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1968 The New York Times Book Review

"...Martin Esslin came to see me at my hotel in Montreux with the object of conducting an interview..."

Некоторые НАБОКОВские интервью / Nabokov's interview

Источник: www
     On  February  17,  1968,  Martin  Esslin came to see me at
my hotel in Montreux with the object  of  conducting  an
interview  for  The  New  York  Times  Book  Review. The
following letter awaited him downstairs.

     "Welcome! I have devoted a  lot  of  pleasurable  time  to
answering  in  writing  the questions sent to me by your London
office. I have done so in a concise, stylish,  printable  form.
Could  I please ask you to have my answers appear in The New
York Times Book Review the  way  they  are  prepared  here?
(Except  that  you  may want to interrupt the longer answers by
several inserted questions). That convenient  method  has  been
used  to mutual satisfaction in interviews with Playboy, The
Paris Review,  Wisconsin  Studies,  Le  Monde,  La  Tribune  de
Genève, etc. Furthermore, I like to see the proofs for
checking last-minute misprints or possible little flaws of fact
(dates,  places).  Being  an  unusually muddled speaker (a poor
relative of the writer) I would like the stuff  I  prepared  in
typescript  to be presented as direct speech on my part, whilst
other statements which I may stammer out in the course  of  our
chats,  and  the gist of which you might want to incorporate in
The   Profile,   should   be   used,   please,   obliquely   or
paraphrastically,  without any quotes. Naturally, it is for you
to decide  whether  the  background  material  should  be  kept
separate  in  its  published  form from the question-and-answer

     I am leaving the  attached  material  with  the  concierge
because  I  think you might want to peruse it before we meet. I
am very much looking forward to seeing you. Please  give  me  a
ring when you are ready."

     The  text  given  below  is  that  of  the typescript. The
interview appeared in The New York Times Book Review  on
May 12, 1968.

     How does VN live and relax? 

     A  very old Russian friend of ours, now dwelling in Paris,
remarked recently when she was  here,  that  one  night,  forty
years  ago,  in  the  course  of  a  little  quiz at one of her
literary parties in Berlin, I, being asked where I  would  like
to  live,  answered,  "In  a  large comfortable hotel." That is
exactly what my wife and I are doing  now.  About  every  other
year  she  and  I  fly  (she)  or sail (she and 1), back to our
country of adoption but  I  must  confess  that  I  am  a  very
sluggish  traveler  unless  butterfly  hunting is involved. For
that purpose we usually go to Italy where my son and translator
(from Russian into English) lives; the knowledge of Italian  he
has  acquired  in the course of his main career (opera singing)
assists him, incidentally, In  checking  some  of  the  Italian
translations  of  my  stuff.  My  own  Italian  is  limited  to
"avanti" and "prego". 

     After waking up between six and seven in  the  morning,  I
write  till  ten-thirty,  generally  at a lectern which faces a
bright corner of the room instead of the bright audiences of my
professorial  days.  The  first  half-hour  of  relaxation   is
breakfast  with  my wife, around eight-thirty, and the creaming
of our mail. One kind of letter that goes into  the  wastepaper
basket  at  once,  with  its  enclosed  stamped envelope and my
picture, is the one from the person who tells me he has a large
collection of autographs (Somerset Maugham,  Abu  Abdul,  Karen
Korona,  Charles  Dodgson,  Jr., etc.) and would like to add my
name, which he misspells. Around  eleven,  I  soak  for  twenty
minutes  in  a  hot  bath,  with  a  sponge  on  my  head and a
wordsman's worry in it, encroaching, alas, upon the nirvana.  A
stroll  with  my  wife  along  the lake is followed by a frugal
lunch and a two-hour nap after which I  resume  my  work  until
dinner  at  seven. An American friend gave us a Scrabble set in
Cyrillic alphabet, manufactured in Newtown, Conn.; so  we  play
Russian  skrebl  for an hour or two after dinner. Then I
read in bed-- periodicals or  one  of  the  novels  that  proud
publishers  optimistically send me. Between eleven and midnight
begins my usual fight with insomnia. Such are my habits in  the
cold  season.  Summers I spend in the pursuit of lepidoptera on
flowery slopes and mountain screes; and, of  course,  after  my
daily hike of fifteen miles or more, I sleep even worse than in
winter.  My  last  resort in this business of relaxation is the
composing of chess problems. The recent publication of  two  of
them (in The Sunday Times and The Evening News of
London) gave me more pleasure, I think, than the printing of my
first poems half a century ago in St. Petersburg.

