A Second Nabokov Interview

Vladimir Nabokov—Lepidopterist

Nabokov’s interview, BBC Television [1962]

In mid-July, 1962, Peter Duval-Smith and Christopher Burstall came for a BBC television interview to Zermatt where I happened to be collecting that summer. The lepidoptera lived up to the occasion, so did the weather. My visitors and their crew had never paid much attention to those insects and I was touched and flattered by the childish wonderment with which they viewed the crowds of butterflies imbibing moisture on brookside mud at various spots of the mountain trail. Pictures were taken of the swarms that arose at my passage, and other hours of the day were devoted to the reproduction of the interview proper. It eventually appeared on the Bookstand program and was published in The Listener (November 22, 1962). I have mislaid the cards on which I had written my answers. I suspect that the published text was taken straight from the tape for it teems with inaccuracies. These I have tried to weed out ten years later but was forced to strike out a few sentences here and there when memory refused to restore the sense flawed by defective or improperly mended speech.

The poem I quote (with metrical accents added) will be found translated into English in Chapter Two of The Gift, G. P. Putnam’s Sons, New York, 1963.

Would you ever go back to Russia?

I will never go back, for the simple reason that all the Russia I need is always with me: literature, language, and my own Russian childhood. I will never return. I will never surrender. And anyway, the grotesque shadow of a police state will not be dispelled in my lifetime. I don’t think they know my works there—oh, perhaps a number of readers exist there in my special secret service, but let us not forget that Russia has grown tremendously provincial during these forty years, apart from the fact that people there are told what to read, what to think. In America I’m happier than in any other country. It is in America that I found my best readers, minds that are closest to mine. I feel intellectually at home in America. It is a second home in the true sense of the word.

You’re a professional lepidopterist?

Yes, I’m interested in the classification, variation, evolution, structure, distribution, habits, of lepidoptera: this sounds very grand, but actually I’m an expert in only a very small group of butterflies. I have contributed several works on butterflies to the various scientific journals—but I want to repeat that my interest in butterflies is exclusively scientific.

Is there any connection with your writing?

There is in a general way, because I think that in a work of art there is a kind of merging between the two things, between the precision of poetry and the excitement of pure science.

In your new novel, Pale Fire, one of the characters says that reality is neither the subject nor the object of real art, which creates its own reality. What is that reality?

Reality is a very subjective affair. I can only define it as a kind of gradual accumulation of information; and as specialization. If we take a lily, for instance, or any other kind of natural object, a lily is more real to a naturalist than it is to an ordinary person. But it is still more real to a botanist. And yet another stage of reality is reached with that botanist who is a specialist in lilies. You can get nearer and nearer, so to speak, to reality; but you never get near enough because reality is an infinite succession of steps, levels of perception, false bottoms, and hence unquenchable, unattainable. You can know more and more about one thing but you can never know everything about one thing: it’s hopeless. So that we live surrounded by more or less ghostly objects—that machine, there, for instance. It’s a complete ghost to me—I don’t understand a thing about it and, well, it’s a mystery to me, as much of a mystery as it would be to Lord Byron.

You say that reality is an intensely subjective matter, but in your books it seems to me that y ou seem to take an almost perverse delight in literary deception.

The fake move in a chess problem, the illusion of a solution or the conjuror’s magic: I used to be a little conjuror when I was a boy. I loved doing simple tricks—turning water into wine, that kind of thing; but I think I’m in good company because all art is deception and so is nature; all is deception in that good cheat, from the insect that mimics a leaf to the popular enticements of procreation. Do you know how poetry started? I always think that it started when a cave boy came running back to the cave, through the tall grass, shouting as he ran, “Wolf, wolf,” and there was no wolf. His baboon-like parents, great sticklers for the truth, gave him a hiding, no doubt, but poetry had been born—the tall story had been born in the tall grass.

You talk about games of deception, like chess and conjuring. Are you, in fact, fond of them yourself?

I am fond of chess but deception in chess, as in art, is only part of the game; it’s part of the combination, part of the delightful possibilities, illusions, vistas of thought, which can be false vistas, perhaps. I think a good combination should always contain a certain element of deception.

You spoke about conjuring in Russia, as a child, and one remembers that some of the most intense passages in a number of your books are concerned with the memories of your lost childhood. What is the importance of memory to you?

Memory is, really, in itself, a tool, one of the many tools that an artist uses; and some recollections, perhaps intellectual rather than emotional, are very brittle and sometimes apt to lose the flavor of reality when they are immersed by the novelist in his book, when they are given away to characters.

Do you mean that you lose the sense of a memory once you have written it down?

