This Friday is the 100th anniversary of the birth of one of the greatest novelists of all time, Vladimir Nabokov. I'll be raising a glass (of kvass?) to a writer who has taught me a good deal about, well, many things: how metaphysics can be refracted in prose, the importance of truth in detail, the poetic possibilities of English prose . . . Feel free to join me in my toast tele-ontologically.
Below, for those who might find it interesting, I've copied a few sentences from VN's literary autobiography, Speak, Memory, as well as a transcript of television interview from 1965.
"The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness. Although the two are identical twins, man, as a rule, views the prenatal abyss with more calm than the one he is heading for (at some forty-five hundred heartbeats an hour). . . .
"Nature expects a full-grown man to accept the two black voids, fore and aft, as stolidly as he accepts the extraordinary visions in between. Imagination, the supreme delight of the immortal and the immature, should be limited. In order to enjoy life, we should not enjoy it too much.
"I rebel against this state of affairs. I feel the urge to take my rebellion outside and picket nature. Over and over again, my mind has made colossal efforts to distinguish the faintest of personal glimmers in the impersonal darkness on both sides of my life. That this darkness is caused merely by the walls of time separating me and my bruised fists from the free world of timelessness is a belief I gladly share with the most gaudily painted savage."
- Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory
Nabokov interview. (05) TV-13 NY 
In September, 1965, Robert Hughes visited me here to make a filmed interview for the Television 13 Educational Program in New York. At our initial meetings I read from prepared cards, and this part of the interview is given below. The rest, represented by some fifty pages typed from the tape, is too colloquial and rambling to suit the scheme of the present book.
As with Gogol and even James Agee, there is occasionally confusion about the pronunciation of your last name. How does one pronounce it correctly?
It is indeed a tricky name. It is often misspelt, because the eye tends to regard the "a" of the first syllable as a misprint and then tries to restore the symmetrical sequence by triplicating the "o"-- filling up the row of circles, so to speak, as in a game of crosses and naughts. No-bow-cough. How ugly, how wrong. Every author whose name is fairly often mentioned in periodicals develops a bird-watcher's or caterpillar-picker's knack when scanning an article. But in my case I always get caught by the word "nobody" when capitalized at the beginning of a sentence. As to pronunciation, Frenchmen of course say Nabokoff, with the accent on the last syllable. Englishmen say Nabokov, accent on the first, and Italians say Nabokov, accent in the middle, as Russians also do. Na-bo-kov. A heavy open "o" as in "Knickerbocker." My New England ear is not offended by the long elegant middle "o" of Nabokov as delivered in American academies. The awful "Na-bah-kov"is a despicable gutterism. Well, you can make your choice now. Incidentally, the first name is pronounced Vladeemer -- rhyming with "redeemer" -- not Vladimir rhyming with Faddimere (a place in England, I think).
How about the name of your extraordinary creature, Professor P-N-I-N?
The "p" is sounded, that's all. But since the "p" is mute in English words starting with "pn", one is prone to insert a supporting "uh" sound -- "Puh-- nin" -- which is wrong. To get the "pn" right, try the combination "Up North", or still better "Up, Nina!", leaving out the initial "u." Pnorth, Pnina, Pmn. Can you do that? . . . That's fine.
You 're responsible for brilliant summaries of the lives and works of Pushkin and Gogol. How would you summarize your own?
It is not so easy to summarize something which is not quite finished yet. However, as I've pointed out elsewhere, the first part of my life is marked by a rather pleasing chronological neatness. I spent my first twenty years in Russia, the next twenty in Western Europe, and the twenty years after that, from 1940 to 1960, in America. I've been living in Europe again for five years now, but I cannot promise to stay around another fifteen so as to retain the rhythm. Nor can I predict what new books I may write. My best Russian novel is a thing called, in English, The Gift. My two best American ones are Lolita and Pale Fire.