     VN's social circle? 

     The  tufted  ducks and crested grebes of Geneva Lake. Some
of the nice people in my new novel. My sister Elena in  Geneva.
A  few  friends  in  Lausanne  and  Vevey.  A  steady stream of
brilliant American intellectuals visiting me  in  the  riparian
solitude  of a beautifully reflected sunset. A Mr. Van Veen who
travels down from his mountain chalet every other day to meet a
dark lady, whose name I cannot divulge, on a street corner that
I glimpse from my mammoth-tusk tower. Who else?  A  Mr.  Vivian

     VN's feelings about his work? 

     My   feelings  about  my  work  are,  on  the  whole,  not
unfriendly. Boundless modesty and what people  call  "humility"
are  virtues  scarcely conducive to one's complacently dwelling
upon one's own work-- particularly when one lacks them.  I  see
it   segmented   into   four  stages.  First  comes  meditation
(including the accumulation of seemingly haphazard  notes,  the
secret  arrowheads  of  research); then the actual writing, and
rewriting, on special index cards that my stationer orders  for
me:  "special"  because  those  you buy here come lined on both
sides,  and  if,  in  the  process  of  writing,  a  blast   of
inspiration  sweeps  a  card onto the floor, and you pick it up
without looking, and go on writing,  it  may  happen--  it  has
happened--  that  you fill in its underside, numbering it, say,
107, and then cannot find your 103 which  hides  on  the  side,
used  before.  When  the  fair  copy on cards is ready, my wife
reads it, checking it for legibility and spelling, and  has  it
transferred  onto  pages  by  a  typist  who knows English; the
reading of galleys is a further part of that third stage. After
the  book  is  out,  foreign  rights  come  into  play.  I   am
trilingual,  in  the  proper  sense  of  writing,  and not only
speaking, three languages (in that sense  practically  all  the
writers I personally know or knew in America, including a babel
of  paraphrasts,  are  strictly monolinguists). Lolita I
have translated myself in Russian (recently  published  in  New
York  by Phaedra, Inc.); but otherwise I am able to control and
correct only the French translations of my novels. That process
entails a good deal of wrestling with booboos and  boners,  but
on  the  other  hand  allows  me to reach my fourth, and final,
stage-- that of rereading my own book a few  months  after  the
original  printing.  What  judgment  do  I then pronounce? Am I
still satisfied w4th my work? Does the afterglow of achievement
correspond to the foreglow of  conception?  It  should  and  it

     VN's  opinions:  on  the  modern world; on contemporary
politics; on contemporary writers; on drug  addicts  who  might
consider Lolita "square"? 

     I  doubt  if we can postulate the objective existence of a
"modern world" on which an artist should have any definite  and
important  opinion.  It  has  been  tried,  of course, and even
carried to extravagant lengths. A hundred years ago, in Russia,
the most eloquent and  influential  reviewers  were  left-wing,
radical,  utilitarian,  political  critics,  who  demanded that
Russian novelists and poets portray and sift the modern  scene.
In  those  distant  times,  in  that  remote country, a typical
critic would insist that a literary artist be  a  "reporter  on
the  topics  of  the  day,"  a  social commentator, a class-war
correspondent. That was half a century  before  the  Bolshevist
police  not  only  revived  the  dismal  so-called  progressive
(really,  regressive)  trend  characteristic  of  the  eighteen
sixties and seventies, but, as we all know, enforced it. In the
old  days,  to be sure, great lyrical poets or the incomparable
prose artist who composed Anna Karenin (which should  be
transliterated   without  the  closing  "a"--  she  was  not  a
ballerina) could cheerfully ignore  the  left-wing  progressive
Philistines   who  requested  Tyutchev  or  Tolstoy  to  mirror
politico-social soapbox gesticulations instead of  dwelling  on
an  aristocratic  love  affair  or  the beauties of nature. The
dreary principles once voiced in the  reign  of  Alexander  the
Second  and  their  subsequent  sinister transmutation into the
decrees of gloomy police states (Kosygin's dour face  expresses
that  gloom  far better than Stalin's dashing mustache) come to
my mind  whenever  I  hear  today  rétro-progressive  book
reviewers in America and England plead for a little more social
comment,  a little less artistic whimsy. The accepted notion of
a "modern world" continuously flowing around us belongs to  the
same  type  of  abstraction  as say, the "quaternary period" of
paleontolo-gy. What I feel to be the real modern world  is  the
world  the  artist creates, his own mirage, which becomes a new
mir  ("world"  in  Russian)  by  the  very  act  of  his
shedding,  as  it  were,  the  age  he  lives  in. My mirage is
produced in my private desert, an arid but ardent  place,  with
the  sign  No  Caravans Allowed on the trunk of a lone palm. Of
course, good minds do exist whose  caravans  of  general  ideas
lead somewhere-- to curious bazaars, to photogenic temples; but
an  independent  novelist  cannot derive much true benefit from
tagging along.

