Vladimir Nabokov and the Art of the Self-Interview


Arts & Culture

Today, as you may know, is the thirty-fourth anniversary of the Russian-American writer Vladimir Nabokov’s death. There won’t be parades, but there will be an abundance of talk, mainly on NPR, about his most famous novel Lolita or his penchant for butterflies. On no other day will the words lepidopterist—one who studies a large order of winged insects, including butterflies and moths—and nymphet—which Nabokov forever altered to mean “a sexually attractive or sexually mature young girl”—be used with such frequency. What probably won’t be discussed is Nabokov’s shrewd and savvy approach to publicity and fame. Perhaps more than any other writer in the twentieth century, he knew how to control his image. As John Updike wrote in Assorted Prose, Nabokov was not only one of the best writers in English, but also “a solid personality” giving a performance “scarcely precedented in American literature.” It would be hyperbolic to place Nabokov in the same category as celebrity doyens like Madonna or Lady Gaga, but he could certainly have taught them a thing or two about fame and the art of the interview.

Fame descended on Nabokov after the 1958 publication of Lolita. He was sixty years old at the time and held a lectureship at Cornell. My father took Nabokov’s American literature course and says he can’t remember anything about it except for the way that Nabokov, wearing a black cape, used to sweep into the lecture hall with Vera, his wife and assistant, in tow. Nabokov would then deliver his lecture from prepared notes to great affect. His dramatic performances in class drew students to him, and, according to Nabokov’s most meticulous biographer Brian Boyd, his European literature course was second in enrollment to Pete Seger’s folk-song course. As a literature teacher, Nabokov emphasized the importance of reading for detail, assigning students fewer books in order to read them slowly. He quizzed students on the pattern of Madame Bovary’s wallpaper and sketched the path that Bloom walks in Ulysses on the blackboard. According to Nabokov, this approach “‘irritated or puzzled such students of literature (and their professors) as were accustomed to ‘serious’ courses replete with ‘trends,’ and ‘schools,’ and ‘myths,’ and ‘symbols,’ and ‘social comment,’ and something unspeakably spooky called ‘climate of thought.’ Actually these ‘serious’ courses were quite easy ones with the students required to know not the books but about the books.”

Nabokov treated fame as if it were a novel to be read or written according to the details. Before immigrating first to England, where he attended Trinity College, Cambridge, then to Berlin, and finally to America, Nabokov had already written nine novels and was well-known. But even in Paris in the 1930s, he never took critics or the fame machine seriously. To taunt the critic Georgy Adamovich, Nabokov published under the pen name Sirin. In a review of one of “Sirin’s” books, Adamovich, after having dismissed Nabokov as a writer, wrote that “Sirin” promised to be one of the world’s great talents. So it comes as no surprise that Nabokov staged a photo for “Life Magazine” in 1959 in which he is seen writing Lolita on notecards in the Nabokov family sedan, after the novel had been published. Or that he gladly appeared on the cover of Time in 1969 and Newsweek in 1962. Or that he corrected Carl Proffer’s Keys to Lolita and revised Andrew Field’s biography of him, saying that his life resembled “a bibliography rather than a biography” and that the best part of a writer’s biography is not “the record of his adventures but the story of his style.” Or that he tightly controlled the collection of his short stories, compiling them according to “theme, period, atmosphere, uniformity, variety.” Or that he translated his early Russian novels, such as Despair and The Luzhin Defense, as well as the autobiography that became known as Speak, Memory, into English himself, making substantial revisions and adding prefaces to the texts. Or, conversely, that he translated his English works, like Conclusive Evidence and Lolita, into Russian. Or that he conducted and wrote all of his interviews himself.

