Most of the questions were submitted by Herbert Gold,
during a visit to Montreux in September, 1966. The rest
(asterisked) were mailed to me by George A. Plimpton. The
combined set appeared in The Paris Review of October,
Good morning. Let me ask forty-odd questions.
Good morning. I am ready.
Your sense of the immorality of the relationship
between Humbert Humbert and Lolita is very strong. In Hollywood
and New York, however, relationships are frequent between men
of forty and girls very little older than Lolita. They marry--
to no particular public outrage; rather, public cooing.
No, it is not my sense of the immorality of the
Humbert Humbert-Lolita relationship that is strong; it is
Humbert's sense. He cares, I do not. I do not give a
damn for public morals, in America or elsewhere. And, anyway,
cases of men in their forties marrying girls in their teens or
early twenties have no bearing on Lolita whatever. Humbert was
fond of "little girls"-- not simply "young girls." Nymphets are
girl-children, not starlets and "sex kittens." Lolita was
twelve, not eighteen, when Humbert met her. You may remember
that by the time she is fourteen, he refers to her as his
One critic has said about you that "his feelings are
like no one else's. " Does this make sense to you? Or does it
mean that you know your feelings better than others know
theirs? Or that you have discovered yourself at other levels?
Or simply that your history is unique?
I do not recall that article; but if a critic makes such a
statement, it must surely mean that he has explored the
feelings of literally millions of people, in at least three
countries, before reaching his conclusion. If so, lama rare
fowl indeed. If, on the other hand, he has merely limited
himself to quizzing members of his family or club, his
statement cannot be discussed seriously.
Another critic has written that your "worlds are
static. They may become tense with obsession, but they do not
break apart like the worlds of everyday reality. " Do you
agree? Is there a static quality in your view of things?
Whose "reality"? "Everyday" where? Let me suggest that the
very term "everyday reality" is utterly static since it
presupposes a situation that is permanently observable,
essentially objective, and universally known. I suspect you
have invented that expert on "everyday reality." Neither
He does (names him). A third critic has said
that you "diminish" your characters "to the point where they
become ciphers in a cosmic farce. " I disagree; Humbert, while
comic, retains a touching and insistent quality-- that of the
I would put it differently: Humbert Humbert is a vain and
cruel wretch who manages to appear "touching." That epithet, in
its true, tear-iridized sense, can only apply to my poor little
girl. Besides, how can I "diminish" to the level of ciphers, et
cetera, characters that I have invented myself? One can
"diminish" a biographee, but not an eidolon.
**E. M. Forster speaks of his major characters sometimes
taking over and dictating the course of his novels. Has this
ever been a problem for you, or are you in complete command?
My knowledge of Mr. Forster's works is limited to one
novel which I dislike; and anyway it was not he who fathered
that trite little whimsy about characters getting out of hand;
it is as old as the quills, although of course one sympathizes
with his people if they try to wriggle out of that trip
to India or whereever he takes them. My characters are galley
**Clarence Brown of Princeton has pointed out striking
similarities in your work. He refers to you as "extremely
repetitious" and that in wildly different ways you are in
essence saying the same thing. He speaks of fate being the
"muse of Nabokov." Are you consciously aware of "repeating
yourself, " or to put it another way, that you strive for a
conscious unity to your shelf of books?
I do not think I have seen Clarence Brown's essay, but he
may have something there. Derivative writers seem versatile
because they imitate many others, past and present. Artistic
originality has only its own self to copy.
**Do you think literary criticism is at all purposeful?
Either in general, or specifically about y our own books? Is it
The purpose of a critique is to say something about a book
the critic has or has not read. Criticism can be instructive in
the sense that it gives readers, including the author of the
book, some information about the critic's intelligence, or
honesty, or both.
**And the function of the editor? Has one ever had
literary advice to offer?
By "editor" I suppose you mean proofreader. Among these I
have known limpid creatures of limitless tact and tenderness
who would discuss with me a semicolon as if it were a point of
honor-- which, indeed, a point of art often is. But I have also
come across a few pompous avuncular brutes who would attempt to
"make suggestions" which I countered with a thunderous "stet!"
Are you a lepidopterist, stalking your victims? If so,
doesn't your laughter startle them?
