Nabokov's interview. (03) Playboy 
This exchange with Alvin Toffler appeared in
Playboy for January, 1964. Great trouble was taken on
both sides to achieve the illusion of a spontaneous
conversation. Actually, my contribution as printed conforms
meticulously to the answers, every word of which I had written
in longhand before having them typed for submission to Toffler
when he came to Montreux in mid-March, 1963. The present text
takes into account the order of my interviewer's questions as
well as the fact that a couple of consecutive pages of my
typescript were apparently lost in transit. Egreto perambis
With the American publication of Lolita in 1958,
your fame and fortune mushroomed almost overnight from high
repute among the literary cognoscenti-- which you bad
enjoyed for more than 30 years-- to both acclaim and abuse as
the world-renowned author of a sensational bestseller. In the
aftermath of this cause celebre, do you ever regret
having written Lolita?
On the contrary, I shudder retrospectively when I recall
that there was a moment, in 1950, and again in 1951, when I was
on the point of burning Humbert Humbert's little black diary.
No, I shall never regret Lolita. She was like the
composition of a beautiful puzzle-- its composition and its
solution at the same time, since one is a mirror view of the
other, depending on the way you look. Of course she completely
eclipsed my other works-- at least those I wrote in English:
The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, Bend Sinister, my
short stories, my book of recollections; but I cannot grudge
her this. There is a queer, tender charm about that mythical
Though many readers and reviewers would disagree that
her charm is tender, few would deny that it is queer-- so much
so that when director Stanley Kubrick proposed his plan to make
a movie of Lolita, you were quoted as saying, "Of course
they'll have to change the plot. Perhaps they will make Lolita
a dwarfess. Or they will make her 16 and Humbert 26. " Though
you finally wrote the screenplay yourself, several reviewers
took the film to task for watering down the central
relationship. Were you satisfied with the final product?
I thought the movie was absolutely first-rate. The four
main actors deserve the very highest praise. Sue Lyon bringing
that breakfast tray or childishly pulling on her sweater in the
car-- these are moments of unforgettable acting and directing.
The killing of Quilty is a masterpiece, and so is the death of
Mrs. Haze. I must point out, though, that I had nothing to do
with the actual production. If I had, I might have insisted on
stressing certain things that were not stressed-- for example,
the different motels at which they stayed. All I did was write
the screenplay, a preponderating portion of which was used by
Kubrick. The "watering down," if any, did not come from my
Do you feel that Lolita's twofold success has
affected your life for the better or for the worse?
I gave up teaching-- that's about all in the way of
change. Mind you, I loved teaching, I loved Cornell, I loved
composing and delivering my lectures on Russian writers and
European great books. But around 60, and especially in winter,
one begins to find hard the physical process of teaching, the
getting up at a fixed hour every other morning, the struggle
with the snow in the driveway, the march through long corridors
to the classroom, the effort of drawing on the blackboard a map
of James Joyce's Dublin or the arrangement of the semi-sleeping
car of the St. Petersburg-Moscow express in the early 1870s--
without an understanding of which neither Ulysses nor
Anna Karenin, respectively, makes sense. For some reason
my most vivid memories concern examinations. Big amphitheater
in Goldwin Smith. Exam from 8 a.m. to 10:30. About 150
students-- unwashed, unshaven young males and reasonably
well-groomed young females. A general sense of tedium and
disaster. Half-past eight. Little coughs, the clearing of
nervous throats, coming in clusters of sound, rustling of
pages. Some of the martyrs plunged in meditation, their arms
locked behind their heads. I meet a dull gaze directed at me,
seeing in me w^ith hope and hate the source of forbidden
knowledge. Girl in glasses comes up to my desk to ask:
"Professor Kafka, do you want us to say that . . . ? Or do you
want us to answer only the first part of the question?" The
great fraternity of C-minus, backbone of the nation, steadily
scribbling on. A rustle arising simultaneously, the majority
turning a page in their bluebooks, good teamwork. The shaking
of a cramped wrist, the failing ink, the deodorant that breaks
down. When I catch eyes directed at me, they are forthwith
raised to the ceiling in pious meditation. Windowpanes getting
misty. Boys peeling off sweaters. Girls chewing gum in rapid
cadence. Ten minutes, five, three, time's up.
