On June 26, 1969, Allene Talmey, Associate Editor of
Vogue, New York, sent me the questions answered below.
The interview appeared in the Christmas number of that journal.
Magic, sleight-of-hand, and other tricks have played
quite a role in your fiction. Are they for amusement or do they
serve yet another purpose?
Deception is practiced even more beautifully by that other
V.N., Visible Nature. A useful purpose is assigned by science
to animal mimicry, protective patterns and shapes, yet their
refinement transcends the crude purpose of mere survival. In
art, an individual style is essentially as futile and as
organic as a fata morgana. The sleight-of-hand you mention is
hardly more than an insect's sleight-of-wing. A wit might say
that it protects me from half-wits. A grateful spectator is
content to applaud the grace with which the masked performer
melts into Nature's background.
In your autobiography. Speak, Memory, you
describe a series of concurrent, insignificant events around
the world "forming an instantaneous and transparent organism of
events, " of which the poet (sitting in a lawn chair at lthaca.
New York) is the nucleus. How does this open out on your larger
belief in the precedence of the imagination over the mind?
The simultaneousness of these random events, and indeed
the fact of their occurring at all as described by the central
percipient, would only then conform to "reality" if he had at
his disposal the apparatus to reproduce those events optically
within the frame of one screen; but the central figure in the
passage you quote is not equipped with any kind of video
attached to his lawn chair and must therefore rely on the power
of pure imagination. Incidentally, I tend more and more to
regard the objective existence of all events as a form
of impure imagination-- hence my inverted commas around
"reality." Whatever the mind grasps, it does so with the
assistance of creative fancy, that drop of water on a glass
slide which gives distinctness and relief to the observed
1969 marks the fiftieth anniversary of your first
publication. What do that first book and your latest, Ada,
have in common? What of your intention and technique has
changed, what has remained?
My first publication, a collection of love poems, appeared
not fifty, but fifty-three years ago. Several copies of it
still lurk in my native country. The versification is fair, the
lack of originality complete. Ten years later, in 1926, my
first novel, printed abroad, in Russian, rendered that boyhood
romance with a more acceptable glow, supplied, no doubt, by
nostalgia, invention, and a dash of detachment. Finally, upon
reaching middle age and, with it, a certain degree of precision
in the use of my private English, I devoted a chapter of my
Speak, Memory to the same theme, this time adhering
faithfully to the actual past. As to flashes of it in my
fiction, I alone can judge if details that look like bits of my
"real" self in this or that novel of mine are as authentic as
Adam's rib in the most famous of garden scenes. The best part
of a writer's biography is not the record of his adventures but
the story of his style. Only in that light can one properly
assess the relationship, if any, between my first heroine and
my recent Ada. While two ancestral parks may be
generically alike, true art deals not with the genus,
and not even with the species, but with an aberrant individual
of the species. Raisins of fact in the cake of fiction are many
stages removed from the initial grape. I have accumulated
enough aphorisms here to make it seem that your question about
Ada has been answered.
You are reported to have said that you live more in the
future than in the present or past-- in spite of your
preoccupation with memory. Can you say why this is so?
I do not recall the exact wording of that statement.
Presumably I meant that in professional action I look forward,
rather than back, as I try to foresee the evolution of the work
in progress, try to perceive the fair copy in the crystal of my
inkstand, try to read the proof, long before it is printed, by
projecting into an imagined section of time the growth of the
book, whose every line belongs to the present moment, which in
its turn is nothing but the ever rising horizon of the past.
Using another, more emotional metaphor, I might concede,
however, that I keep the tools of my trade, memories,
experiences, sharp shining things, constantly around me, upon
me, within me, the way instruments are stuck into the loops and
flaps of a mechanician's magnificently elaborate overalls.
You are often superficially linked to a handful of
international writers like Beckett and Borges. Do you feel any
affinity with them or with your other contemporaries?
Oh, I am well aware of those commentators: slow minds,
hasty typewriters! They would do better to link Beckett with
Maeterlinck and Borges with Anatole France. It might prove more
instructive than gossiping about a stranger.