On the contrary, it lulls them into the state of torpid
security which an insect experiences when mimicking a dead
leaf. Though by no means an avid reader of reviews dealing with
my own stuff, I happen to remember the essay by a young lady
who attempted to find entomological symbols in my fiction. The
essay might have been amusing had she known something about
Lepidoptera. Alas, she revealed complete ignorance and the
muddle of terms she employed proved to be only jarring and
How would y ou de fine y our alienation from the
so-called "White Russian " refugees?
Well, historically I am a "White Russian" myself, since
all Russians who left Russia as my family did in the first
years of the Bolshevist tyranny because of their opposition to
it were and remained "White Russians" in the large sense. But
these refugees were split into as many social fractions and
political factions as the entire nation had been before the
Bolshevist coup. I do not mix with "black-hundred" White
Russians and do not mix with the so-called "bolshevizans," that
is "pinks." On the other hand, I have friends among
intellectual Constitutional Monarchists as well as among
intellectual Social Revolutionaries. My father was an
old-fashioned liberal, and I do not mind being labeled an
old-fashioned liberal too.
How would you define your alienation from present-day
As a deep distrust of the phony thaw now advertised. As a
constant awareness of unredeemable iniquities. As a complete
indifference to all that moves a patriotic Sovetski man of
today. As the keen satisfaction of having discerned as early as
1918 (nineteen eighteen) the meshchantsvo (petty
bourgeois smugness, Philistine essence) of Leninism.
**How do you now regard the poets Blok and Mandelshtam
and others who were writing in the days before you left Russia?
I read them in my boyhood, more than a half-century ago.
Ever since that time I have remained passionately fond of
Blok's lyrics. His long pieces are weak, and the famous The
Twelve is dreadful, self-consciously couched in a phony
"primitive" tone, with a pink cardboard Jesus Christ glued on
at the end. As to Mandelshtam, I also knew him by heart, but he
gave me a less fervent pleasure. Today, through the prism of a
tragic fate, his poetry seems greater than it actually is. I
note incidentally that professors of literature still assign
these two poets to different schools. There is only one school:
that of talent.
/ know your work has been read and is attacked in the
Soviet Union. How would you feel about a Soviet edition of your
Oh, they are welcome to my work. As a matter of fact, the
Editions Victor are bringing out my Invitation to a
Beheading in a reprint of the original Russian of 1935, and
a New York publisher (Phaedra) is printing my Russian
translation of Lolita. I am sure the Soviet Government
will be happy to admit officially a novel that seems to contain
a prophecy of Hitler's regime, and a novel that is thought to
condemn bitterly the American system of motels.
Have you ever had contact with Soviet citizens? Of what
I have practically no contact with them though I did once
agree, in the early thirties or late twenties, to meet-- out of
sheer curiosity-- an agent from Bolshevist Russia who was
trying hard to get emigre writers and artists to return to the
fold. He had a double name, Tarasov something, and had written
a novelette entitled Chocolate, and I thought I might
have some sport with him. I asked him would I be permitted to
write freely and would I be able to leave Russia if I did not
like it there. He said that I would be so busy liking it there
that I would have no time to dream of going abroad again. I
would, he said, be perfectly free to choose any of the many
themes Soviet Russia bountifully allows a writer to use, such
as farms, factories, forests in Pakistan-- oh, lots of
fascinating subjects. I said farms, et cetera, bored me, and my
wretched seducer soon gave up. He had better luck with the
Do you consider yourself an American?
Yes, I do. I am as American as April in Arizona. The
flora, the fauna, the air of the Western states are my links
with Asiatic and Arctic Russia. Of course, I owe too much to
the Russian language and landscape to be emotionally involved
in, say, American regional literature, or Indian dances, or
pumpkin pie on a spiritual plane; but I do feel a suffusion of
warm, lighthearted pride when I show my green USA passport at
European frontiers. Crude criticism of American affairs offends
and distresses me. In home politics I am strongly
anti-segregationist. In foreign policy, I am definitely on the
government's side. And when in doubt, I always follow the
simple method of choosing that line of conduct which may be the
most displeasing to the Reds and the Russells.