Citing in Lolita the same kind of acid-etched
scene you've just described, many critics have called the book
a masterful satiric social commentary on America. Are they
Well, I can only repeat that I have neither the intent nor
the temperament of a moral or social satirist. Whether or not
critics think that in Lolita I am ridiculing human folly
leaves me supremely indifferent. But I am annoyed when the glad
news is spread that I am ridiculing America.
But haven't you written yourself that there is "nothing
more exhilarating than American Philistine vulgarity"?
No, I did not say that. That phrase has been lifted out of
context, and, like a round, deep-sea fish, has burst in the
process. If you look up my little after-piece, "On a Book
Entitled Lolita," which I appended to the novel, you will see
that what I really said was that in regard to Philistine
vulgarity-- which I do feel is most exhilarating-- no
difference exists between American and European manners. I go
on to say that a proletarian from Chicago can be just as
Philistine as an English duke.
Many readers have concluded that the Philistinism you
seem to find the most exhilarating is that of America's sexual
Sex as an institution, sex as a general notion, sex as a
problem, sex as a platitude-- all this is something I find too
tedious for words. Let us skip sex.
Have you ever been psychoanalyzed?
Have I been what?
Subjected to psychoanalytical examination.
Why, good God?
In order to see how it is done. Some critics have felt
that your barbed comments about the fashionability of
Freudianism, as practiced by American analysts, suggest a
contempt based upon familiarity.
Bookish familiarity only. The ordeal itself is much too
silly and disgusting to be contemplated even as a joke.
Freudism and all it has tainted with its grotesque implications
and methods appears to me to be one of the vilest deceits
practiced by people on themselves and on others. I reject it
utterly, along with a few other medieval items still adored by
the ignorant, the conventional, or the very sick.
Speaking of the very sick, you suggested in Lolita
that Humbert Humbert's appetite for nymphets is the result
of an unrequited childhood love affair; in Invitation to a
Beheading you wrote about a 12-year-old girl, Emmie, who is
erotically interested in a man twice her age; and in Bend
Sinister your protagonist dreams that he is "surreptitiously
enjoying Mariette (his maid) while she sat, wincing a little,
in his lap during the rehearsal of a play in which she was
supposed to be his daughter. " Some critics, in poring over
your works for clues to your personality, have pointed to this
recurrent theme as evidence of an unwholesome preoccupation on
your part with the subject of sexual attraction between
pubescent girls and middle-aged men. Do you feel that there may
be some truth in this charge?
I think it would be more correct to say that had I not
written Lolita, readers would not have started finding
nymphets in my other works and in their own households. I find
it very amusing when a friendly, polite person says to me--
probably just in order to be friendly and polite-- "Mr.
Naborkov," or "Mr. Nabahkov," or "Mr. Nabkov" or "Mr.
Nabohkov," depending on his linguistic abilities, "I have a
little daughter who is a regular Lolita." People tend to
underestimate the power of my imagination and my capacity of
evolving serial selves in my writings. And then, of course,
there is that special type of critic, the ferrety,
human-interest fiend, the jolly vulgarian. Someone, for
instance, discovered telltale affinities between Humbert's
boyhood romance on the Riviera and my own recollections about
little Colette, with whom I built damp sand castles in Biarritz
when I was ten. Somber Humbert was, of course, thirteen and in
the throes of a pretty extravagant sexual excitement, whereas
my own romance with Colette had no trace of erotic desire and
indeed was perfectly common-place and normal. And, of course,
at nine and ten years of age, in that set, in those times, we
knew nothing whatsoever about the false facts of life that are
imparted nowadays to infants by progressive parents.
Because the imagination of a small child-- especially a
town child-- at once distorts, stylizes, or otherwise alters
the bizarre things he is told about the busy bee, which neither
he nor his parents can distinguish from a bum-blebee, anyway.
What one critic has termed your "almost obsessive
attention to the phrasing, rhythm, cadence and connotation of
words" is evident even in the selection of names for your own
celebrated bee and bumblebee-- Lolita and Humbert Humbert. How
did they occur to you?
