Simona Morini came to interview me on February 3, 1972, in
Montreux. Our exchange appeared in Vogue, New York,
April 15, 1972. Three passages (pp. 200-1, 201-2 and 204), are
borrowed, with modifications, from Speak, Memory, G. P.
Putnam's Sons, N. Y., 1966.
The world has been and is open to you. With your
Proustian sense of places, what is there in Montreux that
attracts you so?
My sense of places is Nabokovian rather than Proustian.
With regard to Montreux there are many attractions-- nice
people, near mountains, regular mails, headquarters at a
comfortable hotel. We dwell in the older part of the Palace
Hotel, in its original part really, which was all that existed
a hundred and fifty years ago (you can still see that initial
inn and our future windows in old prints of 1840 or so). Our
quarters consist of several tiny rooms with two and a half
bathrooms, the result of two apartments having been recently
fused. The sequence is: kitchen, living-dining room, my wife's
room, my room, a former kitchenette now full of my papers, and
our son's former room, now converted into a study. The
apartment is! cluttered with books, folders, and files. What
might be termed rather grandly a library is a back room housing
my published works, and there are additional shelves in the
attic whose skylight is much frequented by pigeons and Alpine
choughs. I am giving this meticulous description to refute a
distortion in an interview published recently in another New
York magazine-- a long piece with embarrassing misquotations,
wrong intonations, and false exchanges in the course of which I
am made to dismiss the scholarship of a dear friend as
"pedantry" and to poke ambiguous fun at a manly writer's tragic
Is there any truth in the rumor that you are thinking
of leaving Montreux forever?
Well, there is a rumor that sooner or later
everybody living now in Montreux will leave it forever.
Lolita is an extraordinary Baedecker of the United
States. What fascinated you about American motels?
The fascination was purely utilitarian. My wife used to
drive me (Plymouth, Oldsmobile, Buick, Buick Special, Impala--
in that order of brand) during several seasons, many thousands
of miles every season, for the sole purpose of collecting
Lepidoptera-- all of which are now in three museums (Natural
History in New York City, Comparative Zoology at Harvard,
Comstock Hall at Cornell). Usually we spent only a day or two
in each motorcourt, but sometimes, if the hunting was good, we
stayed for weeks in one place. The main raison d'etre of
the motel was the possibility of w! alking out straight into an
aspen grove with lupines in full bloom or onto a wild
mountainside. We also would make many sorties on the way
between motels. All this I shall be describing in my next
memoir, Speak On, Memory, which will deal with many
curious things (apart from butterfly lore)-- amusing happenings
at Cornell and Harvard, gay tussles with publishers, my
friendship with Edmund Wilson, et cetera.
You were in Wyoming and Colorado looking for
butterflies. What were these places like to you?
My wife and I have collected not only in Wyoming and
Colorado, but in most of the states, as well as in Canada. The
list of localities visited between 1940 and 1960 would cover
many pages. Each butterfly, killed by an expert nip of its
thorax, is slipped immediately into a little glazed envelope,
about thirty of which fit into one of the Band-Aid containers
which represent, with the net, my only paraphernalia in the
field. Captures can be kept, before being relaxed and set, for
any number of years in those envelopes, if properly stored. The
exact locality and date are written on every envelope besides
being jotted down in one's pocket diary. Though my captures are
now in American museums, I have preserved hundreds of labels
and notes. Here are just a few samples picked out at r! andom:
Road to Terry Peak from Route 85, near Lead, 6500-7000
feet, in the Black Hills of South Dakota, July 20, 1958.
Above Tomboy Road, between Social Tunnel and Bullion Mine,
at about 10,500 feet, near Telluride, San Miguel County, W.
Colorado, July 3, 1951.
Near Karner, between Albany and Schenectady, New York,
June 2, 1950.
Near Columbine Lodge, Estes Park, E. Colorado, about 9000
feet, June 5, 1947.
Soda Mt., Oregon, about 5500 feet, August 2, 1953. Above
Portal, road to Rustler Park, between 5500 and 8000 feet,
Chiricahua Mts., Arizona, April 30, 1953.
Fernie, three miles east of Elco, British Columbia, July
Granite Pass, Bighorn Mts., 8950 feet, E. Wyoming, July
Near Crawley Lake, Bishop, California, about 7000 feet,
June 3, 1953.