Sometimes, but that only refers to a certain type of intellectual memory. But, for instance—oh, I don’t know, the freshness of the flowers being arranged by the undergardener in the cool drawing-room of our country house, as I was running downstairs with my butterfly net on a summer day half a century ago: that kind of thing is absolutely permanent, immortal, it can never change, no matter how many times I farm it out to my characters, it is always there with me; there’s the red sand, the white garden bench, the black fir trees, everything, a permanent possession. I think it is all a matter of love: the more you love a memory, the stronger and stranger it is. I think it’s natural that I have a more passionate affection for my old memories, the memories of my childhood, than I have for later ones, so that Cambridge in England or Cambridge in New England is less vivid in my mind and in my self than some kind of nook in the park on our country estate in Russia.

Do you think that such an intense power of memory as yours has inhibited your desire to invent in your books?

No, I don’t think so.

The same sort of incident turns up again and again, sometimes in slightly different forms.

That depends on my characters.

Do you still feel Russian, in spite of so many years in America?

I do feel Russian and I think that my Russian works, the various novels and poems and short stories that I have written during these years, are a kind of tribute to Russia. And I might define them as the waves and ripples of the shock caused by the disappearance of the Russia of my childhood. And recently I have paid tribute to her in an English work on Pushkin.

Why are you so passionately concerned with Pushkin?

It started with a translation, a literal translation. T thought it was very difficult and the more difficult it was, the more exciting it seemed. So it’s not so much caring about Pushkin—I love him dearly of course, he is the greatest Russian poet, there is no doubt about that– but it was again the combination of the excitement of finding the right way of doing things and a certain approach to reality, to the reality of Pushkin, through my own translations. As a matter of fact I am very much concerned with things Russian and I have just finished revising a good translation of my novel, The Gift, which I wrote about thirty years ago. It is the longest, I think the best, and the most nostalgic of my Russian novels. It portrays the adventures, literary and romantic, of a young Russian expatriate in Berlin, in the twenties; but he’s not myself. I am very careful to keep my characters beyond the limits of my own identity. Only the background of the novel can be said to contain some biographical touches. And there is another thing about it that pleases me: probably my favorite Russian poem is one that I happened to give to my main character in that novel.

Written by yourself?

Which I wrote myself, of course; and now I’m wondering whether I might be able to recite it in Russian. Let me explain it: there are two persons involved, a boy and a girl, standing on a bridge above the reflected sunset, and there are swallows skimming by, and the boy turns to the girl and says to her, “Tell me, will you always remember that swallow?– not any kind of swallow, not those swallows, there, but that particular swallow that skimmed by?” And she says, “Of course I will,” and they both burst into tears.

Odnazhdy my pod-vecher oba

Stoyali na starom mostu.

Skazhi mne, sprosil ya, do groba

Zapomnish’ von lastochku tu?

I ty otvechala: eshchyo by!

I kak my zaplakali oba,

Kak vskriknula zhizn’ na letu!

Do zavtra, naveki, do groba,

Odnazhdy na starom mostu . . .

What language do you think in?

I don’t think in any language. I think in images. I don’t believe that people think in languages. They don’t move their lips when they think. It is only a certain type of illiterate person who moves his lips as he reads or ruminates. No, I think in images, and now and then a Russian phrase or an English phrase will form with the foam of the brainwave, but that’s about all.

You started writing in Russian and then you switched to English, didn’t you?

Yes, that was a very difficult kind of switch. My private tragedy, which cannot, indeed should not, be anybody’s concern, is that I had to abandon my natural language, my natural idiom, my rich, infinitely rich and docile Russian tongue, for a second-rate brand of English.

You have written a shelf of books in English as well as your books in Russian. And of them only Lolita is well known. Does it annoy you to be the Lolita man?

No, I wouldn’t say that, because Lolita is a special favorite of mine. It was my most difficult book– the book that treated of a theme which was so distant, so remote, from my own emotional life that it gave me a special pleasure to use my combinational talent to make it real.

Were you surprised at the wild success when it came?

I was surprised that the book was published at all.

Did you, in fact, have any doubts about whether Lolita ought to be printed, considering its subject matter?

No; after all, when you write a book you generally envisage its publication, in some far future. But I was pleased that the book was published.

What was the genesis of Lolita?

She was born a long time ago, it must have been in 1939, in Paris; the first little throb of Lolita went through me in Paris in ’39, or perhaps early in ’40, at a time when I was laid up with a fierce attack of intercostal neuralgia which is a very painful complaint—rather like the fabulous stitch in Adam’s side. As far as I can recall the first shiver of inspiration was somehow prompted in a rather mysterious way by a newspaper story, I think it was in Paris Soir, about an ape in the Paris Zoo, who after months of coaxing by scientists produced finally the first drawing ever charcoaled by an animal, and this sketch, reproduced in the paper, showed the bars of the poor creature’s cage.

Did Humbert Humbert, the middle-aged seducer, have any original?

