Of the fifty-eight questions James Mossman submitted on
September 8, 1969, for Review, BBC-2 (October 4) some 40
were answered and recorded by me from written cards in
Montreux. The Listener published the thing in an
incomplete form on October 23 of that year. Printed here from
my final typescript.
You have said that you explored time's prison and have
found no way out. Are you still exploring, and is it inevitably
a solitary excursion, from which one returns to the solace of
I'm a very poor speaker. I hope our audience won't mind my
My exploration of time's prison as described in the first
chapter of Speak, Memory was only a stylistic device
meant to introduce my subject.
Memory often presents a life broken into episodes, more
or less perfectly recalled. Do you see any themes working
through from one episode to another?
Everyone can sort out convenient patterns of related
themes in the past development of his life. Here again I had to
provide pegs and echoes when furnishing my reception halls.
Is the strongest tie between men this common captivity
Let us not generalize. The common captivity in time is
felt differently by different people, and some people may not
feel it at all. Generalizations are full of loopholes and
traps. I know elderly men for whom "time" only means
What distinguishes us from animals?
Being aware of being aware of being. In other words, if I
not only know that I am but also know that I know it,
then I belong to the human species. All the rest follows-- the
glory of thought, poetry, a vision of the universe. In that
respect, the gap between ape and man is immeasurably greater
than the one between amoeba and ape. The difference between an
ape's memory and human memory is the difference between an
ampersand and the British Museum library.
Judging from your own awakening consciousness as a
child, do you think that the capacity to use language, syntax,
relate ideas, is something we learn from adults, as if we were
computers being programed, or do we begin to use a unique,
built-in capability of our own-- call it imagination?
The stupidest person in the world is an all-round genius
compared to the cleverest computer. How we learn to imagine and
express things is a riddle with premises impossible to express
and a solution impossible to imagine.
In your acute scrutiny of your past, can you find the
instruments that fashioned you?
Yes-- unless I refashion them retrospectively, by the very
act of evoking them. There is quite a lot of give and take in
the game of metaphors.
As you recall a patch of time, its shapes, sounds,
colors, and occupants, does this complete picture help combat
time or offer any clue to its mysteries, or is it pleasure that
Let me quote a paragraph in my book Ada:
"Physiologically the sense of Time is a sense of continuous
becoming. . . . Philosophically, on the other hand, Time is but
memory in the making. In every individual life there goes on,
from cradle to deathbed, the gradual shaping and strengthening
of that backbone of consciousness, which is the Time of
the strong." This is Van speaking, Van Veen, the charming
villain of mv book. I have not decided yet if I agree with him
in all his view's on the texture of time. I suspect I don't.
Does the inevitable distortion of detail worry you?
Not at all. The distortion of a remembered image may not
only enhance its beauty with an added refraction, but provide
informative links with earlier or later patches of the past.
You've said that the man in you revolts sometimes
against the fictionist. Can you say why? (Note: I'm thinking of
your regret at giving items of your past to characters.)
One hates oneself for leaving a pet with a neighbor and
never returning for it.
Doesn't giving away past memories to your characters
alleviate the burden of the past?
Items of one's past are apt to fade from exposure. They
are like those richly pigmented butterflies and moths which the
ignorant amateur hangs up in a display case on the wall of his
sunny parlor and which, after a few years, are bleached to a
pitiful drab hue. The metallic blue of so-called structural
wing scales is hardier, but even so a wise collector should
keep specimens in the dry dark of a cabinet.
You have written of yourself as looking out "from my
present ridge of remote, isolated, almost uninhabited time. "
Well, for the same reason that a desert island is a more
deserving island than one with a footprint initialing its
beach. Moreover, "uninhabited" makes direct sense here, since
most of my former companions are gone.
