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1969 Time

"...Time reporters Martha Duffy and R. Z. Sheppard sent me a score of questions by telex."

Некоторые НАБОКОВские интервью / Nabokov's interview

Источник: www
     Before coming to Montreux in mid-March, 1969,  Time
reporters  Martha  Duffy  and R. Z. Sheppard sent me a score of
questions  by  telex.  The  answers,  neatly  typed  out,  were
awaiting  them  when they arrived, whereupon they added a dozen
more, of which I answered seven. Some of the lot were quoted in
the May 23, 1969, issue-- the one with my face on the cover.

     There seem to be similarities in the  rhythm  and  tone
of  Speak,  Memory  and  Ada, and in the way you and Van
retrieve the past in images. Do you  both  work  along  similar

     The  more  gifted  and talkative one's characters are, the
greater the chances of their resembling the author in  tone  or
tint  of  mind. It is a familiar embarrassment that I face with
very faint qualms, particularly since I am not really aware  of
any  special similarities-- just as one is not aware of sharing
mannerisms with a detestable kinsman. I loathe Van Veen.

     The following two quotations seem closely  related:  "I
confess  I  do  not  believe  in  time. I like to fold my magic
carpet, after use, in such a way as to superimpose one part  of
the  pattern  upon  another. " (Speak, Memory) and "pure
time, perceptual time, tangible time,  time  free  of  content,
context and running commentary-- this is my time and theme. All
the  rest  is  numerical  symbol or some aspect of space. "
(Ada). Will you give me a lift on your magic carpet to point
out bow time is animated in the story of Van and Ada? 

     In his study of time  my  creature  distinguishes  between
text  and  texture, between the contents of time and its almost
tangible essence. I ignored that distinction  in  my  Speak,
Memory  and was mainly concerned with being faithful to the
patterns of my past. I  suspect  that  Van  Veen,  having  less
control over his imagination than I, novelized in his indulgent
old age many images of his youth.

     You  have  spoken  in  the past of your indifference to
music, but in Ada you  describe  time  as  "rhythm,  the
tender intervals between Stresses. " Are these rhythms musical,
aural, physical, cerebral, what? 

     Those  "intervals"  which  seem to reveal the gray gaps of
time between the black bars of space are much more  similar  to
the  interspaces between a metronome's monotonous beats than to
the varied rhythms of music or verse.

     If, as you have said, "mediocrity thrives on 'ideas,  '
"  why  does  Van,  who  is  no mediocrity, start explaining at
length near the end of the book bis ideas about time?  Is  this
the  vanity of Van? Or is the author commenting on or parodying
his story? 

     By "ideas" I meant  of  course  general  ideas,  the  big,
sincere  ideas  which  permeate  a  so-called  great novel, and
which,  in  the  inevitable  long  run,   amount   to   bloated
topicalities  stranded  like  dead  whales.  I  don't  see  any
connection between this and  my  short  section  devoted  to  a
savant's tussle with a recondite riddle.

     Van  remarks  that  "we are explorers in a very strange
universe, " and this  reader  feels  that  way  about  Ada.
You  are  known  for  your drawings-- is it possible to draw
your created universe? You have said that the  whole  substance
of  a book is in your head when you start writing on the cards.
When did terra, antiterra,  demonia,  Ardis,  etc.,  enter  the
picture? Why are the annals for terra fifty years behind? Also,
various  inventions  and  mechanical  contrivances (like Prince
Zemski's   bugged   harem)   make    seemingly    anachronistic
appearances. Why? 

     Antiterra  happens  to be an anachronistic world in regard
to Terra-- that's all there is to it.

     In the Robert Hughes  film  about  you,  you  say  that
in Ada, metaphors start to live and turn into a story. .
. "bleed and then dry up. " Will you elaborate, please? 

     The  reference  is to the metaphors in the Texture-of-Time
section of Ada: gradually and  gracefully  they  form  a
story-- the story of a man traveling by car through Switzerland
from east to west; and then the images fade out again.

     Was  Ada  the  most  difficult  of your books to
write? If so, would you discuss the major difficulties?

     Ada was physically harder to compose than my  previous
novels  because  of  its  greater length. In terms of the index
cards on which I write and rewrite my stuff in pencil, it made,
in the final draft, some 2,500 cards  which  Mme.  Callier,  my
typist since Pale Fire, turned into more than 850 pages.
I  began  working on the Texture-of-Time section some ten years
ago, in lthaca, upstate New York, but only in  February,  1966,
did  the  entire novel leap into the kind of existence that can
and must be put into words. Its springboard was Ada's telephone
call (in what is now the penultimate part of the book).