No. He’s a man I devised, a man with an obsession, and I think many of my characters have sudden obsessions, different kinds of obsessions; but he never existed. He did exist after I had written the book. While I was writing the book, here and there in a newspaper I would read all sorts of accounts about elderly gentlemen who pursued little girls: a kind of interesting coincidence but that’s about all.

Did Lolita herself have an original?

No, Lolita didn’t have any original. She was born in my own mind. She never existed. As a matter of fact, I don’t know little girls very well. When I consider this subject, I don’t think I know a single little girl. I’ve met them socially now and then, but Lolita is a figment of my imagination.

Why did you write Lolita?

It was an interesting thing to do. Why did I write any of my books, after all? For the sake of the pleasure, for the sake of the difficulty. I have no social purpose, no moral message; I’ve no general ideas to exploit, I just like composing riddles with elegant solutions.

How do you write? What are your methods?

I find now that index cards are really the best kind of paper that I can use for the purpose. I don’t write consecutively from the beginning to the next chapter and so on to the end. I just fill in the gaps of the picture, of this jigsaw puzzle which is quite clear in my mind, picking out a piece here and a piece there and filling out part of the sky and part of the landscape and part of the—I don’t know, the carousing hunters.

Another aspect of your not entirely usual consciousness is the extraordinary importance you attach to color.

Color. I think I was born a painter—really!—and up to my fourteenth year, perhaps, I used to spend most of the day drawing and painting and I was supposed to become a painter in due time. But I don’t think I had any real talent there. However, the sense of color, the love of color, I’ve had all my life: and also I have this rather freakish gift of seeing letters in color. It’s called color hearing. Perhaps one in a thousand has that. But I’m told by psychologists that most children have it, that later they lose that aptitude when they are told by stupid parents that it’s all nonsense, an A isn’t black, a B isn’t brown—now don’t be absurd.

What colors are your own initials, VN?

V is a kind of pale, transparent pink: I think it’s called, technically, quartz pink: this is one of the closest colors that I can connect with the V. And the N, on the other hand, is a greyish- yellowish oatmeal color. But a funny thing happens: my wife has this gift of seeing letters in color, too, but her colors are completely different. There are, perhaps, two or three letters where we coincide, but otherwise the colors are quite different. It turned out, we discovered one day, that my son, who was a little boy at the time—I think he was ten or eleven—sees letters in colors, too. Quite naturally he would say, “Oh, this isn’t that color, this is this color,” and so on. Then we asked him to list his colors and we discovered that in one case, one letter which he sees as purple, or perhaps mauve, is pink to me and blue to my wife. This is the letter M. So the combination of pink and blue makes lilac in his case. Which is as if genes were painting in aquarelle.

Whom do you write for? What audience?

I don’t think that an artist should bother about his audience. His best audience is the person he sees in his shaving mirror every morning. I think that the audience an artist imagines, when he imagines that kind of a thing, is a room filled with people wearing his own mask.

In your books there is an almost extravagant concern with masks and disguises: almost as if you were trying to hide yourself behind something, as if you’d lost yourself.

Oh, no. I think I’m always there; there’s no difficulty about that. Of course there is a certain type of critic who when reviewing a work of fiction keeps dotting all the i’s with the author’s head. Recently one anonymous clown, writing on Pale Fire in a New York book review, mistook all the declarations of my invented commentator in the book for my own. It is also true that some of my more responsible characters are given some of my own ideas. There is John Shade in Pale Fire, the poet. He does borrow some of my own opinions. There is one passage in his poem, which is part of the book, where he says something I think I can endorse. He says—let me quote it, if I can remember; yes, I think I can do it: “I loathe such things as jazz, the white-hosed moron torturing a black bull, rayed with red, abstractist bric-a-brac, primitivist folk masks, progressive schools, music in supermarkets, swimming pools, brutes, bores, class-conscious philistines, Freud, Marx, fake thinkers, puffed-up poets, frauds and sharks.” That’s how it goes.

It is obvious that neither John Shade nor his creator are very clubbable men.

I don’t belong to any club or group. I don’t fish, cook, dance, endorse books, sign books, co- sign declarations, eat oysters, get drunk, go to church, go to analysts, or take part in demonstrations.

It sometimes seems to me that in your novels—in Laughter in the Dark for instance—there is a strain of perversity amounting to cruelty.

I don’t know. Maybe. Some of my characters are, no doubt, pretty beastly, but I really don’t care, they are outside my inner self like the mournful monsters of a cathedral façade—demons placed there merely to show that they have been booted out. Actually, I’m a mild old gentleman who loathes cruelty.

✥❆✥❆✥❆✥❆✥

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Published in: on February 24, 2010 at 3:31 PM  Leave a Comment  
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