Does the aristocrat in you despise the fictionist, or
is it only English aristocrats who feel queasy about men of
Pushkin, professional poet and Russian nobleman, used to
shock the beau monde by declaring that he wrote for his
own pleasure but published for the sake of money- I do
likewise, but have never shocked anybody-- except, perhaps, a
former publisher of mine who used to counter my indignant
requests by saying that I'm much too good a writer to need
Is the capacity to recall and to celebrate patches of
past time a special quality of yours?
No, I don't think so. I could name many writers, English,
Russian, and French, who have done it at least as well as I
have. Funny, I notice that when mentioning my three tongues, I
list them in that order because it is the best rhythmic
arrangement: either dactylic, with one syllable skipped,
"English, Russian, and French," or anapestic, "English,
Russian, and French." Little lesson in prosody.
Have you ever experienced hallucinations or heard
voices or had visions, and if so, have they been illuminating?
When about to fall asleep after a good deal of writing or
reading, I often enjoy, if that is the right word, what some
drug addicts experience-- a continuous series of extraordinary
bright, fluidly changing pictures. Their type is different
nightly, but on a given night it remains the same: one night it
may be a banal kaleidoscope of endlessly recombined and
reshaped stained-window designs; next time, comes a subhuman or
superhuman face with a formidably growing blue eye; or, and
this is the most striking type, I see in realistic detail a
long-dead friend turning toward me and melting into another
remembered figure against the black velvet of my eyelids' inner
side. As to voices, I have described in Speak, Memory
the snatches of telephone talk which now and then vibrate in my
pillowed ear. Reports on those enigmatic phenomena can be found
in the case histories collected by psychiatrists but no
satisfying interpretation has come my way. Freudians, keep out,
Your best memories seem to be golden days, with great
green trees, splashes of sun on venerable stone, harmony-- a
world in which people were going to live for ever. Do you
manipulate the past in order to combat life at its less
My existence has always remained as harmonious and green
as it was throughout the span dealt with in my memoirs, that is
from 1903 to 1940. The emotions of my Russian childhood have
been replaced by new excitements, by new mountains explored in
search of new butterflies, by a cloudless family life, and by
the monstrous delights of novelistic invention.
Is writing your novels pleasure or drudgery?
Pleasure and agony while composing the book in my mind;
harrowing irritation when struggling with my tools and
viscera-- the pencil that needs resharpening, the card that has
to be rewritten, the bladder that has to be drained, the word
that I always misspell and always have to look up. Then the
labor of reading the typescript prepared by a secretary, the
correction of my ma)or mistakes and her minor ones,
transferring corrections to other copies, misplacing pages,
trying to remember something that had to be crossed out or
inserted. Repeating the process when proofreading. Unpacking
the radiant beautiful plump advance copy, opening it-- and
discovering a stupid oversight committed by me, allowed by me
to survive. After a month or so I get used to the book's final
stage, to its having been weaned from my brain. I now regard it
with a kind of amused tenderness as a man regards not his son,
but the young wife of his son.
You say you are not interested in what critics say, yet
you got very angry with Edmund Wilson once for commenting on
you, and let off some heavy field guns at him, not to say
multiple rockets. You must have cared.
I never retaliate when my works of art are concerned.
There the arrows of adverse criticism cannot scratch, let alone
pierce, the shield of what disappointed archers call my
"self-assurance." But I do reach for my heaviest dictionary
when my scholarship is questioned, as was the case with my old
friend Edmund Wilson, and I do get annoyed when people I never
met impinge on my privacy with false and vulgar assumptions--
as for example Mr. Updike, who in an otherwise clever
article absurdly suggests that my fictional character, bitchy
and lewd Ada, is, I quote, "in a dimension or two, Nabokov's
wife." I might add that I collect clippings-- for information
Do you see yourself sometimes as Nabokov the writer
isolated from others, flaming sword to scourge them, an
entertainer, a drudge, a genius, which?