     You call Ada a family novel. Is your reversal of
the sentiment in the opening  line  of  Anna  Karenin  a
parody  or  da  you  think  your version is more often true? Is
incest one ofthe different possible roads to happiness? Are the
Veens happy at Ardis-- or only in the memory of Ardis? 

     If I had used incest for the  purpose  of  representing  a
possible  road  to happiness or misfortune, I would have been a
best-selling didactician dealing in general ideas.  Actually  I
don't  give a damn for incest one way or another. I merely like
the "bl" sound in siblings,  bloom,  blue,  bliss,  sable.  The
opening  sentences  of Ada inaugurate a series of blasts
directed throughout the  book  at  translators  of  unprotected
masterpieces  who  betray  their  authors by "transfigurations"
based on ignorance and self-assertiveness.

     Do you distinguish between Van the artist and  Van  the
scientist? As bis creator, what is your opinion of Van's works?
Is  Ada  in  part  about  an artist's inner life? In the Hughes
film, you speak of illusionary moves in  novels  as  in  chess.
Does Van make some false turnings in his story? 

     Objective,  or  at  least  one-mirror-removed, opinions of
Van's efforts are stated quite  clearly  in  the  case  of  his
Letters  from  Terra and two or three other compositions
of his. I-- or whoever impersonates me-- is obviously on  Van's
side in the account of his anti-Vienna lecture on dreams.

     Is  Ada the artist's muse? How much does Van know about
her? She seems to appear and  reappear  in  his  story  and  to
dramatize  successive  stages  of his life. When he borrows the
first line of 'L'invitation au voyage' in  his  poem  to
her,   does   he   suggest   so   close  an  identification  as
Baudelaire's-- 'aimer et mourir au pays qui te ressemble'?

     A pretty thought but not mine.

     The twelve-year-old Ada's precocious sexuality is bound
to bring comparison to Lolita. Is there  any  other  connection
between  the  two  girls  in  your  mind?  Do you have the same
affection for her as for Lolita? Is it, as Van says, that  "all
bright kids are depraved"? 

     The  fact  that Ada and Lolita lose their virginity at the
same age is about the only peg on which to hang  a  comparison.
Incidentally,  Lolita,  diminutive of Dolores, a little Spanish
gypsy, is mentioned many times throughout Ada.

     You once remarked that you are an "indivisible  monist.  "
Please elaborate. 

     Monism,  which implies a oneness of basic reality, is seen
to be divisible when, say, "mind"  sneakily  splits  away  from
"matter"  in  the  reasoning of a muddled monist or halfhearted

     What are your future writing plans? You have  mentioned
publishing a book on Joyce and Kafka and your Cornell lectures.
Will  they  appear  soon? Are you thinking about another novel?
Can you say anything about it now? Any poetry? 

     I have been working for the  last  months  on  an  English
translation  of  some  of my Russian poems (dating from 1916 to
this day) commissioned by  McGraw-Hill.  In  1968,  I  finished
revising  for  the  Princeton  Press  a  second  edition  of my
Eugene Onegin which will be  even  more  gloriously  and
monstrously literal than the first.

     Do   you   ever   consider  returning  to  America?  To
California, as you mentioned a few years ago? Can you  say  why
you left the US? Do you still feel in some way American? 

     I  am  an  American,  I  feel  American,  and  I like that
feeling. I live in Europe for family reasons, and I  pay  a  US
federal  income  tax  on  every  cent I earn at home or abroad.
Frequently, especially in spring, I dream of going to spend  my
purple-plumed  sunset  in  California,  among the larkspurs and
oaks, and in the serene silence of her university libraries.

     Would you ever want to teach or lecture again? 

     No. Much as I  like  teaching,  the  strain  of  preparing
lectures and delivering them would be too fatiguing today, even
if  I used a tape recorder. In this respect I have long come to
the conclusion that the best teaching is done by records  which
a  student can run as many times as he wants, or has to, in his
soundproof cell. And at the end of the year he  should  undergo
an  old-fashioned,  difficult, four-hour-long examination, with
monitors walking between the desks.

     Are you interested in working on the movie of  Ada?
With  its tactile, sensual beauty and its overlapping visual
images, Ada seems a natural for films. There are stories
of film executives converging on Montreux to read  and  bid  on
the  book.  Did  you  meet them? Did they ask many questions or
seek your advice? 

