On the morning of June 5, 1962, the Queen Elizabeth
brought my wife and me from Cherbourg to New York for the  film
premiere  of  Lolita. On the day of our arrival three or
four journalists interviewed me at the St. Rgis hotel. I  have
a little cluster of names jotted down in my pocket diary but am
not sure which, if any, refers to that group. The questions and
answers   were  typed  from  my  notes  immediately  after  the

     Interviewers do not find you a particularly stimulating
person. Why is that so? 

     I pride myself on being a person with no public appeal.  I
have  never  been drunk in my life. I never use schoolboy words
of four letters. I have never worked in an office or in a  coal
mine.  I  have never belonged to any club or group. No creed or
school has had any influence on me whatsoever. Nothing bores me
more than political novels and the literature of social intent.

     Still there must be things that move  you--  likes  and

     My  loathings  are  simple:  stupidity, oppression, crime,
cruelty, soft music. My pleasures are the most intense known to
man: writing and butterfly hunting.

     You write everything in longhand, don't you? 

     Yes. I cannot type.

     Would you agree to show  us  a  sample  of  your  rough

     I'm  afraid  I must refuse. Only ambitious nonentities and
hearty mediocrities exhibit their  rough  drafts.  It  is  like
passing around samples of one's sputum.

     Do you read many new novels? Why do you laugh? 

     I  laugh because well-meaning publishers keep sending me--
with "hope-you-will-like-it-as-much-as-we-do" letters  --  only
one  kind  of  fiction: novels truffled with obscenities, fancy
words, and would-be weird incidents. They seem to be all by one
and the same writer-- who is not even the shadow of my shadow.

     What is your opinion of the so-called  "anti-novel"  in

     I  am  not  interested  in  groups,  movements, schools of
writing and so forth. I am interested only  in  the  individual
artist. This "anti-novel" does not really exist; but there does
exist  one  great  French  writer,  Robbe-Grillet;  his work is
grotesquely imitated by a number of  banal  scribblers  whom  a
phony label assists commercially.

     I  notice  you "haw" and "er"a great deal. Is it a sign
of approaching senility? 

     Not at all. I have always  been  a  wretched  speaker.  My
vocabulary  dwells  deep  in my mind and needs paper to wriggle
out into the physical zone. Spontaneous eloquence seems to me a
miracle. I have rewritten-- often several times-- every word  I
have ever published. My pencils outlast their erasers.

     What about TV appearances? 

     Well  (you always begin with "well" on TV), after one such
appearance in London a couple of years ago I was accused  by  a
naive   critic  of  squirming  and  avoiding  the  camera.  The
interview, of course,  had  been  carefully  rehearsed.  I  had
carefully   written  out  all  my  answers  (and  most  of  the
questions), and because I am such a helpless speaker, I had  my
notes  (mislaid  since)  on  index  cards  arranged before me--
ambushed behind various innocent props; hence I  could  neither
stare at the camera nor leer at the questioner.

     Yet you have lectured extensively-

     In  1940,  before  launching  on  my  academic  career  in
America, I fortunately took the trouble of writing one  hundred
lectures-- about 2,000 pages-- on Russian literature, and later
another hundred lectures on great novelists from Jane Austen to
James  Joyce.  This  kept me happy at Wellesley and Cornell for
twenty academic years. Although, at the lectern,  I  evolved  a
subtle  up  and  down  movement of my eyes, there was never any
doubt in the minds of alert students that I  was  reading,  not

     When did you start writing in English? 

     I  was bilingual as a baby (Russian and English) and added
French at five years of age. In my early boyhood all the  notes
I  made  on  the  butterflies I collected were in English, with
various terms  borrowed  from  that  most  delightful  magazine
The  Entomologist.  It  published  my  first  paper  (on
Crimean butterflies) in 1920. The same  year  I  contributed  a
poem in English to the Trinity Magazine, Cambridge, while I was
a  student there (1919-1922). After that in Berlin and in Paris
I wrote my Russian books-- poems, stories, eight  novels.  They
were  read  by  a  reasonable  percentage  of the three million
Russian emigres, and  were  of  course  absolutely  banned  and
ignored  in  Soviet Russia. In the middle thirties I translated
for  publication  in  English  two  of   my   Russian   novels,
Despair  and Camera Obscura (retitled Laughter
in the Dark in America).  The  first  novel  that  I  wrote
directly   in   English  was  The  Real  Life  of  Sebastian
Knight, in 1939 in Paris. After moving to America in  1940,
I  contributed poems and stories to The Atlantic and The New
Yorkerand wrote four novels. Bend  Sinister  (1947),
Lolita  (1955),  Pnin (1957) and Pale Fire
(1962). I  have  also  published  an  autobiography,  Speak,
Memory   (1951),  and  several  scientific  papers  on  the
taxonomy of butterflies.