I am now in the process of translating Lolita into Russian, which is like completing the circle of my creative life. Or rather starting a new spiral. I've lots of difficulties with technical terms, especially with those pertaining to the motor car, which has not really blended with Russian life as it, or rather she, has with American life. I also have trouble with finding the right Russian terms for clothes, varieties of shoes, items of furniture, and so on. On the other hand, descriptions of tender emotions, of my nymphet's grace and of the soft, melting American landscape slip very delicately into lyrical Russian. The book will be published in America or perhaps Paris; travelling poets and diplomats will smuggle it into Russia, I hope. Shall I read three lines of this Russian version? Of course, incredible as it may seem, perhaps not everybody remembers the way Lolita starts in English. So perhaps I should do the first lines in English first. Note that for the necessary effect of dreamy tenderness both "l"s and the"t" and indeed the whole word should be iberized and not pronounced the American way with crushed "l"s, a coarse "t," and a long "o":
"Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta."
Now comes the Russian. Here the first syllable of her name sounds more like an "ah" sound than an "o" sound, but the rest is like Spanish: (Reads in Russian) "Lah-lee-ta, svet moey zhizni, ogon' moih chresel. Greh may, dusha moya." And so on.
Beyond what's stated and implied in your various prefaces, have you anything to add about your readers and/or your critics?
Well, when I think about critics in general, I divide the family of critics into three subfamilies. First, professional reviewers, mainly hacks or hicks, regularly filling up their allotted space in the cemeteries of Sunday papers. Secondly, more ambitious critics who every other year collect their magazine articles into volumes with allusive scholarly titles -- The Undiscovered Country, that kind of thing. And thirdly, my fellow writers, who review a book they like or loathe. Many bright blurbs and dark feuds have been engendered that way. When an author whose work I admire praises my work, I cannot help experiencing, besides a ripple of almost human warmth, a sense of harmony and satisfied logic. But I have also the idiotic feeling that he or she will very soon cool down and vaguely turn away if I do not do something at once, but I don't know what to do, and I never do anything, and next morning cold clouds conceal the bright mountains. In all other cases, I must confess, I yawn and forget. Of course, every worthwhile author has quite a few clowns and criticules -- wonderful word: criti-cules, or criticasters -- around him, demolishing one another rather than him with their slapsticks. Then, also, my various disgusts which I like to voice now and then seem to irritate people. I happen to find second-rate and ephemeral the works of a number of puffed-up writers -- such as Camus, Lorca, Kazantzakis, D. H. Lawrence, Thomas Mann, Thomas Wolfe, and literally hundreds of other "great" second-raters. And for this, of course, I'm automatically disliked by their camp-followers, kitsch-followers, fashion-followers, and all kinds of automatons. Generally speaking, I'm supremely indifferent to adverse criticism in regard to my fiction. But on the other hand, I enjoy retaliating when some pompous dunce finds fault with my translations and divulges a farcical ignorance of the Russian language and literature.
Would you describe your first reactions to America? And how you first came to write in English?
I had started rather sporadically to compose in English a few years before migrating to America, where I arrived in the lilac mist of a May morning, May 28, 1940. In the late thirties, when living in Germany and France, I had translated two of my Russian books into English and had written my first straight English novel, the one about Sebastian Knight. Then, in America, I stopped writing in my native tongue altogether except for an occasional poem which, incidentally, caused my Russian poetry to improve rather oddly in urgency and concentration. My complete switch from Russian prose to English prose was exceedingly painful -- like learning anew to handle things after losing seven or eight fingers in an explosion. I have described the writing of Lolita in the afterpiece appended in '58 to the American edition. The book was first published in Paris at a time when nobody else wanted it, 10 years ago now -- 10 years -- how time crawls!
As to Pale Fire, although I had devised some odds and ends of Zemblan lore in the late fifties in lthaca, New York, I felt the first real pang of the novel, a rather complete vision of its structure in miniature, and jotted it down -- I have it in one of my pocket diaries -- while sailing
from New York to France in 1959. The American poem discussed in the book by His Majesty, Charles of Zembla, was the hardest stuff I ever had to compose. Most of it I wrote in Nice, in winter, walking along the Promenade des Anglais or rambling in the neighboring hills. A good deal of Kinbote's commentary was written here in the Montreux Palace garden, one of the most enchanting and inspiring gardens I know. I'm especially fond of its weeping cedar, the arboreal counterpart of a very shaggy dog with hair hanging over its eyes.