For my nymphet I needed a diminutive with a lyrical lilt
to it. One of the most limpid and luminous letters is "L". The
suffix "-ita" has a lot of Latin tenderness, and this I
required too. Hence: Lolita. However, it should not be
pronounced as you and most Americans pronounce it: Low-lee-ta,
with a heavy, clammy "L" and a long "o". No, the first syllable
should be as in "lollipop", the "L" liquid and delicate, the
"lee" not too sharp. Spaniards and Italians pronounce it, of
course, with exactly the necessary note of archness and caress.
Another consideration was the welcome murmur of its source
name, the fountain name: those roses and tears in "Dolores." My
little girl's heartrending fate had to be taken into account
together with the cuteness and limpidity. Dolores also provided
her with another, plainer, more familiar and infantile
diminutive: Dolly, which went nicely with the surname "Haze,"
where Irish mists blend with a German bunny-- 1 mean, a small
You're making a word-playful reference, of course, to
the German term for rabbit-- Hase. But what inspired you
to dub Lolita's aging inamorato with such engaging redundancy?
That, too, was easy. The double rumble is, I think, very
nasty, very suggestive. It is a hateful name for a hateful
person. It is also a kingly name, and I did need a royal
vibration for Humbert the Fierce and Humbert the Humble. Lends
itself also to a number of puns. And the execrable diminutive
"Hum" is on a par, socially and emotionally, with "Lo," as her
mother calls her.
Another critic has written of you that "the task of
sifting and selecting just the right succession of words from
that multilingual memory, and of arranging their many-mirrored
nuances into the proper juxtapositions, must be psychically
exhausting work. " Which of all your books, in this sense,
would you say was the most difficult to write?
Oh, Lolita, naturally. I lacked the necessary
information-- that was the initial difficulty. I did not know
any American 12-year-old girls, and I did not know America; I
had to invent America and Lolita. It had taken me some forty
years to invent Russia and Western Europe, and now I was faced
by a similar task, with a lesser amount of time at my disposal.
The obtaining of such local ingredients as would allow me to
inject average "reality" into the brew of individual fancy
proved, at fifty, a much more difficult process than it had
been in the Europe of my youth.
Though born in Russia, you have lived and worked for
many years in America as well as in Europe. Do you feel any
strong sense of national identity?
I am an American writer, born in Russia and educated in
England where I studied French literature, before spending
fifteen years in Germany. I came to America in 1940 and decided
to become an American citizen, and make America my home. It so
happened that I was immediately exposed to the very best in
America, to its rich intellectual life and to its easygoing,
good-natured atmosphere. I immersed myself in its great
libraries and its Grand Canyon. I worked in the laboratories of
its zoological museums. I acquired more friends than I ever had
in Europe, My books-- old books and new ones-- found some
admirable readers. I became as stout as Cortez-- mainly because
I quit smoking and started to munch molasses candy instead,
with the result that my weight went up from my usual 140 to a
monumental and cheerful 200. In consequence, I am one-third
American-- good American flesh keeping me warm and safe.
You spent 20 years in America, and yet you never owned
a home or had a really settled establishment there. Your
friends report that you camped impermanently in motels, cabins,
furnished apartments and the rented homes of professors away on
leave. Did you feel so restless or so alien that the idea of
settling down anywhere disturbed you?
The main reason, the background reason, is, I suppose,
that nothing short of a replica of my childhood surroundings
would have satisfied me. I would never manage to match my
memories correctly-- so why trouble with hopeless
approximations? Then there are some special considerations: for
instance, the question of impetus, the habit of impetus. I
propelled myself out of Russia so vigorously, with such
indignant force, that I have been rolling on and on ever since.
True, I have rolled and lived to become that appetizing thing,
a "full professor," but at heart I have always remained a lean
"visiting lecturer." The few times I said to myself anywhere:
"Now, that's a nice spot for a permanent home," I would
immediately hear in my mind the thunder of an avalanche
carrying away the hundreds of far places which I would destroy
by the very act of settling in one particular nook of the
earth. And finally, I don't much care for furniture, for tables
and chairs and lamps and rugs and things-- perhaps because in
my opulent childhood I was taught to regard with amused
contempt any too-earnest attachment to material wealth, which
is why I felt no regret and no bitterness when the Revolution
abolished that wealth.
