In  mid-July,  1962,  Peter  Duval-Smith  and  Christopher
Burstall came for a BBC television interview to Zermatt where I
happened to be collecting that summer. The lepidoptera lived up
to the occasion, so did the weather. My visitors and their crew
had never paid much  attention  to  those  insects  and  I  was
touched  and  flattered  by  the childish wonderment with which
they viewed the crowds  of  butterflies  imbibing  moisture  on
brookside  mud at various spots of the mountain trail. Pictures
were taken of the swarms that arose at my  passage,  and  other
hours  of  the  day  were  devoted  to  the reproduction of the
interview   proper.   It    eventually    appeared    on    the
Bookstand   program   and   was   published   in  The
Listener (November 22, 1962). I have mislaid the  cards  on
which  I  had  written my answers. I suspect that the published
text was taken  straight  from  the  tape  for  it  teems  with
inaccuracies.  These  I  have tried to weed out ten years later
but was forced to strike out a few  sentences  here  and  there
when memory refused to restore the sense flawed by defective or
improperly mended speech.

     The  poem  I  quote  (with metrical accents added) will be
found translated into English in Chapter Two  of  The  Gift,
G. P. Putnam's Sons, New York, 1963.

     Would you ever go back to Russia? 

     I  will  never go back, for the simple reason that all the
Russia I need is always with me: literature, language,  and  my
own  Russian  childhood.  I  will  never  return.  I will never
surrender. And anyway, the grotesque shadow of a  police  state
will  not  be dispelled in my lifetime. I don't think they know
my works there-- oh, perhaps a number of readers exist there in
my special secret service, but let us not  forget  that  Russia
has  grown  tremendously  provincial  during these forty years,
apart from the fact that people there are told  what  to  read,
what  to  think.  In  America  I'm  happier  than  in any other
country. It is in America that I found my best  readers,  minds
that  are  closest  to  mine.  I feel intellectually at home in
America. It is a second home in the true sense of the word.

     You're a professional lepidopterist? 

     Yes, I'm  interested  in  the  classification,  variation,
evolution,  structure,  distribution,  habits,  of lepidoptera:
this sounds very grand, but actually I'm an expert  in  only  a
very  small  group  of  butterflies. I have contributed several
works on butterflies to the various scientific journals-- but I
want to repeat that my interest in butterflies  is  exclusively
scientific.

     Is there any connection with your writing? 

     There  is in a general way, because I think that in a work
of art there is a kind  of  merging  between  the  two  things,
between  the  precision  of  poetry  and the excitement of pure
science.

     In  your  new  novel,  Pale  Fire,  one  of  the
characters  says  that  reality  is neither the subject nor the
object of real art, which creates its own reality. What is that
reality? 

     Reality is a very subjective affair. I can only define  it
as  a  kind  of  gradual  accumulation  of  information; and as
specialization. If we take a lily, for instance, or  any  other
kind  of  natural  object,  a lily is more real to a naturalist
than it is to an ordinary person. But it is still more real  to
a  botanist.  And  yet another stage of reality is reached with
that botanist who is a specialist in lilies. You can get nearer
and nearer, so to speak, to reality; but  you  never  get  near
enough  because  reality  is  an  infinite succession of steps,
levels of perception, false bottoms,  and  hence  unquenchable,
unattainable.  You  can  know more and more about one thing but
you can never know everything about one thing:  it's  hopeless.
So  that  we  live surrounded by more or less ghostly objects--
that machine, there, for instance. It's  a  complete  ghost  to
me--  1  don't  understand  a  thing about it and, well, it's a
mystery to me, as much of a mystery as  it  would  be  to  Lord
Byron.

     You say that reality is an intensely subjective matter,
but in  your  books  it  seems  to me that y ou seem to take an
almost perverse delight in literary deception. 

     The fake move in  a  chess  problem,  the  illusion  of  a
solution  or  the  conjuror's  magic:  I  used  to  be a little
conjuror when I was  a  boy.  I  loved  doing  simple  tricks--
turning water into wine, that kind of thing; but I think I'm in
good company because all art is deception and so is nature; all
is  deception in that good cheat, from the insect that mimics a
leaf to the popular enticements of procreation. Do you know how
poetry started? I always think that it started when a cave  boy
came running back to the cave, through the tall grass, shouting
as he ran, "Wolf, wolf," and there was no wolf. His baboon-like
parents,  great  sticklers for the truth, gave him a hiding, no
doubt, but poetry had been born-- the tall story had been  born
in the tall grass.