Is there a community of which you consider yourself a
Not really. I can mentally collect quite a large number of
individuals whom I am fond of but they would form a very
disparate and discordant group if gathered in real life, on a
real island. Otherwise, I would say that I am fairly
comfortable in the company of American intellectuals who have
read my books.
** What is your opinion of the academic world as a
milieu for the creative writer? Could you speak specifically of
the value or detriment of your teaching at Cornell?
A first-rate college library with a comfortable campus
around it is a fine milieu for a writer. There is of course the
problem of educating the young. I remember how once, between
terms, not at Cornell, a student brought a transistor set with
him into the reading room. He managed to state that 1) he was
playing "classical" music; that 2) he was doing it "softly";
and that 3) "there were not many readers around in summer." I
was there, a one-man multitude.
Would you describe your relationship with the
contemporary literary community? With Edmund Wilson, Mary
McCarthy, your magazine editors and book publishers?
The only time I ever collaborated with any writer was when
I translated with Edmund Wilson Pushkin's Mozart and
Salieri for the New Republic twenty-five years ago,
a rather paradoxical recollection in view of his making such a
fool of himself last year when he had the audacity of
questioning my understanding of Eugene Onegin. Mary
McCarthy, on the other hand, has been very kind to me recently
in the same New Republic, although I do think she added
quite a bit of her own angelica to the pale fire of Kinbote's
plum pudding. I prefer not to mention here my relationship with
Girodias. I have answered in Evergreenhis scurvy article
in the Olympia anthology. Otherwise, I am on excellent terms
with all my publishers. My warm friendship with Catharine White
and Bill Maxwell of The New Yorker is something the most
arrogant author cannot evoke without gratitude and delight.
**Could you say something of your work habits? Do you
write to a preplanned chart? Do you jump from one section to
another, or do you move from the beginning through to the end?
The pattern of the thing precedes the thing. I fill in the
gaps of the crossword at any spot I happen to choose. These
bits I write on index cards until the novel is done. My
schedule is flexible but I am rather particular about my
instruments: lined Bristol cards and well-sharpened, not too
hard, pencils capped with erasers.
Is there a particular picture of the world which you
wish to develop? The past is very present for you, even in a
novel of the "future, " such as Bend Sinister. Are you a
"nostalgist"? In what time would you prefer to live?
In the coming days of silent planes and graceful
aircycles, and cloudless silvery skies, and a universal system
of padded underground roads to which trucks shall be relegated
like Morlocks. As to the past, I would not mind retrieving from
various corners of spacetime certain lost comforts, such as
baggy trousers and long, deep bathtubs.
You know, you do not have to answer all my Kinbote-like
It would never do to start skipping the tricky ones. Let
Besides writing novels, what do you, or would you, like
most to do?
Oh, hunting butterflies, of course, and studying them. The
pleasures and rewards of literary inspiration are nothing
beside the rapture of discovering a new organ under the
microscope or an undescribed species on a mountainside in Iran
or Peru. It is not improbable that had there been no revolution
in Russia, I would have devoted myself entirely to
lepidopterology and never written any novels at all.
What is most characteristic of poshlust in
contemporary writing? Are there temptations for you in the
sin of poshlust? Have you ever fallen?
"Poshlust," or in a better transliteration
poshlost, has many nuances and evidently I have not
described them clearly enough in my little book on Gogol, if
you think one can ask anybody if he is tempted by
poshlost. Corny trash, vulgar clich?s, Philistinism in
all its phases, imitations of imitations, bogus profundities,
crude, moronic and dishonest pseudo-literature-- these are
obvious examples. Now, if we want to pin down poshlost
in contemporary writing we must look for it in Freudian
symbolism, moth-eaten mythologies, social comment, humanistic
messages, political allegories, overconcern with class or race,
and the journalistic generalities we all know. Poshlost
speaks in such concepts as "America is no better than Russia"
or "We all share in Germany's guilt." The flowers of
poshlost bloom in such phrases and terms as "the moment
of truth," "charisma," "existential" (used seriously),
"dialogue" (as applied to political talks between nations), and
"vocabulary" (as applied to a dauber). Listing in one breath
Auschwitz, Hiroshima, and Vietnam is seditious poshlost.