You lived in Russia for twenty years, in West Europe
for 20 years, and in America for twenty years. But in 1960,
after the success of Lolita, you moved to France and
Switzerland and have not returned to the U. S. since. Does this
mean, despite your self-identification as an American writer,
that you consider your American period over?
I am living in Switzerland for purely private reasons--
family reasons and certain professional ones too, such as some
special research for a special book. I hope to return very soon
to America-- back to its library stacks and mountain passes. An
ideal arrangement would be an absolutely soundproofed flat in
New York, on a top floor-- no feet walking above, no soft music
anywhere-- and a bungalow in the Southwest. Sometimes I think
it might be fun to adorn a university again, residing and
writing there, not teaching, or at least not teaching
Meanwhile you remain secluded-- and somewhat sedentary,
from all reports-- in your hotel suite. How do you spend your
I awake around seven in winter: my alarm clock is an
Alpine chough-- big, glossy, black thing with big yellow beak--
which visits the balcony and emits a most melodious chuckle.
For a while I lie in bed mentally revising and planning things.
Around eight: shave, breakfast, enthroned meditation, and
bath-- in that order. Then I work till lunch in my study,
taking time out for a short stroll with my wife along the lake.
Practically all the famous Russian writers of the nineteenth
century have rambled here at one time or another. Zhukovski,
Gogol, Dostoevski, Tolstoy-- who courted the hotel chambermaids
to the detriment of his health-- and many Russian poets. But
then, as much could be said of Nice or Rome. We lunch around
one p.m., and I am back at my desk by half-past one and work
steadily till half-past six. Then a stroll to a newsstand for
the English papers, and dinner at seven. No work after dinner.
And bed around nine. I read till half-past eleven, and then
tussle with insomnia till one a.m. about twice a week I
have a good, long nightmare with unpleasant characters imported
from earlier dreams, appearing in more or less iterative
surroundings-- kaleidoscopic arrangements of broken
impressions, fragments of day thoughts, and irresponsible
mechanical images, utterly lacking any possible Freudian
implication or explication, but singularly akin to the
procession of changing figures that one usually sees on the
inner palpebral screen when closing one's weary eyes.
Funny that witch doctors and their patients have never
hit on that simple and absolutely satisfying explanation of
dreaming. Is it true that you write standing up, and that you
write in longhand rather than on a typewriter?
Yes. I never learned to type. I generally start the day at
a lovely old-fashioned lectern I have in my study. Later on,
when I feel gravity nibbling at my calves, I settle down in a
comfortable armchair alongside an ordinary writing desk; and
finally, when gravity begins climbing up my spine, I lie down
on a couch in a corner of my small study. It is a pleasant
solar routine. But when I was young, in my twenties and early
thirties, I would often stay all day in bed, smoking and
writing. Now things have changed. Horizontal prose,
vertical verse, and sedent scholia keep swapping qualifiers and
spoiling the alliteration.
Can you tell us something more about the actual
creative process involved in the germination of a book--
perhaps by reading a few random notes for or excerpts from a
work in progress?
Certainly not. No fetus should undergo an exploratory
operation. But I can do something else. This box contains index
cards with some notes I made at various times more or less
recently and discarded when writing Pale Fire. It's a
little batch of rejects. Help yourself. "Selene, the moon.
Selenginsk, an old town in Siberia: moon-rocket town" . . .
"Berry: the black knob on the bill of the mute swan" . . .
"Dropworm: a small caterpillar hanging on a thread" . . . "In
The New Bon Ton Magazine, volume five, 1820, page 312,
prostitutes are termed 'girls of the town' "... "Youth dreams:
forgot pants; old man dreams: forgot dentures" , . . "Student
explains that when reading a novel he likes to skip passages
'so as to get his own idea about the book and not be influenced
by the author'". . . "Naprapathy: the ugliest word in the
"And after rain, on beaded wires, one bird, two birds,
three birds, and none. Muddy tires, sun" . . . "Time without
consciousness-- lower animal world; time with consciousness--
man; consciousness without time-- some still higher state" . .