     Yes, film people did converge on my  hotel  in  Montreux--
keen  minds,  great  enchanters.  And, yes, I would indeed like
very much to write, or help writing, a  screenplay  that  would
reflect Ada.

     Some  of  your  funniest  remarks  in  recent  novels have
concerned driving and the problems of the road  (including  the
image of the author groping with time as with the contents of a
glove  compartment).  Do  you  drive.?  Enjoy  motoring? Do you
travel much? What means do you prefer? Have you plans to travel
in the next year or so? 

     In  the  summer  of  1915,  in  northern  Russia,  I,   an
adventurous  lad of sixteen, noticed one day that our chauffeur
had left the family convertible throbbing all alone before  its
garage  (part  of the huge stable at our place in the country);
next moment I had driven the thing, with  a  sickly  series  of
bumps,  into  the nearest ditch. That was the first time I ever
drove a car. The second and last  time  was  thirty-five  years
later,  somewhere  in  the States, when my wife let me take the
wheel for a few seconds and I narrowly missed crashing into the
only car standing at the far side of a  spacious  parking  lot.
Between 1949 and 1959 she has driven me more than 150,000 miles
all over North America-- mainly on butterfly-hunting trips.

     Salinger  and Updike seem to be the only US writers you
have praised. Have you any additions to the list? Have you read
Norman  Mailer's  recent  political  and  social  reportage
(Armies  of  the  Night)?  //  so,  do you admire it? Do you
admire any American poets in particular? 

     This reminds me: You know, it sounds preposterous,  but  I
was  invited  last  year  to cover that political convention in
Chicago in the company of two or three others  writers.  I  did
not  go,  naturally,  and  still believe it must have been some
sort of joke on the part of Esquire-- inviting me
who can't tell a Democrat from a Republican  and  hates  crowds
and demonstrations.

     What   is   your   opinion   of  Russian  writers  like
Solzhenitzyn, Abram Tertz, Audrey Voznesenski,  who  have  been
widely read in. the last couple of years in the US? 

     It  is  only  from  a  literary point of view that I could
discuss fellow artists, and that would entail, in the  case  of
the  brave Russians you mention, a professional examination not
only of virtues but also of flaws. I do  not  think  that  such
objectivity  would  be fair in the livid light of the political
persecution which brave Russians endure.

     How often do you see  your  son?  How  do  you  and  be
collaborate on translating your work? Do you work together from
the start of a project or do you act as editor or adviser? 

     We  chose the hub of Europe for domicile not to be too far
from our son Dmitri who lives near Milan. We  see  him  not  as
often  as we would like, now that his operatic carter (he has a
magnificent bass voice)  requires  him  to  travel  to  various
countries.  This  defeats  somewhat  our purpose of residing in
Europe. It also means that he cannot devote  as  much  time  as
before to co-translating my old stuff.

     In  Ada Van says that a man who loses his memory
will room in heaven with guitarists rather than great  or  even
mediocre  writers.  What  would be your preference in celestial

     It would be fun  to  hear  Shakespeare  roar  with  ribald
laughter on being told what Freud (roasting in the other place)
made  of  his plays. It would satisfy one's sense of justice to
see H. G. Wells invited to more  parties  under  the  cypresses
than  slightly  bogus Conrad. And I would love to find out from
Pushkin whether his duel with Ryleev, in May, 1820, was  really
fought in the park of Batovo (later my grandmother's estate) as
I was the first to suggest in 1964.

     Will  you  speak  briefly  about the emigre life of the
twenties and thirties? Where, for instance, were you  a  tennis
instructor?  Whom  did  you  teach? Mr. Appel mentioned that be
thought you gave lectures to emigre groups. If  so,  what  were
your  subjects? It seems you must have traveled a good deal. Is
that true? 

     I gave tennis lessons to the same people,  or  friends  of
the  same  people,  to whom I gave lessons of English or French
since around 1921, when I still shuttled between Cambridge  and
Berlin,  where  my  father  was  co-editor of an emigre Russian
language daily, and where I more  or  less  settled  after  his
death  in  1922. In the thirties I was frequently asked to give
public readings of my prose and verse by emigre  organizations.
In  the course of those activities I traveled to Paris, Prague,
Brussels and  London,  and  then,  one  blessed  day  in  1939,
Aldanov,  a fellow writer and a dear friend, said to me: "Look,
next summer or the one after that, I am invited to  lecture  at
Stanford  in  California  but I cannot go, so would you like to
replace me?" That's how the third spiral of my life started  to

     Where  and when did you meet y our wife? Where and when
did you marry? Can you  or  she  describe  her  background  and
girlhood  briefly?  In  what  city and/or country did you court
her? If I am correct that she is also Russian, did you  or  any
of  your  brothers and sisters meet her when you were children?

