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
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
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. "
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
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
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
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,
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
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
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.