. "We think not in words but in shadows of words. James Joyce's
mistake in those otherwise mar-velous mental soliloquies of his
consists in that he gives too much verbal body to thoughts" . .
. "Parody of politeness: That inimitable 'Please' -- 'Please
send me your beautiful-- ' which firms idiotically address to
themselves in printed forms meant for people ordering their
product." . . .
"Naive, nonstop, peep-peep twitter of chicks in dismal
crates late, late at night, on a desolate frost-bedimmed
station platform" . . . "The tabloid headline TORSO KILLER MAY
BEAT CHAIR might be translated: 'Celui qui tw an buste peat
bien battre une chaise" . . . "Newspaper vendor, handing me
a magazine with my story: 1 see you made the slicks.' " "Snow
falling, young father out with tiny child, nose like a pink
cherry. Why does a parent immediately say something to his or
her child if a stranger smiles at the latter? 'Sure,' said the
father to the infant's interrogatory gurgle, which had been
going on for some time, and would have been left to go on in
the quiet falling snow, had I not smiled in passing". . .
"Inter-columniation: dark-blue sky between two white columns."
. . . "Place-name in the Orkneys: Papilio" . . . "Not 1, too,
lived in Arcadia,' but 'I,' says Death, even am in Arcadia'--
legend on a shepherd's tomb (Notes and Queries, June 13,
1868, p. 561)" . . . "Marat collected butterflies" . . . "From
the aesthetic point of view, the tapeworm is certainly an
undesirable boarder. The gravid segments frequently crawl out
of a person's anal canal, sometimes in chains, and have been
reported a source of social embarrassment." (Ann. N. Y.
Acad. Sci. 48:558).
What inspires you to record and collect such
disconnected impressions and quotations?
All I know is that at a very early stage of the novel's
development I get this urge to garner bits of straw and fluff,
and eat pebbles. Nobody will ever discover how clearly a bird
visualizes, or if it visualizes at all, the future nest and the
eggs in it. When I remember afterwards the force that made me
jot down the correct names of things, or the inches and tints
of things, even before I actually needed the information, I am
inclined to assume that what I call, for want of a better term,
inspiration, had been already at work, mutely pointing at this
or that, having me accumulate the known materials for an
unknown structure. After the first shock of recognition-- a
sudden sense of "this is what I'm going to write"-- the
novel starts to breed by itself; the process goes on solely in
the mind, not on paper; and to be aware of the stage it has
reached at any given moment, I do not have to be conscious of
every exact phrase. I feel a kind of gentle development, an
uncurling inside, and I know that the details are there
already, that in fact I would see them plainly if I looked
closer, if I stopped the machine and opened its inner
compartment; but I prefer to wait until what is loosely called
inspiration has completed the task for me. There comes a moment
when I am informed from within that the entire structure is
finished. All I have to do now is take it down in pencil or
pen. Since this entire structure, dimly illumined in one's
mind, can be compared to a painting, and since you do not have
to work gradually from left to right for its proper perception,
I may direct my flashlight at any part or particle of the
picture when setting it down in writing. I do not begin my
novel at the beginning. I do not reach chapter three before I
reach chapter four, I do not go dutifully from one page to the
next, in consecutive order; no, I pick out a bit here and a bit
there, till I have filled all the gaps on paper. This is why I
like writing my stories and novels on index cards, numbering
them later when the whole set is complete. Every card is
rewritten many times. About three cards make one typewritten
page, and when finally I feel that the conceived picture has
been copied by me as faithfully as physically possible-- a few
vacant lots always remain, alas-- then I dictate the novel to
my wife who types it out in triplicate.
In what sense do you copy "the conceived
picture" of a novel?
A creative writer must study carefully the works of his
rivals, including the Almighty. He must possess the inborn
capacity not only of recombining but of re-creating the given
world. In order to do this adequately, avoiding duplication of
labor, the artist should know the given world.