     I met my wife, Vera Slonim, at one of the  emigre  charity
balls  in  Berlin at which it was fashionable for Russian young
ladies to sell punch, books, flowers, and toys. Her father  was
a  St.  Petersburg  jurist  and  industrialist,  ruined  by the
revolution. We might have met years earlier at  some  party  in
St.  Petersburg  where  we had friends in common. We married in
1925, and were at first extremely hard up.

     The Appels and others have said that Cornell's  student
literati  were  less  attracted  to  your  fiction  course than
sorority sisters, frat brothers, and athletes. Were y ou  aware
of  that?  If  the above is true, the reason given was that you
were "a flamboyant, funny lecturer. " This description seems at
variance with y our self-drawn picture as  a  remote  lecturer.
Can  you  talk just a little more about your life as a teacher,
as this is an inevitable part of the cover story. How  did  the
students  seem  to  you then? They called the big course "Dirty
Lit. " Do you think it was you or the Masterpieces of  European
Fiction that shocked them? Or would anything have shocked them?
What  would  you  think  of  teaching on today's more activist,
demonstration-struck campuses? 

     Classes varied from term to term during my seventeen years
of teaching. I do remember  that  my  approach  and  principles
irritated  or  puzzled  such  students of literature (and their
professors) as were accustomed  to  "serious"  courses  replete
with  "trends,"  and "schools," and "myths," and "symbols," and
"social  comment,"  and  something  unspeakably  spooky  called
"climate  of  thought."  Actually, those "serious" courses were
quite easy ones, with the student  required  to  know  not  the
books  but  about  the  books.  In  my  classes, readers had to
discuss specific details, not general ideas. "Dirty Lit" was an
inherited joke: it had been  applied  to  the  lectures  of  my
immediate  predecessor, a sad, gentle, hard-drinking fellow who
was more interested in the sex life of authors  than  in  their
books.  Activist,  demonstration-struck students of the present
decade would, I suppose, either drop my course after  a  couple
of  lectures or end by getting a fat F if they could not answer
such exam questions as: Discuss the twinned-dream  theme  in
the  case  of  two  teams  of  dreamers,  Stephen D.-Bloom, and
Vronski-Anna. None of my  questions  ever  presupposed  the
advocacy  of a fashionable interpretation or critical view that
a teacher might wish to promote. All my questions were impelled
by only one purpose: to discover at all cost if the student had
thoroughly imbibed and assimilated the novels in my course.

     I can now see that if you don't share Van's  system  of
"distressibles, " you well might. Are you, like him, insomniac?

     I   have  described  the  insomnias  of  my  childhood  in
Speak, Memory.  They  still  persecute  me  every  other
night. Helpful pills do exist but I am afraid of them. I detest
drugs.   My   habitual  hallucinations  are  quite  monstrously
sufficient, thank Hades. Looking  at  it  objectively,  I  have
never seen a mnore lucid, more lonely, better balanced mad mind
than mine.

     Immediately   following  the  above  quote.  Van  warns
against the "assassin pun. " You are obviously a brilliant  and
untiring  punner  and it would seem particularly appropriate if
you would briefly discuss the pun for  Time  which,  God
knows,  is porous from the bullets of a particularly clumsy but
determined assassin. 

     In a poem about poetry  as  he  understands  it,  Verlaine
warns  the  poet against using la points assassine, that
is introducing an epigrammatic or moral point at the end  of  a
poem, and thereby murdering the poem. What amused me was to pun
on  "point,"  thus  making a pun in the very act of prohibiting

     You have been a Sherlock Holm's buff. When did you lose
your taste for mystery fiction. Why? 

     With a very few exceptions, mystery fiction is a  kind  of
collage   combining   more   or   less  original  riddles  with
conventional and mediocre artwork.

     Why do you so dislike dialogue in fiction? 

     Dialogue can be delightful if  dramatically  or  comically
stylized  or  artistically  blended  with descriptive prose; in
other words, if it is a feature of style  and  structure  in  a
given   work.   If  not,  then  it  is  nothing  but  automatic
typewriting, formless speeches filling page  after  page,  over
which the eye skims like a flying saucer over the Dust Bowl.
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