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1969 The Sunday Times

"...Philip Oakes sent me a series of questions on behalf of ..."

Некоторые НАБОКОВские интервью / Nabokov's interview

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     In early June, 1969, Philip Oakes sent  me  a  series  of
questions  on  behalf  of  The  Sunday  Times, London. I
happened to be greatly annoyed by the editorial liberties  that
periodicals  in other countries had been taking with material I
had supplied. When he arrived on June 15, I gave him my written
answers accompanied by the following note.

     When  preparing  interviews  I  invariably  write  out  my
replies  (and sometimes additional questions) taking great care
to make them as concise as possible.
     My  replies  represent  unpublished  material,  should  be
printed verbatim and in toto, and copyrighted in my name.
     Answers   may   be   rearranged   in  whatever  order  the
interviewer car the editor wishes: for  example,  they  may  be
split,  with  insertion of the questioner's comments or bits of
descriptive matter (but none of  the  latter  material  may  be
ascribed to me).
     Unprepared  remarks,  quips, etc., may come from me during
the actual  colloquy  but  may  nut  be  published  without  my
approval. The article will be shown to me before publication so
as  to  avoid  factual  errors  {e.g.,  in names, dates,

     Mr. Oakes' article appeared in The Sunday Times  on
June 22, 1969.

     As  a  distinguished entomologist and novelist do you find
that your  two  main  preoccupations  condition,  restrict,  or
refine your view of the world? 

     What  world?  Whose world? If we mean the average world of
the average newspaper reader in Liverpool, Livorno,  or  Vilno,
then  we  are dealing in trivial generalities. If, on the other
hand, an artist invents his own world, as I think  I  do,  then
how  can  he be said to influence his own understanding of what
he has created himself? As soon as we start defining such terms
as "the writer," "the world," "the novel," and so on,  we  slip
into  a  solipsismal  abyss where general ideas dissolve. As to
butterflies-- well, my taxonomic  papers  on  lepidoptera  were
published  mainly  in  the  nineteen  forties,  and  can  be of
interest to  only  a  few  specialists  in  certain  groups  of
American butterflies. In itself, an aurelian's passion is not a
particularly unusual sickness; but it stands outside the limits
of  a  novelist's  world, and I can prove this by the fact that
whenever I allude to butterflies in my novels,  no  matter  how
diligently  I  rework  the stuff, it remains pale and false and
does not really express what  I  want  it  to  express--  what,
indeed,  it can only express in the special scientific terms of
my entomological papers. The butterfly that  lives  forever  on
its  type-labeled pin and in its O. D. ("original description")
in a scientific journal dies a messy death in the fumes of  the
arty  gush.  However--  not  to let your question go completely
unanswered-- 1 must admit that in one sense  the  entomological
satellite  does  impinge upon my novelistic globe. This is when
certain place-names are mentioned. Thus if I hear or  read  the
words  "Alp  Grum,  Engadine" the normal observer within me may
force me to imagine the  belvedere  of  a  tiny  hotel  on  its
2000-meter-tall  perch  and  mowers  working  along a path that
winds down to a toy railway; but what I see first  of  all  and
above  all  is  the  Yellow-banded  Ringlet settled with folded
wings on the flower that those  damned  scythes  are  about  to

     What  was  the most amusing item you recently found in the

     That bit about Mr. E. Pound, a venerable fraud,  making  a
"sentimental visit" to his aima mater in Clinton, New York, and
being  given  a standing ovation by the commencement audience--
consisting, apparently, of morons and madmen.

     Have you seen the cinema version of  your  Laughter
in the Dark?

     I  have.  Nicol  Williamson  is,  of  course, an admirable
actor, and some of the sequences are very good. The scene  with
the  water-ski  girl,  gulping  and  giggling, is exceptionally
successful. But I was appalled by the  commonplace  quality  of
the  sexual passages. I would like to say something about that.
Clichés and conventions breed remarkably fast. They  occur
as  readily  in the primitive jollities of the jungle as in the
civilized obligatory scenes of our  theater.  In  former  times
Greek  masks  must  have set many a Greek dentition on edge. In
recent films, including Laughter in the Dark, the  porno
grapple  has  already  become  a  cliché though the
device is but half-a-dozen years old. I would have  been  sorry
that Tony Richardson should have followed that trite trend, had
it  not  given  me  the  opportunity  to form and formulate the
following important notion: theatrical acting, in the course of
the last  centuries,  has  led  to  incredible  refinements  of
stylized  pantomine  in  the  representation  of, say, a person
eating, or  getting  deliciously  drunk,  or  looking  for  his
spectacles,  or making a proposal of marriage. Not so in regard
to the imitation of the sexual  act  which  on  the  stage  has
absolutely  no  tradition  behind it. The Swedes and we have to
start from scratch and what I have witnessed up to now  on  the
screen--  the  blotchy male shoulder, the false howls of bliss,
the four or  five  mingled  feet--  all  of  it  is  primitive,
commonplace,  conventional,  and therefore disgusting. The lack
of art and style in these paltry  copulations  is  particularly
brought  into  evidence  by their clashing with the marvelously
high level of acting  in  virtually  all  other  imitations  of
natural gestures on our stage and screen. This is an attractive
topic  to  ponder  further, and directors should take notice of