Imagination without knowledge leads no farther than the back
yard of primitive art, the child's scrawl on the fence, and the
crank's message in the market place. Art is never simple. To
return to my lecturing days: I automatically gave low marks
when a student used the dreadful phrase "sincere and simple"--
"Flaubert writes with a style which is always simple and
sincere"-- under the impression that this was the greatest
compliment payable to prose or poetry. When I struck the phrase
out, which I did with such rage in my pencil that it ripped the
paper, the student complained that this was what teachers had
always taught him: "Art is simple, art is sincere." Someday I
must trace this vulgar absurdity to its source. A schoolmarm in
Ohio? A progressive ass in New York? Because, of course, art at
its greatest is fantastically deceitful and complex.
In terms of modern art, critical opinion is divided
about the sincerity or deceitfulness, simplicity or complexity,
of contemporary abstract painting. What is your own opinion?
I do not see any essential difference between abstract and
primitive art. Both are simple and sincere. Naturally, we
should not generalize in these matters: it is the individual
artist that counts. But if we accept for a moment the general
notion of "modern art," then we must admit that the trouble
with it is that it is so commonplace, imitative, and academic.
Blurs and blotches have merely replaced the mass prettiness of
a hundred years ago, pictures of Italian girls, handsome
beggars, romantic ruins, and so forth. But just as among those
corny oils there might occur the work of a true artist with a
richer play of light and shade, with some original streak of
violence or tenderness, so among th" corn of primitive and
abstract art one may come across a flash of great talent. Only
talent interests me in paintings and books. Not general ideas,
but the individual contribution.
A contribution to society?
A work of art has no importance whatever to society. It is
only important to the individual, and only the individual
reader is important to me. I don't give a damn for the group,
the community, the masses, and so forth. Although I do not care
for the slogan "art for art's sake"-- because unfortunately
such promoters of it as, for instance, Oscar Wilde and various
dainty poets, were in reality rank moralists and didacticists--
there can be no question that what makes a work of fiction safe
from larvae and rust is not its social importance but its art,
only its art.
What do you want to accomplish or leave behind-- or
should this be of no concern to the writer?
Well, in this matter of accomplishment, of course, I don't
have a 35-year plan or program, but I have a fair inkling of my
literary afterlife. I have sensed certain hints, I have felt
the breeze of certain promises. No doubt there will be ups and
downs, long periods of slump. With the Devil's connivance, I
open a newspaper of 2063 and in some article on the books page
I find: "Nobody reads Nabokov or Fulmerford today." Awful
question: Who is this unfortunate Fulmerford?
While we're on the subject of self-appraisal, what do
you regard as your principal failing as a writer-- apart from
Lack of spontaneity; the nuisance of parallel thoughts,
second thoughts, third thoughts; inability to express myself
properly in any language unless I compose every damned sentence
in my bath, in my mind, at my desk.
You're doing rather well at the moment, if we may say
It's an illusion.
Your reply might be taken as confirmation of critical
comments that you are "an incorrigible leg puller, " "a
mystificator, " and "a literary agent provocateur. " How
do you view yourself?
I think my favorite fact about myself is that I have never
been dismayed by a critic's bilge or bile, and have never once
in my life asked or thanked a reviewer for a review. My second
favorite fact-- or shall I stop at one?
No, please go on.
The fact that since my youth-- 1 was 19 when I left
Russia-- my political creed has remained as bleak and
changeless as an old gray rock. It is classical to the point of
triteness. Freedom of speech, freedom of thought, freedom of
art. The social or economic structure of the ideal state is of
little concern to me. My desires are modest. Portraits of the
head of the government should not exceed a postage stamp in
size. No torture and no executions. No music, except coming
through earphones, or played in theaters.
Why no music?
I have no ear for music, a shortcoming I deplore bitterly.
When I attend a concert-- which happens about once in five
years-- 1 endeavor gamely to follow the sequence and
relationship of sounds but cannot keep it up for more than a
few minutes. Visual impressions, reflections of hands in
lacquered wood, a diligent bald spot over a fiddle, these take
over, and soon I am bored beyond measure by the motions of the
musicians. My knowledge of music is very slight; and I have a
special reason for finding my ignorance and inability so sad,
so unjust: There is a wonderful singer in my family-- my own
son. His great gifts, the rare beauty of his bass, and the
promise of a splendid career-- all this affects me deeply, and
I fee] a fool during a technical conversation among musicians.
