This is the fourth installment in SLP’s ongoing coverage of the public life of Vladimir Nabokov.
Nabokov’s Life Magazine Interview, 1964
On August 18, 1964, Jane Howard of Life magazine sent me eleven questions. I have kept the typescript of my replies. In mid-September she arrived in Montreux with the photographer Henry Grossman. Text and pictures appeared in the November 20 issue of Life.
What writers and persons and places have influenced you most?
In my boyhood I was an extraordinarily avid reader. By the age of 14 or 15 I had read or re- read all Tolstoy in Russian, all Shakespeare in English, and all Flaubert in French– besides hundreds of other books. Today I can always tell when a sentence I compose happens to resemble in cut and intonation that of any of the writers I loved or detested half a century ago; but I do not believe that any particular writer has had any definite influence upon me. As to the influence of places and persons, I owe many metaphors and sensuous associations to the North Russian landscape of my boyhood, and I am also aware that my father was responsible for my appreciating very early in life the thrill of a great poem.
Have you ever seriously contemplated a career other than in letters?
Frankly, I never thought of letters as a career. Writing has always been for me a blend of dejection and high spirits, a torture and a pastime– but I never expected it to be a source of income. On the other hand, I have often dreamt of a long and exciting career as an obscure curator of lepidoptera in a great museum.
Which of your writings has pleased you most?
I would say that of all my books Lolita has left me with the most pleasurable afterglow– perhaps because it is the purest of all, the most abstract and carefully contrived. I am probably responsible for the odd fact that people don’t seem to name their daughters Lolita any more. I have heard of young female poodles being given that name since 1956, but of no human beings. Well-wishers have tried to translate Lolita into Russian, but with such execrable results that I’m now doing a translation myself. The word “jeans,” for example, is translated in Russian dictionaries as “wide, short trousers”– a totally unsatisfactory definition.
In the foreword to The Defense you allude to psychiatry. Do you think the dependence of analyzed on analysts is a great danger?
I cannot conceive bow anybody in his right mind should go to a psychoanalyst, but of course if one’s mind is deranged one might try anything; after all, quacks and cranks, shamans and holy men, kings and hypnotists have cured people– especially hysterical people. Our grandsons no doubt will regard today’s psychoanalysts with the same amused contempt as we do astrology and phrenology. One of the greatest pieces of charlatanic, and satanic, nonsense imposed on a gullible public is the Freudian interpretation of dreams. I take gleeful pleasure every morning in refuting the Viennese quack by recalling and explaining the details of my dreams without using one single reference to sexual symbols or mythical complexes. I urge my potential patients to do likewise.
How do your views on politics and religion affect what you write?
I have never belonged to any political party but have always loathed and despised dictatorships and police states, as well as any sort of oppression. This goes for regimentation of thought, governmental censorship, racial or religious persecution, and all the rest of it. Whether or not my simple credo affects my writing does not interest me. I suppose that my indifference to religion is of the same nature as my dislike of group activities in the domain of political or civic commitments. I have allowed some of my creatures in some of my novels to be restless freethinkers but here again I do not care one bit what kind of faith or brand of non-faith my reader may assign to their maker.
Would you have liked to have lived at a time other than this?
My choice of “when” would be influenced by that of “where.” As a matter of fact, I would have to construct a mosaic of time and space to suit my desires and demands. It would be too complicated to tabulate all the elements of this combination. But I know pretty well what it should include. It should include a warm climate, daily baths, an absence of radio music and traffic noise, the honey of ancient Persia, a complete microfilm library, and the unique and indescribable rapture of learning more and more about the moon and the planets. In other words, I think I would like my head to be in the United States of the nineteen-sixties, but would not mind distributing some of my other organs and limbs through various centuries and countries.
With what living writers do you feel a particular sympathy?
When Mr. N. learns from an interview that Mr. X., another writer, has named as his favorites Mr. A., Mr. B. and Mr. N., this inclusion may puzzle Mr. N. who considers, say, Mr. A.’s work to be primitive and trite. I would not like to puzzle Mr. C., Mr. D., or Mr. X., all of whom I like.
Do you anticipate that more of your works will be made into films? On the basis of Lolita, does the prospect please you?
I greatly admired the film Lolita as a film– but was sorry not to have been given an opportunity to collaborate in its actual making. People who liked my novel said the film was too reticent and incomplete. If, however, all the next pictures based on my books are as charming as Kubrick’s, I shall not grumble too much.
Which of the languages you speak do you consider the most beautiful?
My head says English, my heart, Russian, my ear, French.
Why do you prefer Montreux as a headquarters? Do you in any way miss the America you parodied so exquisitely in Lolita^ Do you find that Europe and the US are coming to resemble each other to a discouraging degree?
I think I am trying to develop, in this rosy exile, the same fertile nostalgia in regard to America, my new country, as I evolved for Russia, my old one, in the first post-revolution years of West-European expatriation. Of course, I miss America– even Miss America. If Europe and America are coming to resemble each other more and more– why should I be discouraged? Amusing, perhaps, and, perhaps, not quite true, but certainly not discouraging in any sense I can think of. My wife and I are very fond of Montreux, the scenery of which I needed for Pale Fire, and still need for another book. There are also family reasons for our living in this part of Europe. I have a sister in Geneva and a son in Milan. He is a graduate of Harvard who came to Italy to complete his operatic training, which he combines with racing an Italian car in major events and translating the early works of his father from Russian into English.
What is your prognosis for the health of Russian letters?
There is no plain answer to your question. The trouble is that no government however intelligent or humane is capable of generating great artists, although a bad government certainly can pester, thwart, and suppress them. We must also remember– and this is very important– that the only people who flourish under all types of government are the Philistines. In the aura of mild regimes there is exactly as rare a chance of a great artist’s appearing on the scene as there is in the less happy times of despicable dictatorships. Therefore I cannot predict anything though I certainly hope that under the influence of the West, and especially under that of America, the Soviet police state will gradually wither away. Incidentally, I deplore the attitude of foolish or dishonest people who ridiculously equate Stalin with McCarthy, Auschwitz with the atom bomb, and the ruthless imperialism of the USSR with the earnest and unselfish assistance extended by the USA to nations in distress.
Dear Miss Howard, allow me to add the following three points:
1) My answers must be published accurately and completely: verbatim, if quoted; in a faithful version, if not.
2) I must see the proofs of the interview– semifinal and final.
3) I have the right to correct therein all factual errors and specific slips (“Mr. Nabokov is a small man with long hair,” etc.)