You have witnessed extraordinary changes in your
lifetime and maintained an "esthetic distance." Would you
consider this a matter of your temperament or a quality you had
My aloofness is an illusion resulting from my never having
belonged to any literary, political, or social coterie. I am a
lone lamb. Let me submit, however, that I have bridged the
"esthetic distance" in my own way by means of such absolutely
final indictments of Russian and German totalitarianism as my
novels Invitation to a Beheading and Bend Sinister.
Gogol found a most congenial biographer in you. Whom would
you choose, free of time, to be your biographer, and why would
you make your choice?
This congeniality is another illusion. I loathe Gogol's
moralistic slant, I am depressed and puzzled by his utter inability to describe young women, I deplore his obsession with
religion. Verbal inventiveness is not really a bond between
authors, it is merely a garland. He would have been appalled by
my novels and denounced as vicious the innocent, and rather
superficial, little sketch of his life that I produced
twenty-five years ago. Much more successful, because based on
longer and deeper research, was the life of Chernyshevski (in
my novel The Gift), whose works I found risible, but
whose fate moved me more strongly than did Gogol's. What
Chernyshevski would have thought of it is another question--
but at least the plain truth of documents is on my side. That,
and only that, is what I would ask of my biographer-- plain
facts, no symbol-searching, no jumping at attractive but
preposterous conclusions, no Marxist bunkum, no Freudian rot.
The maps and diagrams-- your entomological proof that
Gregor Sarnsa was a dung beetle and not a cockroach-- are now
well-known artifacts of your teaching literature at Cornell.
What other refreshing antidotes to current literary criticism
might you suggest?
In my academic days I endeavored to provide students of
literature with exact information about details, about such
combinations of details as yield the sensual spark without
which a book is dead. In that respect, general ideas are of no
importance. Any ass can assimilate the main points of Tolstoy's
attitude toward adultery but in order to enjoy Tolstoy's art
the good reader must wish to visualize, for instance, the
arrangement of a railway carriage on the Moscow-Petersburg
night train as it was a hundred years ago. Here diagrams are
most helpful. Instead of perpetuating the pretentious nonsense
of Homeric, chromatic, and visceral chapter headings,
instructors should prepare maps of Dublin with Bloom's and
Stephen's intertwining itineraries clearly traced. Without a
visual perception of the larch labyrinth in Mansfield
Park that novel loses some of its stereographic charm, and
unless the fa?ade of Dr. Jekyll's house is distinctly
reconstructed in the student's mind, the enjoyment of
Stevenson's story cannot be perfect.
There is a great deal of easy talk about the "death of
language "and the "obsolescence of books. " What are your views
on the future of literature?
I am not overly preoccupied with tomorrow's books. All I
would welcome is that in the future editions of my works,
especially in paperback, a few misprints were corrected.
Is it right for a writer to give interviews?
Why not? Of course, in a strict sense a poet, a novelist,
is not a public figure, not an exotic potentate, not an
international lover, not a person one would be proud to call
Jim. I can quite understand people wanting to know my writings,
but I cannot sympathize with anybody wanting to know me. As a
human specimen, I present no particular fascination. My habits
are simple, my tastes banal. I would not exchange my favorite
fare (bacon and eggs, beer) for the most misspelt menu in the
world. I irritate some of my best friends by the relish with
which I list the things I hate-- nightclubs, yachts, circuses,
pornographic shows, the soulful eyes of naked men with lots of
Guevara hair in lots of places. It may seem odd that such a
modest and unassuming person as I should not disapprove of the
widespread practice of self-description. No doubt some literary
interviews are pretty awful: trivial exchanges between sage and
stooge, or even worse, the French kind, starting "Jeanne
Dupont, qui etes-vous?" (who indeed!) and sporting such
intolerable vulgarisms as "insolite" and
"ecriture" (French weeklies, please note!). I do not
believe that speaking about myself can encourage the sales of
my books. What T really like about the better kind of public
colloquy is the opportunity it affords me to construct in the
presence of my audience the semblance of what I hope is a
plausible and nor altogether displeasing personality.