Belonging to a very select club (which sports one Jewish
name-- that of the treasurer) is genteel poshlost. Hack
reviews are frequently poshlost, but it also lurks in
certain highbrow essays. Poshlost calls Mr. Blank a
great poet, and Mr. Bluff a great novelist. One of
poshlost's favorite breeding places has always been the
Art Exhibition; there it is produced by so-called sculptors
working with the tools of wreckers, building crankshaft cretins
of stainless steel, zen stereos, polystyrene stink-birds,
objects trouv?s in latrines, cannon balls, canned balls.
There we admire the gabinetti wallpatterns of so-called
abstract artists, Freudian surrealism, roric smudges, and
Rorschach blots-- all of it as corny in its own right as the
academic "September Morns" and "Florentine Flowergirls" of half
a century ago. The list is long, and, of course, everybody has
his b?te noire, his black pet, in the series. Mine is
that airline ad: the snack served by an obsequious wench to a
young couple-- she eyeing ecstatically the cucumber canap?, he
admiring wistfully the hostess. And, of course, Death in
Venice. You see the range.
Are there contemporary writers you follow with great
There are several such writers, but I shall not name them.
Anonymous pleasure hurts nobody.
Do you follow some with great pain?
No. Many accepted authors simply do not exist for me.
Their names are engraved on empty graves, their books are
dummies, they are complete nonentities insofar as my taste in
reading is concerned. Brecht, Faulkner, Camus, many others,
mean absolutely nothing to me, and I must fight a suspicion of
conspiracy against my brain when I see blandly accepted as
"great literature" by critics and fellow authors Lady
Chatterley's copulations or the pretentious nonsense of Mr.
Pound, that total fake. I note he has replaced Dr. Schweitzer
in some homes.
**As an admirer of Borges and Joyce you seem to share
their pleasure in teasing the reader with tricks and puns and
puzzles. What do you think the relationship should be between
reader and author?
I do not recollect any puns in Borges but then I read him
only in translation. Anyway, his delicate little tales and
miniature Minotaurs have nothing in common with Joyce's great
machines. Nor do I find many puzzles in that most lucid of
novels, Ulysses. On the other hand, I detest
Finnegans Wake in which a cancerous growth of fancy
word-tissue hardly redeems the dreadful joviality of the
folklore and the easy, too easy, allegory.
What have you learned from Joyce?
James Joyce has not influenced me in any manner
whatsoever. My first brief contact with Ulysses was
around 1920 at Cambridge University, when a friend, Peter
Mrozovski, who had brought a copy from Paris, chanced to read
to me, as he stomped up and down my digs, one or two spicy
passages from Molly's monologue, which, entre nous soit
dit, is the weakest chapter in the book. Only fifteen years
later, when I was already well formed as a writer and reluctant
to learn or unlearn anything, I read Ulysses and liked
it enormously. I am indifferent to Finnegans Wake as I
am to all regional literature written in dialect-- even if it
be the dialect of genius.
Aren't you doing a book about fames Joyce?
But not only about him. What I intend to do is publish a
number of twenty-page essays on several works-- Ulysses,
Madame Bovary, Kafka's Transformation, Don Quixote,
and others-- all based on my Cornell and Harvard lectures. I
remember with delight tearing apart Don Quixote, a cruel
and crude old book, before six hundred students in Memorial
Hall, much to the horror and embarrassment of some of my more
What about other influences? Pushkin?
In a way-- no more than, say, Tolstoy or Turgenev were
influenced by the pride and purity of Pushkin's art.
I was careful not to learn anything from him. As a
teacher, he is dubious and dangerous. At his worst, as in his
Ukrainian stuff, he is a worthless writer; at his best, he is
incomparable and inimitable.