What is your approach to the teaching of literature?
I can give you some examples. When studying Kafka's famous story, my students had to know exactly what kind of insect Gregor turned into (it was a domed beetle, not the flat cockroach of sloppy translators) and they had to be able to describe exactly the arrangement of the rooms, with the position of doors and furniture, in the Sarnsa family's flat. They had to know the map of Dublin for Ulysses. I believe in stressing the specific detail; the general ideas can take care of themselves. Ulysses, of course, is a divine work of art and will live on despite the academic nonentities who turn it into a collection of symbols or Greek myths. I once gave a student a C-minus, or perhaps a D-plus, just for applying to its chapters the titles borrowed from Homer while not even noticing the comings and goings of the man in the brown mackintosh. He didn't even know who the man in the brown mackintosh was. Oh, yes, let people compare me to Joyce by all means, but my English is patball to Joyce's champion game.
How did you come to live in Switzerland?
The older I get and the more I weigh, the harder it is for me to get out of this or that comfortable armchair or deckchair into which I have sunk with an exhalation of content. Nowadays I find it as difficult to travel from Montreux to Lausanne as to travel to Paris, London, or New York. On the other hand, I'm ready to walk 10 or 15miles per day, up and down mountain trails, in search of butterflies, as I do every summer. One of the reasons I live in Montreux is because I find the view from my easy chair wonderfully soothing and exhilarating according to my mood or the mood of the lake. I hasten to add that not only am I not a tax dodger, but that I also have to pay a plump little Swiss tax on top of my massive American taxes which are so high they almost cut off that beautiful view. I feel very nostalgic about America and as soon as I muster the necessary
energy I shall return there for good.
Where is the easy chair?
The easy chair is in the other room, in my study. It was a metaphor, after all: the easy chair is the entire hotel, the garden, everything.
Where would you live in America?
I think I would like to live either in California, or in New York, or in Cambridge, Mass. Or in a combination of these three.
Because of your mastery of our language, you are frequently compared with Joseph Conrad.
Well, I'll put it this way. When a boy, I was a voracious reader, as all boy writers seem to be, and between 8 and 14 I used to enjoy tremendously the romantic productions -- romantic in the large sense -- of such people as Conan Doyle, Kipling, Joseph Conrad, Chesterton, Oscar Wilde, and other authors who are essentially writers for very young people. But as I have well said somewhere before, I differ from Joseph Conradically.
First of ail, he had not been writing in his native tongue before he became an English writer, and secondly, I cannot stand today his polished clichés and primitive clashes. He once wrote that he preferred Mrs. Garnett's translation of Anna Karenin to the original! This makes one dream -- "ca fait rever" as Flaubert used to say when faced with some abysmal stupidity. Ever since the days when such formidable mediocrities as Galsworthy, Dreiser, a person called Tagore, another called Maxim Gorky, a third called Romain Rolland, used to be accepted as geniuses, I have been perplexed and amused by fabricated notions about so-called "great books". That, for instance, Mann's asinine Death in Venice or Pasternak's melodramatic and vilely written Zhivago or Faulkner's corncobby chronicles can be considered "masterpieces," or at least what journalists call "great books," is to me an absurd delusion, as when a hypnotiz.ed person makes love to a chair. My greatest masterpieces of twentieth century prose are, in this order: Joyce's Ulysses, Kafka's Transformation, Biely's Petersburg, and the first half of Proust's fairy tale In Search of Lost Time.
What do you think of American writing? I noticed there are no American masterpieces on your list. What do you think of American writing since 1945?
Well, seldom more than two or three really first-rate writers exist simultaneously in a given generation. I think that Salinger and Updike are by far the finest artists in recent years. The sexy, phony type of best seller, the violent, vulgar novel, the novelistic treatment of social or political problems, and, in general, novels consisting mainly of dialogue or social comment -- these are absolutely banned from my bedside. And the popular mixture of pornography and idealistic humhuggery makes me positively vomit.