     You  talk  about  games  of  deception,  like chess and
conjuring. Are you, in fact, fond of them yourself? 

     I am fond of chess but deception in chess, as in  art,  is
only  part  of  the game; it's part of the combination, part of
the delightful possibilities,  illusions,  vistas  of  thought,
which  can be false vistas, perhaps. I think a good combination
should always contain a certain element of deception.

     You spoke about conjuring in Russia, as  a  child,  and
one  remembers  that  some  of  the  most intense passages in a
number of your books are concerned with the  memories  of  your
lost childhood. What is the importance of memory to you? 

     Memory  is,  really,  in  itself,  a tool, one of the many
tools that an artist  uses;  and  some  recollections,  perhaps
intellectual  rather  than  emotional,  are  very  brittle  and
sometimes apt to lose the  flavor  of  reality  when  they  are
immersed  by the novelist in his book, when they are given away
to characters.

     Do you mean that you lose the sense of  a  memory  once
you have written it down? 

     Sometimes,  but  that  only  refers  to  a certain type of
intellectual memory. But, for instance-- oh, I don't know,  the
freshness of the flowers being arranged by the undergardener in
the  cool  drawing-room  of our country house, as I was running
downstairs with my butterfly net on a summer day half a century
ago: that kind of thing is absolutely permanent,  immortal,  it
can  never change, no matter how many times I farm it out to my
characters, it is always there with me; there's the  red  sand,
the  white  garden  bench,  the  black fir trees, everything, a
permanent possession. I think it is all a matter of  love:  the
more  you  love  a  memory,  the stronger and stranger it is. I
think it's natural that I have a more passionate affection  for
my  old memories, the memories of my childhood, than I have for
later ones, so that Cambridge in England or  Cambridge  in  New
England  is less vivid in my mind and in my self than some kind
of nook in the park on our country estate in Russia.

     Do you think that such an intense power  of  memory  as
yours  has  inhibited  your desire to invent in your books?
No, I don't think so.

     The same sort of incident turns  up  again  and  again,
sometimes  in  slightly different forms. That depends on my
characters.

     Do you still feel Russian, in spite of so many years in
America? 

     I do feel Russian and I think that my  Russian  wwks,  the
various  novels and poems and short stories that I have written
during these years, are a kind of  tribute  to  Russia.  And  I
might  define them as the waves and ripples of the shock caused
by the  disappearance  of  the  Russia  of  my  childhood.  And
recently  I  have  paid  tribute  to  her in an English work on
Pushkin.

     Why are you so  passionately  concerned  with  Pushkin?


     It  started  with  a translation, a literal translation. T
thought it was very difficult and the more  difficult  it  was,
the  more  exciting it seemed. So it's not so much caring about
Pushkin-- 1 love him dearly  of  course,  he  is  the  greatest
Russian  poet,  there is no doubt about that-- but it was again
the combination of the excitement of finding the right  way  of
doing  things and a certain approach to reality, to the reality
of Pushkin, through my own translations. As a matter of fact  I
am  very  much  concerned  with  things Russian and I have just
finished revising  a  good  translation  of  my  novel,  The
Gift,  which  I  wrote about thirty years ago. It is
the longest, I think the best, and the  most  nostalgic  of  my
Russian  novels.  It  portrays  the  adventures,  literary  and
romantic, of a young  Russian  expatriate  in  Berlin,  in  the
twenties;  but  he's  not  myself. I am very careful to keep my
characters beyond the limits  of  my  own  identity.  Only  the
background   of   the   novel  can  be  said  to  contain  some
biographical touches. And there is another thing about it  that
pleases  me:  probably  my  favorite Russian poem is one that I
happened to give to my main character in that novel.

     Written by yourself? 