H. G. Wells, a great artist, was my favorite writer when I
was a boy. The Passionate Friends, Ann Veronica, The Time
Machine, The Country of the Blind, ail these stories are
far better than anything Bennett, or Conrad, or, in fact, any
of Wells' contemporaries would produce. His sociological
cogitations can be safely ignored, of course, but his romances
and fantasias are superb. There was an awful moment at dinner
in our St. Petersburg house one night, when Zina?da Vengerov,
his translator, informed Wells, with a toss of her head: "You
know, my favorite work of yours is The Lost
World" "She means the war the Martians lost," said my
Did you learn from your students at Cornell? Was the
experience purely a financial one? Did teaching teach you
My method of teaching precluded genuine contact with my
students. At best, they regurgitated a few bits of my brain
during examinations. Every lecture I delivered had been
carefully, lovingly handwritten and typed out, and I leisurely
read it out in class, sometimes stopping to rewrite a sentence
and sometimes repeating a paragraph-- a mnemonic prod which,
however, seldom provoked any change in the rhythm of wrists
taking it down. I welcomed the few shorthand experts in my
audience, hoping they would communicate the information they
stored to their less fortunate comrades. Vainly I tried to
replace my appearances at the lectern by taped records to be
played over the college radio. On the other hand, I deeply
enjoyed the chuckle of appreciation in this or that warm spot
of the lecture hall at this or that point of my lecture. My
best reward comes from those former students of mine who ten or
fifteen years later write to me to say that they now understand
what I wanted of them when I taught them to visualize Emma
Bovary's mistranslated hairdo or the arrangement of rooms in
the Sarnsa household or the two homosexuals in Anna
Karenin. I do not know if I learned anything from teaching
but I know I amassed an invaluable amount of exciting
information in analyzing a dozen novels for my students. My
salary as you happen to know was not exactly a princely one.
Is there anything y ou would care to say about the
collaboration y our wife has given you?
She presided as adviser and judge over the making of my
first fiction in the early twenties. I have read to her all my
stories and novels at least twice. She has reread them all when
typing them and correcting proofs and checking translations
into several languages. One day in 1950, at lthaca, New York,
she was responsible for stopping me and urging delay and second
thoughts as, beset with technical difficulties and doubts, I
was carrying the first chapters of Lolita to the garden
What is your relation to the translations of your
In the case of languages my wife and I know or can read--
English, Russian, French, and to a certain extent German and
Italian-- the system is a strict checking of every sentence. In
the case of Japanese or Turkish versions, I try not to imagine
the disasters that probably bespatter every page.
What are your plans for future work?
I am writing a new novel but of this I cannot speak.
Another project I have been nursing for some time is the
publication of the complete screenplay of Lolita that I
made for Kubrick. Although there are just enough borrowings
from it in his version to justify my legal position as author
of the script, the film is only a blurred skimpy glimpse of the
marvelous picture I imagined and set down scene by scene during
the six months I worked in a Los Angeles villa. I do not wish
to imply that Kubrick's film is mediocre; in its own right, it
is first-rate, but it is not what I wrote. A tinge of
poshlost is often given by the cinema to the novel it
distorts and coarsens in its crooked glass. Kubrick, I think,
avoided this fault in his version, but I shall never understand
why he did not follow my directions and dreams. It is a great
pity; but at least I shall be able to have people read my
Lolita play in its original form.
If you had the choice of one and only one book by which
you would be remembered, which one would it be?
The one I am writing or rather dreaming of writing.
Actually, I shall be remembered by Lolita and my work on
Do you feel you have any conspicuous or secret flaw as a
The absence of a natural vocabulary. An odd thing to
confess, but true. Of the two instruments in my possession,
one-- my native tongue-- 1 can no longer use, and this not only
because I lack a Russian audience, but also because the
excitement of verbal adventure in the Russian medium has faded
away gradually after I turned to English in 1940. My English,
this second instrument I have always had, is however a
stiffish, artificial thing, which may be all right for
describing a sunset or an insect, but which cannot conceal
poverty of syntax and paucity of domestic diction when I need
the shortest road between warehouse and shop. An old
Rolls-Royce is not always preferable to a plain Jeep.
What do you think about the contemporary competitive
ranking of writers?
Yes, I have noticed that in this respect our professional
book reviewers are veritable bookmakers. Who's in, who's out,
and where are the snows of yesteryear. All very amusing. I am a
little sorry to be left out. Nobody can decide if I am a
middle-aged American writer or an old Russian writer-- or an
ageless international freak.
What is your great regret in your career?
That I did not come earlier to America. I would have liked
to have lived in New York in the thirties. Had my Russian
novels been translated then, they might have provided a shock
and a lesson for pro-Soviet enthusiasts.
Are there significant disadvantages to your present
Lolita is famous, not I. I am an obscure, doubly
obscure, novelist with an unpronounceable name.