What do you think of Russian writing since 1945?
Soviet literature . . . Well, in the first years after the Bolshevik revolution, in the twenties and early thirties, one could still distinguish through the dreadful platitudes of Soviet propaganda the dying voice of an earlier culture. The primitive and banal mentality of enforced politics -- any politics -- can only produce primitive and banal art. This is especially true of the so-called "social realist" and "proletarian" literature sponsored by the Soviet police state. Its jackbooted baboons have gradually exterminated the really talented authors, the special individual, the fragile genius. One of the saddest cases is perhaps that of Osip Mandelshtam -- a wonderful poet, the greatest poet among those trying to survive in Russia under the Soviets -- whom that brutal and imbecile administration persecuted and finally drove to death in a remote concentration camp. The poems he heroically kept composing until madness eclipsed his limpid gifts are admirable specimens of a human mind at its deepest and highest. Reading them enhances one's healthy contempt for Soviet ferocity.
Tyrants and torturers will never manage to hide their comic stumbles behind their cosmic acrobatics. Contemptuous laughter is all right, but it is not enough in the way of moral relief. And when I read Mandelshtam's poems composed under the accursed rule of those beasts, I feel a kind of helpless shame, being so free to live and think and write and speak in the free part of
the world. That's the only time when liberty is bitter.
WALKING IN MONTREUX WITH INTERVIEWER
This is a ginkgo -- the sacred tree of China, now rare in the wild state. The curiously veined leaf resembles a butterfly -- which reminds me of a little poem:
The ginkgo leaf, in golden hue, when shed,
A muscat grape,
Is an old-fashioned butterfly, ill-spread,
This, in my novel Pale Fire, is a short poem by John Shade -- by far the greatest of invented poets.
PASSING A SWIMMING POOL
I don't mind sharing the sun with sunbathers but I dislike immersing myself in a swimming pool. It is after all only a big tub where other people join you -- makes one think of those horrible Japanese communal bathtubs, full of a loating family, or a shoal of businessmen.
DOG NEAR TELEPHONE BOOTH
Must remember the life line of that leash from the meek dog to the talkative lady in that telephone booth. "A long wait" -- good legend for an oil painting of the naturalistic school.
BOYS KICKING A BALL IN A GARDEN
Many years have passed since I gathered a soccer ball to my breast. I was an erratic but rather spectacular goalkeeper in my Cambridge University days 45 years ago. After that I played on a German team when I was about 30, and saved my last game in 1936 when I regained consciousness in the pavilion, knocked out by a kick but still clutching the ball which an impatient teammate was trying to pry out of my arms.
DURING A STROLL NEAR VILLENEUVE
Late September in Central Europe is a bad season for collecting butterflies. This is not Arizona, alas. In this grassy nook near an old vineyard above the Lake of Geneva, a few fairly fresh females of the very common Meadow Brown still flutter about here and there -- lazy old widows.
There's one. Here is a little sky-blue butterfly, also a very common thing, once known as the Clifden Blue in England.
The sun is getting hotter. I enjoy hunting in the buff but I doubt anything interesting can be obtained today. This pleasant lane on the banks of Geneva Lake teems with butterflies in summer. Chapman's Blue and Mann's White, two rather local things, occur not far from here. But the white butterflies we see in this particular glade, on this nice but commonplace autumn day, are the ordinary Whites; the Small White and Green-Veined White.
Ah, a caterpillar. Handle with care. Its golden-brown coat can cause a nasty itch. This handsome worm will become next year a fat, ugly, drab-colored moth.
IN ANSWER TO THE QUESTION: WHAT SCENES ONE WOULD LIKE TO HAVE FILMED
Shakespeare in the part of the King's Ghost. The beheading of Louis the Sixteenth, the drums drowning his speech on the scaffold. Herman Melville at breakfast, feeding a sardine to his cat.
Poe's wedding. Lewis Carroll's picnics. The Russians leaving Alaska, delighted with the deal. Shot of a seal applauding.
Last-modified: Sat, 25-Jul-98 20:40:22 GMT