     Which I wrote myself, of course;  and  now  I'm  wondering
whether I might be able to recite it in Russian. Let me explain
it:  there are two persons involved, a boy and a girl, standing
on a bridge above the reflected sunset, and there are  swallows
skimming  by,  and  the  boy turns to the girl and says to her,
"Tell me, will you always remember that  swallow?--  not
any  kind  of  swallow,  not  those  swallows,  there, but that
particular swallow that skimmed by?" And she says, "Of course I
will," and they both burst into tears.







     Odnazhdy my pod-vecher oba

     Stoyali na starom mostu.

     Skazhi mne, sprosil ya, do groba

     Zapomnish' von lastochku tu?

     I ty otvechala: eshchyo by!



     I kak my zaplakali oba,

     Kak vskriknula zhizn' na letu!

     Do zavtra, naveki, do groba,

     Odnazhdy na starom mostu . . .







     What language do you think in?



     I don't think in any language. I think in images. I  don't
believe  that  people think in languages. They don't move their
lips when they think. It is only a certain type  of  illiterate
person who moves his lips as he reads or ruminates. No, I think
in  images,  and  now  and  then a Russian phrase or an English
phrase will form with the foam of  the  brainwave,  but  that's
about all.


     You started writing in Russian and then you switched to
English, didn't you? 

     Yes,  that was a very difficult kind of switch. My private
tragedy, which cannot, indeed should not, be anybody's concern,
is that I had to abandon my natural language, my natural idiom,
my rich, infinitely rich  and  docile  Russian  tongue,  for  a
second-rate brand of English.

     You have written a shelf of books in English as well as
your books  in  Russian. And of them only Lolita is well
known. Does it annoy you to be the Lolita man? 

     No, I  wouldn't  say  that,  because  Lolita  is  a
special  favorite  of mine. It was my most difficult book-- the
book that treated of a theme which was so distant,  so  remote,
from  my  own emotional life that it gave me a special pleasure
to use my combinational talent to make it real.

     Were you surprised at the wild success  when  it  came?


     I was surprised that the book was published at all.

     Did  you,  in  fact,  have any doubts about whether
Lolita ought to be printed, considering its subject  matter?


     No;  after  all,  when  you  write  a  book  you generally
envisage its publication, in some far future. But I was pleased
that the book was published.

     What was the genesis of Lolita?

     She was born a long time ago, it must have been  in  1939,
in  Paris; the first little throb of Lolita went through
me in Paris in '39, or perhaps early in '40, at a time  when  I
was laid up with a fierce attack of intercostal neuralgia which
is  a  very painful complaint-- rather like the fabulous stitch
in Adam's side. As far as I can  recall  the  first  shiver  of
inspiration  was somehow prompted in a rather mysterious way by
a newspaper story, I think it was in Paris  Soir,  about
an  ape  in  the  Paris  Zoo,  who  after  months of coaxing by
scientists produced finally the first drawing  ever  charcoaled
by  an animal, and this sketch, reproduced in the paper,
showed the bars of the poor creature's cage.

     Did Humbert Humbert, the middle-aged seducer, have  any
original? 

     No.  He's  a man I devised, a man with an obsession, and I
think many of my characters have sudden  obsessions,  different
kinds of obsessions; but he never existed. He did exist after I
had  written  the  book. While I was writing the book, here and
there in a newspaper I would read all sorts of  accounts  about
elderly   gentlemen   who  pursued  little  girls:  a  kind  of
interesting coincidence but that's about all.

     Did Lolita herself have an original? 

     No, Lolita didn't have any original. She was  born  in  my
own  mind. She never existed. As a matter of fact, I don't know
little girls very well. When I consider this subject,  I  don't
think  I  know a single little girl. I've met them socially now
and then, but Lolita is a figment of my imagination.

     Why did you write Lolita?

     It was an interesting thing to do. Why did I write any  of
my books, after all? For the sake of the pleasure, for the sake
of  the difficulty. I have no social purpose, no moral message;
I've no general ideas to exploit, I just like composing riddles
with elegant solutions.

     How do you write? What are your methods? 

     I find now that index cards are really the  best  kind  of
paper   that   I  can  use  for  the  purpose.  I  don't  write
consecutively from the beginning to the next chapter and so  on
to  the  end.  I  just fill in the gaps of the picture, of this
jigsaw puzzle which is quite clear in my mind,  picking  out  a
piece  here  and  a piece there and filling out part of the sky
and part of the landscape and part of the-- 1 don't  know,  the
carousing hunters.

