On the morning of June 5, 1962, the Queen Elizabeth brought my wife and me from Cherbourg to New York for the film premiere of Lolita. On the day of our arrival three or four journalists interviewed me at the St. Regis hotel. I have a little cluster of names jotted down in my pocket diary but am not sure which, if any, refers to that group. The questions and answers were typed from my notes immediately after the interview.
Interviewers do not find you a particularly stimulating person. Why is that so?
I pride myself on being a person with no public appeal. I have never been drunk in my life. I never use schoolboy words of four letters. I have never worked in an office or in a coal mine. I have never belonged to any club or group. No creed or school has had any influence on me whatsoever. Nothing bores me more than political novels and the literature of social intent.
Still there must be things that move you—likes and dislikes.
My loathings are simple: stupidity, oppression, crime, cruelty, soft music. My pleasures are the most intense known to man: writing and butterfly hunting.
You write everything in longhand, don’t you?
Yes. I cannot type.
Would you agree to show us a sample of your rough drafts?
I’m afraid I must refuse. Only ambitious nonentities and hearty mediocrities exhibit their rough drafts. It is like passing around samples of one’s sputum.
Do you read many new novels? Why do you laugh?
I laugh because well-meaning publishers keep sending me—with “hope-you-will-like-it-as- much-as-we-do” letters—only one kind of fiction: novels truffled with obscenities, fancy words, and would-be weird incidents. They seem to be all by one and the same writer—who is not even the shadow of my shadow.
What is your opinion of the so-called “anti-novel” in France?
I am not interested in groups, movements, schools of writing and so forth. I am interested only in the individual artist. This “anti-novel” does not really exist; but there does exist one great French writer, Robbe-Grillet; his work is grotesquely imitated by a number of banal scribblers whom a phony label assists commercially.
I notice you “haw” and “er”a great deal. Is it a sign of approaching senility?
Not at all. I have always been a wretched speaker. My vocabulary dwells deep in my mind and needs paper to wriggle out into the physical zone. Spontaneous eloquence seems to me a
1miracle. I have rewritten—often several times—every word I have ever published. My pencils outlast their erasers.
What about TV appearances?
Well (you always begin with “well” on TV), after one such appearance in London a couple of years ago I was accused by a naive critic of squirming and avoiding the camera. The interview, of course, had been carefully rehearsed. I had carefully written out all my answers (and most of the questions), and because I am such a helpless speaker, I had my notes (mislaid since) on index cards arranged before me—ambushed behind various innocent props; hence I could neither stare at the camera nor leer at the questioner.
Yet you have lectured extensively-
In 1940, before launching on my academic career in America, I fortunately took the trouble of writing one hundred lectures—about 2,000 pages—on Russian literature, and later another hundred lectures on great novelists from Jane Austen to James Joyce. This kept me happy at Wellesley and Cornell for twenty academic years. Although, at the lectern, I evolved a subtle up and down movement of my eyes, there was never any doubt in the minds of alert students that I was reading, not speaking.
When did you start writing in English?
I was bilingual as a baby (Russian and English) and added French at five years of age. In my early boyhood all the notes I made on the butterflies I collected were in English, with various terms borrowed from that most delightful magazine The Entomologist. It published my first paper (on Crimean butterflies) in 1920. The same year I contributed a poem in English to the Trinity Magazine, Cambridge, while I was a student there (1919-1922). After that in Berlin and in Paris I wrote my Russian books—poems, stories, eight novels. They were read by a reasonable percentage of the three million Russian emigres, and were of course absolutely banned and ignored in Soviet Russia. In the middle thirties I translated for publication in English two of my Russian novels, Despair and Camera Obscura (retitled Laughter in the Dark in America). The first novel that I wrote directly in English was The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, in 1939 in Paris. After moving to America in 1940, I contributed poems and stories to The Atlantic and The New Yorkerand wrote four novels. Bend Sinister (1947), Lolita (1955), Pnin (1957) and Pale Fire (1962). I have also published an autobiography, Speak, Memory (1951), and several scientific papers on the taxonomy of butterflies.
Would you like to talk about Lolita?
Well, no. I said everything I wanted to say about the book in the Afterword appended to its American and British editions.
Did you find it hard to write the script of Lolita?
The hardest part was taking the plunge—deciding to undertake the task. In 1959 I was invited to Hollywood by Harris and Kubrick, but after several consultations with them I decided I did not want to do it. A year later, in Lugano, I received a telegram from them urging me to reconsider my decision. In the meantime a kind of script had somehow taken shape in my imagination so that actually I was glad they had repeated their offer. I traveled once more to Hollywood and there, under the jacarandas, worked for six months on the thing. Turning one’s novel into a movie script is rather like making a series of sketches for a painting that has long ago been finished and framed. I composed new scenes and speeches in an effort to safeguard a Lolita acceptable to me. I knew that if I did not write the script somebody else would, and I also knew that at best the end product in such cases is less of a blend than a collision of interpretations. I have not yet seen the picture. It may turn out to be a lovely morning mist as perceived through mosquito netting, or it may turn out to be the swerves of a scenic drive as felt by the horizontal passenger of an ambulance. From my seven or eight sessions with Kubrick during the writing of the script I derived the impression that he was an artist, and it is on this impression that I base my hopes of seeing a plausible Lolita on June 13th in New York.
What are you working at now?
I am reading the proofs of my translation of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, a novel in verse which, with a huge commentary, will be brought out by the Bollingen Foundation in four handsome volumes of more than five hundred pages each.
Could you describe this work?
During my years of teaching literature at Cornell and elsewhere I demanded of my students the passion of science and the patience of poetry. As an artist and scholar I prefer the specific detail to the generalization, images to ideas, obscure facts to clear symbols, and the discovered wild fruit to the synthetic jam.
And so you preserved the fruit?
Yes. My tastes and disgusts have influenced my ten-yearlong work on Eugene Onegin. In translating its 5500 lines into English I had to decide between rhyme and reason—and I chose reason. My only ambition has been to provide a crib, a pony, an absolutely literal translation of the thing, with copious and pedantic notes whose bulk far exceeds the text of the poem. Only a paraphrase “reads well”; my translation does not; it is honest and clumsy, ponderous and slavishly faithful. I have several notes to every stanza (of which there are more than 400, counting the variants). This commentary contains a discussion of the original melody and a complete explication of the text.
Do you like being interviewed?
Well, the luxury of speaking on one theme—oneself—is a sensation not to be despised. But the result is sometimes puzzling. Recently the Paris paper Candide had me spout wild nonsense in an idiotic setting. But I have also often met with considerable fair play. Thus Esquire printed all my corrections to the account of an interview that I found full of errors. Gossip writers are harder to keep track of, and they are apt to be very careless. Leonard Lyons made me explain why I let my wife handle motion picture transactions by the absurd and tasteless remark: “Anyone who can handle a butcher can handle a producer.”