Near Gatlinburg, Tennessee, April 21, 1959. Et cetera, et
Where do you go for butterflies now?
To various good spots in the Valais, the Tessin, the
Grisons; to the hills of Italy; to the Mediterranean islands;
to the mountains of southern France and so forth. I am chiefly
devoted to European and North American butterflies of high
altitudes, and have never visited the Tropics.
The little mountain trains cogwheeling up to alpine
meadows, through sun and shade, along rock face or coniferous
forest are tolerable in action and delightful in destination,
bringing one as they do to the starting point of a day-long
hike. My favorite method of locomotion, though, is the
cableway, and especially the chairlift. I find enchanting and
dreamy in the best sense of the word to glide in the morning
sun from valley to timberline in that magic seat, and watch
from above my own shadow-- with the ghost of a butterfly net in
the ghost of a fist-- as it keeps gently ascending in sitting
profile along the flowery slope below, among dancing Ringlets
and skimming Fritillaries. Some day the butterfly hunter will
find even finer dream lore when floating u! pright over
mountains, carried by a diminutive rocket strapped to his back.
In the past, how did you usually travel, when you were
looking for butterflies? Did you go camping, for instance?
As a youth of seventeen, on the eve of the Russian
Revolution, I was seriously planning (being the
independent possessor of an inherited fortune) a
lepidoptero-logical expedition to Central Asia, and that would
have involved naturally a good deal of camping. Earlier, when I
was, say, eight or nine, I seldom roamed further than the
fields and woods of our country estate near St. Petersburg. At
twelve, when aiming at a particular spot half-a-dozen miles or
more distant, I would use a bicycle to get there with my net
fastened to the frame; but not many forest paths were passable
on wheels; it was possible to ride there on horseback, of
course, but, because of our ferocious Russian tabanids, one
could not leave a horse haltered in a wood for any length of
time: my spirited b! ay almost climbed up the tree it was tied
to one day trying to elude them: big fellows with watered-silk
eyes and tiger bodies, and gray little runts with an even more
painful proboscis, but much more sluggish: to dispatch two or
three of these dingy tipplers with one crush of the gloved hand
as they glued themselves to the neck of my mount afforded me a
wonderful empathic relief (which a dipterist might not
appreciate). Anyway, on my butterfly hunts I always preferred
hiking to any other form of locomotion (except, naturally, a
flying seat gliding leisurely over the plant mats and rocks of
an unexplored mountain, or hovering just above the flowery roof
of a rain forest); for when you walk, especially in a region
you have studied well, there is an exquisite pleasure in
departing from one's itinerary to visit, here and there by the
wayside, this glade, that glen, this or that combination o! f
soil and flora-- to drop in, as it were, on a familiar
butterfly in his particular habitat, in order to see if he has
emerged, and if so, how he is doing.
What is your ideal of a splendid grand-hotel?
Absolute quiet, no radio playing behind the wall, none in
the lift, no footsteps thudding above, no snores coming from
below, no gondoliers carousing across the lane, no drunks in
the corridor. I remember one awful little scene (and this was
in a five-turret palace with the guidebook sign of a red
songbird meaning luxury and isolation!). Upon hearing a
commotion just outside the door of my bedroom, I poked out my
head, while preparing my curse-- which fizzled out when I saw
what was happening in the passage. An American of the
traveling-executive type was staggering about with a bottle of
whisky and his son, a boy of twelve or so, was trying to
restrain him, repeating: "Please, Dad, please, come to bed,"
which reminded me of a similar situation in a Chekhov story.
What do you think has changed over the last sixty years
in the traveling style? You loved wagons-lits.
Oh, I did. In the early years of this century, a travel agency on Nevski Avenue displayed a three-foot-long model of an oak-brown international sleeping car. In delicate
verisimilitude it completely outranked the painted tin of my
clockwork trains. Unfortunately it was not for sale. One could
make out the blue upholstery inside, the embossed leather
lining of the compartment walls, their polished panels, inset
mirrors, tulip-shaped reading lamps, and other maddening
details. Spacious windows alternated with narrower ones, single
or geminate, and some of these were of frosted glass. In a few
of the compartments, the beds had been made.