The word "genius" is passed around rather generously,
isn't it? At least in English, because its Russian counterpart,
geniy, is a term brimming with a sort of throaty aw^e
and is used only in the case of a very small number of writers,
Shakespeare, Milton, Pushkin, Tolstoy. To such deeply beloved
authors as Turgenev and Chekhov Russians assign the thinner
term, tal?nt, talent, not genius. It is a bizarre
example of semantic discrepancy-- the same word being more
substantial in one language than in another. Although my
Russian and my English are practically coeval, ? still feel
appalled and puzzled at seeing "genius" applied to any
important storyteller, such as Maupassant or Maugham. Genius
still means to me, in my Russian fastidiousness and pride of
phrase, a unique, dazzling gift, the genius of James Joyce, not
the talent of Henry James. I'm afriad I have lost the thread of
my reply to your question. What is your next one, please?
Can political ideas solve any of the big problems of an
I have always marveled at the neatness of such solutions:
ardent Stalinists transforming themselves into harmless
Socialists, Socialists finding a sunset harbor in Conservatism,
and so forth. I suppose this must be rather like religious
conversion, of which I know very little. I can only explain
God's popularity by an atheist's panic.
Why do you say you dislike "serious" writers? Don't you
just mean "bad" artists?
Let me put it this way. By inclination and intent I avoid
squandering my art on the illustrated catalogues of solemn
notions and serious opinions; and I dislike their pervasive
presence in the works of others. What ideas can be traced in my
novels belong to my creatures therein and may be deliberately
flawed. In my memoirs, quotable ideas are merely passing
visions, suggestions, mirages of the mind. They lose their
colors or explode like football fish when lifted out of the
context of their tropical sea.
Great writers have had strong political and
sociological preferences or ideas. Tolstoy was one. Does the
presence of such ideas in his work make you think the less of
I go by books, not by authors. I consider Anna
Karenin the supreme masterpiece of nineteenth-century
literature; it is closely followed by The Death of Ivan
llyich. I detest Resurrection and The Kreuzer
Sonata. Tolstoy's publicistic forays are unreadable. War
and Peace, though a little too long, is a rollicking
historical novel written for that amor-phic and limp creature
known as "the general reader," and more specifically for the
young. In terms of artistic structure it does not satisfy me. I
derive no pleasure from its cumbersome message, from the
didactic interludes, from the artificial coincidences, with
cool Prince Audrey turning up to witness this or that
historical moment, this or that footnote in the sources used
often uncritically by the author.
Why do you dislike writers who go in for soul-searching
and self-revelations in print? After all, do you not do it at
another remove, bebind a thicket of art?
If you are alluding to Dostoevski's worst novels, then,
indeed, I dislike intensely The Karamazov Brothers and
the ghastly Crime and Punishment rigmarole. No, I do not
object to soul-searching and self-revelation, but in those
books the soul, and the sins, and the sentimentality, and the
journalese, hardly warrant the tedious and muddled search.
Is your attachment to childhood specially nostalgic and
intense because you were abruptly and forever banished from the
place where it evolved by the Russian Revolution?
Yes, that's right. But the stress is not on Russian
Revolution. It could have been anything, an earthquake, an
illness, an individual departure prompted by a private
disaster. The accent is on the abruptness of the change.
Would you ever try to go back there, just to have a
There's nothing to look at. New tenement houses and old
churches do not interest me. The hotels there are terrible. I
detest the Soviet theater. Any palace in Italy is superior to
the repainted abodes of the Tsars. The village huts in the
forbidden hinterland are- as dismally poor as ever, and the
wretched peasant flogs his wretched cart horse with the same
wretched zest. As to my special northern landscape and the
haunts of my childhood-- well, I would not wish to contaminate
their images preserved in my mind.
How would you define your alienation from present-day
Russia? I loathe and despise dictatorships.
You called the Revolution there "trite. " Why?
Because it followed the banal historical pattern of
bloodshed, deceit, and oppression, because it betrayed the
democratic dream, and because all it can promise the Soviet
citizen is the material article, second-hand Philistine values,
imitation of Western foods and gadgets, and of course, caviar
for the decorated general.
