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Nabokov's interview. (22) Anonymous [1972]

This interview, conducted by a docile anonym, is preserved in a fragmentary transcript dated October, 1972. There are two Russian books on which I would like you to comment. The first is Dr. Zhivago. I understand you never wished to review it? Some fifteen years ago, when the Soviets were hypocritically denouncing Pasternak's novel (with the object of increasing foreign sales, the results of which they would eventually pocket and spend on propaganda abroad); when the badgered and bewildered author was promoted by the American press to the rank of an iconic figure; and when his Zhivago vied with my Lalage for the top rungs of the best-seller's ladder; I had the occasion to answer a request for a review of the book from Robert Bingham of The Reporter, New York. And you refused? Oh, I did, The other day I found in my files a draft of that answer, dated at Goldwin Smith Hall, lthaca, N. Y., November 8, 1958. I told Bingham that there were several reasons preventing me from freely expressing my opinion in print. The obvious one was the fear of harming the author. Although I never had much influence as a critic, I could well imagine a pack of writers emulating my "eccentric" outspokenness and causing, in the long run, sales to drop, thus thwarting the Bolshevists in their hopes and making their hostage more vulnerable than ever. There were other reasons-- but I certainly left out of consideration one point that might have made me change my mind and write that devastating review after all-- the exhilarating prospect of seeing it attributed to competitive chagrin by some ass or goose. Did you tell Robert Bingham what you thought of Dr. Zhivago? What I told him is what I still think today. Any intelligent Russian would see at once that the book is pro-Bolshevist and historically false, if only because it ignores the Liberal Revolution of spring, 1917, while making the saintly doctor accept with delirious joy the Bolshevist coup d'etat seven months later-- all of which is in keeping with the party line. Leaving out politics, I regard the book as a sorry thing, clumsy, trivial, and melodramatic, with stock situations, voluptuous lawyers, unbelievable girls, and trite coincidences. Yet you have a high opinion of Pasternak as a lyrical poet? Yes, I applauded his getting the Nobel Prize on the strength of his verse. In Dr. Zhivago, however, the prose does not live up to his poetry. Here and there, in a landscape or simile, one can distinguish, perhaps, faint echoes of his poetical voice, but those occasional fioriture are insufficient to save his novel from the provincial banality so typical of Soviet literature for the past fifty years. Precisely that link with Soviet tradition endeared the book to our progressive readers. I deeply sympathized with Pasternak's predicament in a police state; yet neither the vulgarities of the Zhivago style nor a philosophy that sought refuge in a sickly sweet brand of Christianism could ever transform that sympathy into a fellow writer's enthusiasm. The book, however, has become something of a classic. How do you explain its reputation? Well, all I know is that among Russian readers of today-- readers, I mean, who represent that country's wonderful underground intelligentsia and who manage to obtain and distribute works of dissident authors-- Dr. Zhivago is not prized as universally and unquestioningly as it is, or at least was, by Americans. When the novel appeared in America, her left-wing idealists were delighted to discover in it a proof that "a great book" could be produced after all under the Soviet rule. It was for them the triumph of Leninism. They were comforted by the fact that for better or worse its author remai! ned on the side of angelic Old Bolsheviks and that nothing in his book even remotely smacked of the true exile's indomitable contempt for the beastly regime engendered by Lenin. Let us now turn -- (The fragment stops here)

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