The then great and glamorous Nord-Express (it was never
the same after World War I when its elegant brown became a
nouveau-riche blue), consisting solely of such international
cars and running but twice a week, connected St. Petersburg
with Paris. I would have said: directly with Paris, had
passengers not been obliged to change from one train to a
superficially similar one at the Russo-German frontier
(Verzhbolovo-Eydtkuhnen), where the ample and lazy Russian
sixty-and-a-half-inch gauge was replaced by the
fifty-six-and-a-half-inch standard of Europe, and coal
succeeded birch logs.
In the far end of my mind I can unravel, I think,
at least five such journeys to Paris, with the Riviera or
Biarritz as their ultimate destination. In 1909, the year I now
single out, our party consisted of eleven people and one
dachshund. Wearing gloves and a traveling cap, my father sat
reading a book in the compartment he shared with our tutor. My
brother and I were separated from them by a washroom. My mother
and her maid Natasha occupied a compartment adjacent to ours.
Next came my two small sisters, their English governess, Miss
Lavington (later governess of the Tsar's children), and a
Russian nurse. The odd one of our party, my father's valet,
Osip (whom, a decade later, the pedantic Bolsheviks were to
shoot, because he appropriated our bicycles instead of turning
them over to the nation), had a stranger for comp! anion
(Feraudi, a well-known French actor).
Gone the panache of steam, gone the thunder and blaze,
gone the romance of the railroad. The popular train rouge
is merely a souped-up tram. As to the European
sleeping-cars, they are drab and vulgar now. The "single" I
usually take is a stunted compartment with a corner table
concealing inadequate toilet facilities (not unlike those in
the farcical American "roomette," where to get at the necessary
utensil one has to rise and shoulder one's bed like Lazarus).
Still, for the person with a past, some faded charm remains
clinging to those international sleepers which take you
straight from Lausanne to Rome or from Sicily to the Piedmont.
True, the dining-car theme is muted; sandwiches and wine are
supplied by hawkers between stations; and your plastic
breakfast is prepared by ! an overworked, half-dressed
conductor in his grubby cubicle next to the car's malodorous W.
C.; yet my childhood moments of excitement and wonder are still
brought back by the mystery of sighing stops in the middle of
the night or by the first morning glimpse of rocks and sea.
What do you think of the super-planes?
I think their publicity department, when advertising the
spaciousness of the seat rows, should stop picturing impossible
children fidgeting between their imperturbed mother and a
gray-templed stranger trying to read. Otherwise, those great
machines are masterpieces of technology. I have never flown
across the Atlantic, but I have had delightful hops with
Swissair and Air France. They serve excellent liquor and the
view at low elevations is heartbreakingly lovely.
What do you think about luggage? Do you think it has
lost style, too?
I think good luggage is always handsome and there is a lot
of it around nowadays. Styles, of course, have changed. No
longer with us is the kind of elephantine wardrobe trunk, a
specimen of which appears in the visually pleasant but
otherwise absurd cinema version of Mann's mediocre, but anyway
plausible, Death in Venice. I still treasure an elegant,
elegantly scuffed piece of luggage once owned by my mother. Its
travels through space are finished, but it still hums gently
through time for I use it to keep old family letters and such
curious documents as my birth certificate. I am a couple of
years younger than this antique valise, fifty centimeters long
by thirty-six broad and sixteen high, technically a heavyish
necessaire de voyage of
pigskin, with "H. N." elaborately interwoven in thick silver
under a similar coronet, it had been bought in 1897 for my
mother's wedding trip to Florence. In 1917 it transported from
St. Petersburg to the Crimea and then to London a handful of
jewels. Around 1930, it lost to a pawnbroker its expensive
receptacles of crystal and silver leaving empty the cunningly
contrived leathern holders on the inside of the lid. But that
loss has been amply recouped during the thirty years it then
traveled with me-- from Prague to Paris, from St. Nazaire to
New York and through the mirrors of more than two hundred motel
rooms and rented houses, in forty-six states.
The fact that of our Russian heritage the hardiest survivor
proved to be a traveling bag is both logical and emblematic.
What is a "perfect trip" for you?
Any first walk in any new place-- especially a place where
no lepidopterist has been before me. There still exist
unexplored mountains in Europe and I still can walk twenty
kilometers a day. The ordinary stroller might feel on
sauntering out a twinge of pleasure (cloudless morning, village
still asleep, one side of the street already sunlit, should try
to buy English papers on my way back, here's the turn, I
believe, yes, footpath to Cataratta), but the cold of the metal
netstick in my right hand magnifies the pleasure to almost