recouped during the thirty years it then traveled with me-- from Prague to Paris, from St. Nazaire to New York and through the mirrors of more than two hundred motel rooms and rented! houses, in forty-six states. The fact that of our Russian heritage the hardiest survivor proved to be a traveling bag is both logical and emblematic. What is a "perfect trip" for you? Any first walk in any new place-- especially a place where no lepidopterist has been before me. There still exist unexplored mountains in Europe and I still can walk twenty kilometers a day. The ordinary stroller might feel on sauntering out a twinge of pleasure (cloudless morning, village still asleep, one side of the street already sunlit, should try to buy English papers on my way back, here's the turn, I believe, yes, footpath to Cataratta), but the cold of the metal netstick in my right hand magnifies the pleasure to almost intolerable bliss.

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