Although Nabokov is one of the many practitioners of the self-interview, a tradition which includes Oscar Wilde, James Barrie, Evelyn Waugh, Norman Mailer, Truman Capote, Gore Vidal, Glenn Gould, Milan Kundera, and Philip Roth, he was the only writer who always conducted his own interviews. Nabokov—to my knowledge—never conducted an interview without having received and answered the questions in advance. Even when he appeared with Lionel Trilling on a “live” taped interview on a 1958 program called “Close Up” to discuss the controversy surrounding Lolita for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Nabokov reads his responses—on television—from his index cards. On a set designed to look like a writer’s study but which is really just a studio at Radio City Music Hall, Nabokov doesn’t bother to pretend that the interview is “real.” Like Nabokov’s lectures at Cornell, which he enacted from notes, his interviews weren’t just performances—every interview is a performance—they were texts.

Nabokov’s Paris Review interview is no exception. Having sent his questions in advance, interviewer Herbert Gold arrived in at the Montreux Palace, a hotel in Switzerland, to find Nabokov waiting for him. In his introduction, Gold writes that Nabokov handed him an envelope containing the finished interview. According to Nabokov’s biographer Brian Boyd, Nabokov said, “Here is your interview. You may go home now.” Nabokov had written the interview himself. In it, he covers the usual topics—his life as a lepidopterist, his life in exile, etc.—but knowing that it is Nabokov interviewing Nabokov lends it a particular charm. At one point the “interviewer” says, “You know, you do not have to answer all of my Kinbote-like questions,” referring to the narrator Kinbote, an academic obsessed with the writer John Shade, in Nabokov’s novel Pale Fire, to which Nabokov responds, “It would never do to start skipping the tricky ones. Let us continue.” The interview is rich in and of itself. He categorizes Don Quixote as “a cruel and crude book;” talks about the way in which Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation of Lolita, for which he wrote the script, failed to live up to his “directions and dreams;” discusses his secret flaw as a writer as “[t]he absence of a natural vocabulary;” relegates the function of the editor to that of a copyeditor; dismisses E. M. Forster’s notion that his characters sometimes get away from him as a cliché; and makes the famous statement that he considers himself “as American as April in Arizona.” But when he lists the many canonical writers who have meant nothing to him—Brecht, Joyce, Faulkner, Camus, and Lawrence—and he refers to Ezra Pound as “that total fake,” we have to pause and wonder what exactly he means. And when he says, “Lolita is famous, not I. I am an obscure, doubly obscure, novelist with an unpronounceable name,” it is not false modesty; he is placing importance on the text and making himself into a phantom. When asked to respond to a critic who said that his characters are reduced to mere ciphers, Nabokov responds, “… [H]ow can I ‘diminish’ to the level of ciphers, et cetera, characters that I have invented myself? One can ‘diminish’ a biographee, but not an eidolon.” Like his characters, Nabokov gladly makes himself into a phantom.

But not all magazines were as willing to admit that the published interview with the phantom Nabokov never actually took place. In the introduction to his Playboy interview, the interviewer describes the “week-long series of conversations” that “took place” in Nabokov’s study. But like Herbert Gold, the interviewer never actually spent more than a few minutes in Nabokov’s presence. He sent his written questions to Nabokov via a hotel employee and Nabokov responded in writing. It was, as the interviewer later admitted, “the only nonverbal interview Playboy ever ran.” And yet the introduction notes that “Nabokov parried our questions with a characteristic mixture of guile, candor, irony, astringent wit and eloquent evasiveness.” It goes on to describe the way in which Nabokov speaks, his “good humor and well-bred cordiality,” and concludes that “his fiction—in which so many critics have sought vainly to unearth autobiography—veils rather than reveals the man; and he seems to prefer it that way. But we believe our interview, published in January 1964, offers a fascinating glimpse of this multileveled genius.” What brings even more dimension to this is that Nabokov was pleased with the interview and the introduction, so much so that he began publishing short fiction in the magazine, as well as excerpts of his novel Ada.

In Speak, Memory, Nabokov explains that his interest in winged insects has to do with the “mysteries of mimicry: “Its phenomena show an artistic perfection usually associated with man-wrought things … I discovered in nature the nonutilitarian delights that I sought in art. Both were a form of magic, both were a game of intricate enchantment and deception.”