Why do you live in hotels?
It simplifies postal matters, it eliminates the nuisance
of private ownership, it confirms me in my favorite habit-- the
habit of freedom.
Do you have a longing for one place ever, a place in
which family or racial continuity has been witnessed for
generations, a scrap of Russia in return for the whole of the
United States? I have no such longings.
Is nostalgia debilitating or enriching?
Neither. It's one of a thousand tender emotions.
Do you like being an American citizen?
Yes, very much so.
Did you sit up to watch the Americans land on the moon?
Were you impressed?
Oh, "impressed" is not the right word! Treading the soil
of the moon gives one, I imagine (or rather my projected self
imagines), the most remarkable romantic thrill ever experienced
in the history of discovery. Of course, I rented a
television set to watch every moment of their marvelous
adventure. That gentle little minuet that despite their awkward
suits the two men danced with such grace to the tune of lunar
gravity was a lovely sight. It was also a moment when a flag
means to one more than a flag usually does. I am puzzled and
pained by the fact that the English weeklies ignored the
absolutely overwhelming excitement of the adventure, the
strange sensual exhilaration of palpating those precious
pebbles, of seeing our marbled globe in the black sky, of
feeling along one's spine the shiver and wonder of it. After
all, Englishmen should understand that thrill, they who have
been the greatest, the purest explorers. Why then drag in such
irrelevant matters as wasted dollars and power politics?
If you ruled any modern industrial state absolutely,
what would you abolish?
I would abolish trucks and transistors, I would outlaw the
diabolical roar of motorcycles, I would wring the neck of soft
music in public places. I would banish the bidet from
hotel bathrooms so as to make more room for a longer bathtub. I
would forbid farmers the use of insecticides and allow them to
mow their meadows only once a year, in late August when
everyone has safely pupated.
Do you like reading newspapers?
Yes, especially the Sunday papers.
You refer somewhere to your father's study teaching you
to appreciate authentic poetry. Is any living poet authentic to
I used to have a veritable passion for poetry, English,
Russian, and French. That passion started to dwindle around
1940 when I stopped gorging myself on contemporary verse. I
know as little about today's poetry as about new music.
Are too many people writing novels?
I read quite a number of them every year. For some odd
reason what authors and publishers keep sending me is the
pseudo-picaresque stuff of clich? characters and the enlarged
pores of dirty words.
You parody the poet W. H. Auden in your novel Ada,
I think. Why do you think so little of him?
I do not parody Mr. Auden anywhere in Ada. I'm not
sufficiently familiar with his poetry for that. I do know,
however, a few of his translations-- and deplore the blunders
he so lightheartedly permits himself. Robert Lowell, of course,
is the greater offender.
Ada has a lot of word play, punning, parody-- do you
acknowledge influence by James Joyce in your literary
upbringing, and do you admire him?
I played with words long before I read Ulysses.
Yes, I love that book but it is rather the lucidity and
precision of its prose that pleases me. The real puns are in
Fmnegans Wake-- a tragic failure and a frightful bore.
What about Kafka's work, and Gogol's. I am sniffing
about for early influences.
Every Russian writer owes something to Gogol, Pushkin, and
Shakespeare. Some Russian writers, as for example Pushkin and
Gogol, were influenced by Byron and Sterne in French
translation. I do not know German and so could not read Kafka
before the nineteen thirties when his La metamorphose
appeared in La nouvelle revue fran?aise, and by that
time many of my so-called "kafkaesque" stories had already been
published. Alas, I am not one to provide much sport for
Tolstoy said, so they say, that life was a "tartine de
merde" which one was obliged to eat slowly. Do you agree?
I've never heard that story. The old boy was sometimes
rather disgusting, wasn't he? My own life is fresh bread with
country butter and Alpine honey.
Which is the worst thing men do? (Note: I'm thinking of
your remark about cruelty).
To stink, to cheat, to torture.
Which is the best?
To be kind, to be proud, to be fearless.