Thank you so much............was getting prepared for an upcoming
conference, and dreading it. Quite forgotten the delicious pleasures of
stealing away with a novel, and needed this brief respite and reminder of
School of Linguistics
and Applied Language Studies
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> From: Jamie MacKinnon[SMTP:[log in to unmask]]
> Reply To: CASLL/Inkshed
> Sent: April 20, 1999 2:30 PM
> To: [log in to unmask]
> Subject: In the shadow of the waxwing
> 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
> 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
> 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
> 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
> 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,
> In shape.
> 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
> 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