undefinedVladimir Nabokov in 1967. 

 

Vladimir Nabokov lives with his wife Véra in the Montreux Palace Hotel in Montreux, Switzerland, a resort city on Lake Geneva which was a favorite of Russian aristocrats of the last century. They dwell in a connected series of hotel rooms that, like their houses and apartments in the United States, seem impermanent, places of exile. Their rooms include one used for visits by their son Dmitri, and another, the chambre de debarras, where various items are deposited—Turkish and Japanese editions of Lolita, other books, sporting equipment, an American flag.

Nabokov arises early in the morning and works. He does his writing on filing cards, which are gradually copied, expanded, and rearranged until they become his novels. During the warm season in Montreux he likes to take the sun and swim at a pool in a garden near the hotel. His appearance at sixty-eight is heavy, slow, and powerful. He is easily turned to both amusement and annoyance, but prefers the former. His wife, an unequivocally devoted collaborator, is vigilant over him, writing his letters, taking care of business, occasionally even interrupting him when she feels he is saying the wrong thing. She is an exceptionally good-looking, trim, and sober-eyed woman. The Nabokovs still go off on frequent butterfly-hunting trips, though the distances they travel are limited by the fact that they dislike flying.

The interviewer had sent ahead a number of questions. When he arrived at the Montreux Palace, he found an envelope waiting for him—the questions had been shaken up and transformed into an interview. A few questions and answers were added later, before the interview’s appearance in the 1967 Summer/Fall issue of The Paris Review. In accordance with Nabokov’s wishes, all answers are given as he wrote them down. He claims that he needs to write his responses because of his unfamiliarity with English; this is a constant seriocomic form of teasing. He speaks with a dramatic Cambridge accent, very slightly nuanced by an occasional Russian pronunciation. Spoken English is, in fact, no hazard to him. Misquotation, however, is a menace. There is no doubt that Nabokov feels as a tragic loss the conspiracy of history that deprived him of his native Russia, and that brought him in middle life to doing his life’s work in a language that is not that of his first dreams. However, his frequent apologies for his grasp of English clearly belong in the context of Nabokov’s special mournful joking: he means it, he does not mean it, he is grieving for his loss, he is outraged if anyone criticizes his style, he pretends to be just a poor lonely foreigner, he is as American “as April in Arizona.”

Nabokov is now at work on a long novel that explores the mysteries and ambiguities of time. When he speaks of this book, his voice and gaze are those of a delighted and bemused young poet eager to get to the task.

 

 

INTERVIEWER

Good morning. Let me ask forty-odd questions.

VLADIMIR NABOKOV

Good morning. I am ready.

INTERVIEWER

Your sense of the immorality of the relationship between Humbert Humbert and Lolita is very strong. In Hollywood and New York, however, relationships are frequent between men of forty and girls very little older than Lolita. They marry—to no particular public outrage; rather, public cooing.

NABOKOV

No, it is not my sense of the immorality of the Humbert Humbert-Lolita relationship that is strong; it is Humbert’s sense. He cares, I do not. I do not give a damn for public morals, in America or elsewhere. And, anyway, cases of men in their forties marrying girls in their teens or early twenties have no bearing on Lolita whatever. Humbert was fond of “little girls”—not simply “young girls.” Nymphets are girl-children, not starlets and “sex kittens.” Lolita was twelve, not eighteen, when Humbert met her. You may remember that by the time she is fourteen, he refers to her as his “aging mistress.”

INTERVIEWER

One critic (Pryce-Jones) has said about you that “his feelings are like no one else’s.” Does this make sense to you? Or does it mean that you know your feelings better than others know theirs? Or that you have discovered yourself at other levels? Or simply that your history is unique?

NABOKOV

I do not recall that article; but if a critic makes such a statement, it must surely mean that he has explored the feelings of literally millions of people, in at least three countries, before reaching his conclusion. If so, I am a rare fowl indeed. If, on the other hand, he has merely limited himself to quizzing members of his family or club, his statement cannot be discussed seriously.

INTERVIEWER

Another critic has written that your “worlds are static. They may become tense with obsession, but they do not break apart like the worlds of everyday reality.” Do you agree? Is there a static quality in your view of things?

NABOKOV

Whose “reality”? “Everyday” where? Let me suggest that the very term “everyday reality” is utterly static since it presupposes a situation that is permanently observable, essentially objective, and universally known. I suspect you have invented that expert on “everyday reality.” Neither exists.

INTERVIEWER

He does [names him]. A third critic has said that you “diminish” your characters “to the point where they become ciphers in a cosmic farce.” I disagree; Humbert, while comic, retains a touching and insistent quality—that of the spoiled artist.

NABOKOV

I would put it differently: Humbert Humbert is a vain and cruel wretch who manages to appear “touching.” That epithet, in its true, tear-iridized sense, can only apply to my poor little girl. Besides, how 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.

INTERVIEWER

E. M. Forster speaks of his major characters sometimes taking over and dictating the course of his novels. Has this ever been a problem for you, or are you in complete command?

NABOKOV

My knowledge of Mr. Forster’s works is limited to one novel, which I dislike; and anyway, it was not he who fathered that trite little whimsy about characters getting out of hand; it is as old as the quills, although of course one sympathizes with his people if they try to wriggle out of that trip to India or wherever he takes them. My characters are galley slaves.

INTERVIEWER

Clarence Brown of Princeton has pointed out striking similarities in your work. He refers to you as “extremely repetitious” and that in wildly different ways you are in essence saying the same thing. He speaks of fate being the “muse of Nabokov.” Are you consciously aware of “repeating yourself,” or to put it another way, that you strive for a conscious unity to your shelf of books?

NABOKOV

I do not think I have seen Clarence Brown’s essay, but he may have something there. Derivative writers seem versatile because they imitate many others, past and present. Artistic originality has only its own self to copy.

INTERVIEWER

Do you think literary criticism is at all purposeful? Either in general, or specifically about your own books? Is it ever instructive?

NABOKOV

The purpose of a critique is to say something about a book the critic has or has not read. Criticism can be instructive in the sense that it gives readers, including the author of the book, some information about the critic’s intelligence, or honesty, or both.

INTERVIEWER

And the function of the editor? Has one ever had literary advice to offer?

NABOKOV

By “editor” I suppose you mean proofreader. Among these I have known limpid creatures of limitless tact and tenderness who would discuss with me a semicolon as if it were a point of honor—which, indeed, a point of art often is. But I have also come across a few pompous avuncular brutes who would attempt to “make suggestions” which I countered with a thunderous “stet!”