     I would also want to establish first a specific definition
of the term politics, and that might mean dipping again in  the
remote  past.  Let  me  simplify  matters  by saying that in my
parlor  politics  as  well  as  in  open-air  statements  (when
subduing,  for instance, a glib foreigner who is always glad to
join  our  domestic  demonstrators  in  attacking  America),  I
content  myself with remarking that what is bad for the Reds is
good for me. I will abstain from details (they might lead to  a
veritable  slalom  of qualificatory parentheses), adding merely
that I do not have any neatly limited political views or rather
that such views as I have shade off into a vague  old-fashioned
liberalism.  Much  less  vaguely-- quite adamantically, or even
adamantinely-- 1 am aware of a central core  of  spirit  in  me
that  flashes  and  jeers  at  the brutal farce of totalitarian
states, such as Russia, and her embarrassing  tumors,  such  as
China.  A  feature  of  my inner prospect is the absolute abyss
yawning between the barbed-wire tangle of police states and the
spacious freedom of thought we enjoy  in  America  and  Western

     I  am bored by writers who join the social-comment racket.
I despise the corny Philistine  fad  of  flaunting  four-letter
words.  I  also refuse to find merit in a novel just because it
is by a brave Black in Africa or a brave White in  Russia--  or
by  any representative of any single group in America. Frankly,
a national, folklore, class, masonic, religious, or  any  other
communal  aura  involuntarily  prejudices  me  against a novel,
making It harder for me to peel the offered fruit so as to  get
at the nectar of possible talent. I could name, but will not, a
number  of  modern artists whom I read purely for pleasure, and
not for edification. I find comic the amalgamation  of  certain
writers  under  a  common  label  of, say, "Cape Codpiece Peace
Resistance" or  "Welsh  Working-Upperclass  Rehabilitation"  or
"New  Hairwave  School."  Incidentally,  I  frequently hear the
distant whining of people who complain in print that I  dislike
the  writers  whom they venerate such as Faulkner, Mann,
Camus, Dreiser, and of course Dostoevski. But I can assure them
that because I detest certain writers I am  not  impairing  the
well-being  of  the plaintiffs in whom the images of my victims
happen to form organic galaxies of esteem. I can prove, indeed,
that the works of those authors really exist independently  and
separately  from  the  organs  of  affection  throbbing  in the
systems of irate strangers.

     Drug  addicts,  especially  young  ones,  are  conformists
flocking  together  in  sticky  groups,  and I do not write for
groups, nor approve of group therapy  (the  big  scene  in  the
Freudian  Farce);  as  I  have  said  often enough, I write for
myself in multiplicate, a  not  unfamiliar  phenomenon  on  the
horizons  of shimmering deserts. Young dunces who turn to drugs
cannot read Lolita, or any of my  books;  some  in  fact
cannot  read at all. Let me also observe that the term "square"
already dates as a slang word, for nothing dates  quicker  than
radical  youth,  nor  is  there  anything more Philistine, more
bourgeois, more ovine than this business of drug duncery.  Half
a  century  ago,  a  similar fashion among the smart set of St.
Petersburg   was   cocaine   sniffing   combined   with   phony
orientalities.  The  better  and  brighter  minds  of  my young
American readers are far removed from those juvenile  fads  and
faddists. I also used to know in the past a Communist agent who
got  so  involved  in trying to wreck anti-Bolshevist groups by
distributing drugs among them that he became an addict  himself
and  lapsed  into  a  dreamy  state of commendable metempsychic
sloth. He must be grazing today on some grassy slope  in  Tibet
if he has not yet lined the coat of the fortunate shepherd.
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