     Would you like to talk about Lolita?

     Well, no. I said everything I wanted to say about the book
in the Afterword appended to its American and British editions.

     Did you find it hard to write the script of Lolita?

     The hardest part  was  taking  the  plunge--  deciding  to
undertake  the  task.  In  1959  I  was invited to Hollywood by
Harris and Kubrick, but after several consultations with them I
decided I did not want to do it. A year  later,  in  Lugano,  I
received  a  telegram  from  them  urging  me  to reconsider my
decision. In the meantime a kind of script  had  somehow  taken
shape  in  my  imagination so that actually I was glad they had
repeated their offer. I traveled once  more  to  Hollywood  and
there,  under  the  jacarandas,  worked  for  six months on the
thing. Turning one's novel into a movie script is  rather  like
making  a  series  of sketches for a painting that has long ago
been finished and framed. I composed new scenes and speeches in
an effort to safeguard a Lolita acceptable to me. I knew
that if I did not write the script somebody else would,  and  I
also knew that at best the end product in such cases is less of
a  blend  than  a  collision of interpretations. I have not yet
seen the picture. It may turn out to be a lovely  morning  mist
as perceived through mosquito netting, or it may turn out to be
the  swerves  of  a  scenic  drive  as  felt  by the horizontal
passenger of an ambulance. From my seven or eight sessions with
Kubrick  during  the  writing  of  the  script  I  derived  the
impression  that he was an artist, and it is on this impression
that I base my hopes of seeing  a  plausible  Lolita  on
June 13th in New York.

     What are you working at now? 

     I  am  reading  the  proofs of my translation of Pushkin's
Eugene Onegin, a novel  in  verse  which,  with  a  huge
commentary,  will be brought out by the Bollingen Foundation in
four handsome volumes of more than five hundred pages each.

     Could you describe this work? 

     During my years of  teaching  literature  at  Cornell  and
elsewhere  I demanded of my students the passion of science and
the patience of poetry. As an artist and scholar I  prefer  the
specific detail to the generalization, images to ideas, obscure
facts  to  clear  symbols, and the discovered wild fruit to the
synthetic jam.

     And so you preserved the fruit? 

     Yes.  My  tastes   and   disgusts   have   influenced   my
ten-yearlong  work  on Eugene Onegin. In translating its
5500 lines into English I  had  to  decide  between  rhyme  and
reason--  and  I  chose  reason.  My  only ambition has been to
provide a crib, a pony, an absolutely  literal  translation  of
the  thing,  with  copious  and  pedantic  notes whose bulk far
exceeds the text of the poem. Only a paraphrase  "reads  well";
my translation does not; it is honest and clumsy, ponderous and
slavishly  faithful.  I  have several notes to every stanza (of
which there are more than 400,  counting  the  variants).  This
commentary  contains  a discussion of the original melody and a
complete explication of the text.

     Do you like being interviewed? 

     Well, the luxury of speaking on one theme-- oneself-- is a
sensation not to be  despised.  But  the  result  is  sometimes
puzzling.  Recently the Paris paper Candide had me spout
wild nonsense in an idiotic setting. But I have also often  met
with considerable fair play. Thus Esquire printed all my
corrections to the account of an interview that I found full of
errors.  Gossip  writers  are harder to keep track of, and they
are apt to be very careless. Leonard Lyons made me explain  why
I  let my wife handle motion picture transactions by the absurd
and tasteless remark: "Anyone who  can  handle  a  butcher  can
handle a producer."

: 36, Last-modified: Sat, 25 Jul 1998 20:32:35 GMT