On September 3, 1968, Nicholas Garnham interviewed me at
the Montreux Palace for Release, BBC-2. The interview
was faithfully reproduced in The Listener, October 10,
of the same year: a neat and quick job. I have used its title
for the present collection.
You have mid your novels have 'no social purpose, no
moral message. ' What is the function of your novels in
particular and of the novel in general?
One of the functions of all my novels is to prove that the
novel in general does not exist. The book I make is a
subjective and specific affair. I have no purpose at all when
composing my stuff except to compose it. I work hard, I work
long, on a body of words until it grants me complete possession
and pleasure. If the reader has to work in his turn-- so much
the better. Art is difficult. Easy art is what you see at
modern exhibitions of things and doodles.
In your prefaces you constantly mock Freud, the
Why should I tolerate a perfect stranger at the bedside of
my mind? I may have aired this before but I'd like to repeat
that I detest not one but four doctors: Dr. Freud, Dr. Zhivago,
Dr. Schweitzer, and Dr. Castro. Of course, the first takes the
fig, as the fellows say in the dissecting-room. I've no
intention to dream the drab middle-class dreams of an Austrian
crank with a shabby umbrella. I also suggest that the Freudian
faith leads to dangerous ethical consequences, such as when a
filthy murderer with the brain of a tapeworm is given a lighter
sentence because his mother spanked him too much or too
little-- it works both ways. The Freudian racket looks to me as
much of a farce as the jumbo thingurn of polished wood with a
polished hole in the middle which doesn't represent anything
except the gaping face of the Philistine who is told it is a
great sculpture produced by the greatest living caveman.
The novel on which you are working is, I believe, about
'time'? How do you see 'time'?
My new novel (now 800 typed pages long) is a family
chronicle, mostly set in a dream America. Of its five parts one
is built around my notion of time. I've drawn my scalpel
through spacetime, space being the tumor, which I assign to the
slops. While not having much physics, I reject Einstein's slick
formulae; but then one need not know theology to be an atheist.
Both my female creatures have Irish and Russian blood. One girl
lasts 700 pages, dying young; her sister stays with me till the
happy ending, when 95 candles burn in a birthday cake the size
of a manhole lid.
Could you tell me which other writers you admire and
have been influenced by?
I'd much prefer to speak of the modern books that I hate
at first sight: the earnest case histories of minority groups,
the sorrows of homosexuals, the anti-American Sovietnam sermon,
the picaresque yarn larded with juvenile obscenities. That's a
good example of self-imposed classification-- books stuck
together in damp lumpy groups, forgotten titles, amalgamated
authors. As for influence, well, I've never been influenced by
anyone in particular, dead or quick, just as I've never
belonged to any club or movement. In fact, I don't seem to
belong to any clear-cut continent. I'm the shuttlecock above
the Atlantic, and how bright and blue it is there, in my
private sky, far from the pigeonholes and the clay pigeons.
The pattern of games such as chess and poker seems to
bold a great fascination for you and to correspond to a
fatalistic view of life. Could you explain the role of fate in
I leave the solution of such riddles to my scholarly
commentators, to the nightingale voices in the apple trees of
knowledge. Impersonally speaking, I can't find any so-called
main ideas, such as that of fate, in my novels, or at least
none that would be expressed lucidly in less than the number of
words I used for this or that book. Moreover, I'm not
interested in games as such. Games mean the participation of
other persons; I'm interested in the lone performance-- chess
problems, for example, which I compose in glacial solitude.
There are constant references in your novels to popular
movies and pulp fiction. You seem to delight in the atmosphere
of such popular culture. Do you enjoy the originals and how do
these relate to your own use of them?
No, I loathe popular pulp, I loathe go-go gangs, I loathe
jungle music, I loathe science fiction with its gals and goons,
suspense and suspensories. I especially loathe vulgar movies--
cripples raping nuns under tables, or naked-girl breasts
squeezing against the tanned torsos of repulsive young males.
And, really, I don't think I mock popular trash more often than
do other authors who believe with me that a good laugh is the
What has the fact of exile from Russia meant to you?
The type of artist who is always in exile even though he
may never have left the ancestral hall or the paternal parish
is a well-known biographical figure with whom I feel some
affinity; but in a straighter sense, exile means to an artist
only one thing-- the banning of his books. All my books, ever
since I wrote my first one 43 years ago on the moth-eaten couch
of a German boardinghouse, are suppressed in the country of my
birth. It's Russia's loss, not mine.
There is a sense, in all your fiction, of the imagined
being so much truer than boring old reality. Do you see the
categories of imagination, dream, and reality as distinct and,
if so, in what way?
Your use of the word "reality" perplexes me. To be sure,
there is an average reality, perceived by all of us, but that
is not true reality: it is only the reality of general ideas,
conventional forms of humdrummery, current editorials. Now if
you mean by "old reality" the so-called "realism" of old
novels, the easy platitudes of Balzac or Somerset Maugham or D.
H. Lawrence-- to take some especially depressing examples--
then you are right in suggesting that the reality faked by a
mediocre performer is boring, and that imaginary worlds acquire
by contrast a dreamy and unreal aspect. Paradoxically, the only
real, authentic worlds are, of course, those that seem unusual.
When my fancies will have been sufficiently imitated, they,
too, will enter the common domain of average reality, which
will be false, too, but within a new context which we cannot
yet guess. Average reality begins to rot and stink as soon as
the act of individual creation ceases to animate a subjectively
Would it be fair to say that you see life as a very
funny but cruel joke?
Your term "life" is used in a sense which I cannot apply
to a manifold shimmer. Whose life? What life? Life does not
exist without a possessive epithet. Lenin's life differs from,
say, James Joyce's as much as a handful of gravel does from a
blue diamond, although both men were exiles in Switzerland and
both wrote a vast number of words. Or take the destinies of
Oscar Wilde and Lewis Carroll-- one flaunting a flamboyant
perversion and getting caught, and the other hiding his humble
but much more evil little secret behind the emulsions of the
developing-room, and ending up by being the greatest children's
story writer of all time. I'm not responsible for those
real-life farces. My own life has been incomparably happier and
healthier than that of Genghis Khan, who is said to have
fathered the first Nabok, a petty Tatar prince in the twelfth
century who married a Russian damsel in an era of intensely
artistic Russian culture. As to the lives of my characters, not
all are grotesque and not all are tragic: Fyodor in The
Gift is blessed with a faithful love and an early
recognition of his genius; John Shade in Pale Fire leads
an intense inner existence, far removed from what you call a
joke. You must be confusing me with Dostoevski.