     Another aspect of your not entirely usual consciousness
is the extraordinary importance you attach to color. 

     Color.  I think I was born a painter-- really!-- and up to
my fourteenth year, perhaps, I used to spend most  of  the  day
drawing  and painting and I was supposed to become a painter in
due time. But I don't  think  I  had  any  real  talent  there.
However, the sense of color, the love of color, I've had all my
life:  and  also  I  have  this  rather freakish gift of seeing
letters in color. It's called color hearing. Perhaps one  in  a
thousand  has  that.  But  I'm  told by psychologists that most
children have it, that later they lose that aptitude when  they
are  told  by stupid parents that it's all nonsense, an A isn't
black, a B isn't brown-- now don't be absurd.

     What colors are your own initials, VN? 

     V is a kind  of  pale,  transparent  pink:  I  think  it's
called,  technically,  quartz  pink: this is one of the closest
colors that I can connect with the V. And the N, on  the  other
hand,  is  a greyish-yellowish oatmeal color. But a funny thing
happens: my wife has this gift of seeing letters in color, too,
but her colors are completely different.  There  are,  perhaps,
two  or  three  letters  where  we  coincide, but otherwise the
colors are quite different. It turned out,  we  discovered  one
day, that my son, who was a little boy at the time-- 1 think he
was  ten  or  eleven--  sees  letters  in  colors,  too.  Quite
naturally he would say, "Oh, this isn't  that  color,  this  is
this  color,"  and  so on. Then we asked him to list his colors
and we discovered that in one case, one letter which he sees as
purple, or perhaps mauve, is pink to me and blue  to  my  wife.
This is the letter M. So the combination of pink and blue makes
lilac  in  his  case.  Which  is  as  if genes were painting in
aquarelle.

     Whom do you write for? What audience? 

     I don't think that  an  artist  should  bother  about  his
audience.  His  best  audience  is  the  person  he sees in his
shaving mirror every morning. I  think  that  the  audience  an
artist  imagines,  when  he imagines that kind of a thing, is a
room filled with people wearing his own mask.

     In your books there is an  almost  extravagant  concern
with  masks and disguises: almost as if you were trying to hide
yourself behind something, as if you'd lost yourself. 

     Oh, no. I think I'm always there;  there's  no  difficulty
about  that.  Of  course  there is a certain type of critic who
when reviewing a work of fiction keeps dotting all the i's with
the author's head. Recently one  anonymous  clown,  writing  on
Pale  Fire  in  a  New York book review, mistook all the
declarations of my invented commentator in the book for my own.
It is also true that some of my more responsible characters are
given some of my own ideas. There  is  John  Shade  in  Pale
Fire,  the  poet.  He  does borrow some of my own opinions.
There is one passage in his poem, which is part  of  the  book,
where he says something I think I can endorse. He says-- let me
quote  it,  if  I  can  remember;  yes, I think I can do it: "I
loathe such things as jazz, the white-hosed moron  torturing  a
black   bull,   rayed   with   red,   abstractist  bric-a-brac,
primitivist  folk  masks,   progressive   schools,   music   in
supermarkets,  swimming  pools,  brutes, bores, class-conscious
philistines,  Freud,  Marx,  fake  thinkers,  puffed-up  poets,
frauds and sharks." That's how it goes.

     It  is  obvious that neither John Shade nor his creator
are very clubbable men. 

     I don't belong to any club or group. I don't  fish,  cook,
dance,  endorse  books,  sign  books, co-sign declarations, eat
oysters, get drunk, go to church, go to analysts, or take  part
in demonstrations.

     It  sometimes  seems to me that in your novels-- in
Laughter in the Dark for instance-- there  is  a  strain  of
perversity amounting to cruelty. 

     I  don't know. Maybe. Some of my characters are, no doubt,
pretty beastly, but I really don't care, they  are  outside  my
inner  self  like the mournful monsters of a cathedral faade--
demons placed there merely to show that they have  been  booted
out. Actually, I'm a mild old gentleman who loathes cruelty.

: 40, Last-modified: Sat, 25 Jul 1998 20:37:28 GMT