     When you are writing your novels, you  have  a  remarkable
sense  of  history and period, although the situations in which
your characters are m'uol"üed reflect perennial  dilemmas.
Do  you feel that any given time creates special problems which
interest you as a writer? 

     We  should  define,  should  we  not,  what  we  mean   by
"history."  If  "history"  means  a "written account of events"
(and that is about all Clio can claim),  then  let  us  inquire
who  actually-- what scribes, what secretaries-- took it
down and how qualified they were for the job. I am inclined  to
guess  that  a  big part of "history" (the unnatural history of
man-- not the naive testimony of rocks) has  been  modified  by
mediocre  writers and prejudiced observers. We know that police
states (e.g., the Soviets) have actually snipped out and
destroyed such past events in old books as did not  conform  to
the  falsehoods  of the present. But even the most talented and
conscientious historian may err.  In  other  words,  I  do  not
believe  that  "history"  exists apart from the historian. If I
try to select a keeper of records, I think  it  safer  (for  my
comfort,  at least) to choose my own self. But nothing recorded
or thought up by myself can create any  special  "problems"  in
the sense you suggest.

     You  say  somewhere  that,  artistically  speaking, you
prefer Lolita to all your other books.  Has  y  our  new
novel  Ada  superseded  Lolita in your affection?

     Not really. It is true  that  Ada  caused  me  more
trouble than all my other novels and perhaps that bright fringe
of  overlapping  worry  is  synonymous  with the crest of love.
Incidentally, speaking of my first nymphet, let  me  take  this
neat  opportunity to correct a curious misconception profferred
by an anonymous owl in a London weekly a couple of months  ago.
"Lolita"  should  not  be  pronounced in the English or Russian
fashion (as he thinks it should), but with  a  trill  of  Latin
"l"s and a delicate toothy "t."

     Do you feel isolated as a writer? 

     Most of the writers I have met were Russian emigres in the
nineteen  twenties and thirties. With American novelists I have
had virtually no contact. In England, I  had  lunch  once  with
Graham  Greene.  I  have dined with Joyce and have had tea with
Robbe-Grillet. Isolation means liberty and discovery. A  desert
island  may be more exciting than a city, but my loneliness, on
the whole, has little significance.  It  is  a  consequence  of
chance  circumstance-- old shipwrecks, freakish tides-- and not
a matter of temperament. As a private person I am good-natured,
warm, cheerful, straightforward, plainspoken, and intolerant of
bogus art. I do not mind my own writings  being  criticized  or
ignored  and  therefore  think  it  funny  that people not even
concerned with literature should be upset by my finding  D.  H.
Lawrence  execrable  or  my seeing in H. G. Wells a far greater
artist than Conrad.

     What do you think of the so-called "student  revolution

     Rowdies  are  never  revolutionary,  they are always reac'
tionary. It is among the young that  the  greatest  conformists
and  Philistines  are found, e.g., the hippies with their group
beards  and   group   protests.   Demonstrators   at   American
universities  care  as  little about education as football fans
who smash up subway stations in England care about soccer.  All
belong to the same family of goofy hoodlums-- with a sprinkling
of clever rogues among them.

     What are your working methods? 

     Quite  banal.  Thirty  years  ago  I used to write in bed,
dipping my pen into a bedside inkwell, or else I would  compose
mentally  at  any time of the day or night. I would fall asleep
when the sparrows woke up. Nowadays I write my stuff  on  index
cards,  in  pencil,  at a lectern, in the forenoon; but I still
tend to do a lot of work in my head during long  walks  in  the
country on dull days when butterflies do not interfere. Here is
a disappointed lepidopterist's ditty:

     It's a long climb
     Up the rock face
     At the wrong time
     To the right place.

     Do you keep a journal or seek documentary reminders?

     I  am  an  ardent memoirist with a rotten memory; a drowsy
king's absentminded  remembrancer.  With  absolute  lucidity  I
recall  landscapes,  gestures,  intonations, a million sensuous
details, but names and numbers topple into oblivion with absurd
abandon like little blind men in file from a pier.
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