I am perfectly aware of the many parallels between the art
forms of music and those of literature, especially in matters
of structure, but what can I do if ear and brain refuse to
cooperate? I have found a queer substitute for music in chess--
more exactly, in the composing of chess problems.
Another substitute, surely, has been your own
euphonious prose and poetry. As one of few authors who have
written with. eloquence in more than one language, how would
you characterize the textural differences between Russian and
English, in which you are regarded as equally facile?
In sheer number of words, English is far richer than
Russian. This is especially noticeable in nouns and adjectives.
A very bothersome feature that Russian presents is the dearth,
vagueness, and clumsiness of technical terms.
For example, the simple phrase "to park a car" comes out--
if translated back from the Russian-- as "to leave an
automobile standing for a long time." Russian, at least polite
Russian, is more formal than polite English. Thus, the Russian
word for "sexual"-- polovoy-- is slightly indecent and
not to be bandied around. The same applies to Russian terms
rendering various anatomical and biological notions that are
frequently and familiarly expressed in English conversation. On
the other hand, there are words rendering certain nuances of
motion and gesture and emotion in which Russian excels. Thus by
changing the head of a verb, for which one may have a dozen
different prefixes to choose from, one is able to make Russian
express extremely fine shades of duration and intensity.
English is, syntactically, an extremely flexible medium, but
Russian can be given even more subtle twists and turns.
Translating Russian into English is a little easier than
translating English into Russian, and 10 times easier than
translating English into French.
You have said you will never write another novel in
During the great, and still unsung, era of Russian
intellectual expatriation-- roughly between 1920 and 1940--
books written in Russian by emigre Russians and published by
emigre firms abroad were eagerly bought or borrowed by
emigre readers but were absolutely banned in Soviet Russia-- as
they still are (except in the case of a few dead authors such
as Kuprin and Bunin, whose heavily censored works have been
recently reprinted there), no matter the theme of the story or
poem. An emigre novel, published, say, in Paris and sold over
all free Europe, might have, in those years, a total sale of
1,000 or 2,000 copies-- that would be a best seller-- but every
copy would also pass from hand to hand and be read by at least
20 persons, and at least 50 annually if stocked by Russian
lending libraries, of which there were hundreds in West Europe
alone. The era of expatriation can be said to have ended during
World War II. Old writers died, Russian publishers also
vanished, and worst of all, the general atmosphere of exile
culture, with its splendor, and vigor, and purity, and
reverberative force, dwindled to a sprinkle of Russian-language
periodicals, anemic in talent and provincial in tone. Now to
take my own case: It was not the financial side that really
mattered; I don't think my Russian writings ever brought me
more than a few hundred dollars per year, and I am all for the
ivory tower, and for writing to please one reader alone-- one's
own self. But one also needs some reverberation, if not
response, and a moderate multiplication of one's self
throughout a country or countries; and if there be nothing but
a void around one's desk, one would expect it to be at least a
sonorous void, and not circumscribed by the walls of a padded
cell. With the passing of years I grew less and less interested
in Russia and more and more indifferent to the once-harrowing
thought that my books would remain banned there as long as my
contempt for the police state and political oppression
prevented me from entertaining the vaguest thought of return.
No, I will not write another novel in Russian, though I do
allow myself a very few short poems now and then. I wrote my
last Russian novel a quarter of a century ago. But today, in
compensation, in a spirit of justice to my little American
muse, I am doing something else. But perhaps I should not talk
about it at this early stage.
Well, it occurred to me one day-- while I was glancing at
the varicolored spines of Lolita translations into
languages I do not read, such as Japanese, Finnish or Arabic--
that the list of unavoidable blunders in these fifteen or
twenty versions would probably make, if collected, a fatter
volume than any of them. I had checked the French translation,
which was basically very good yet would have bristled with
unavoidable errors had I not corrected them. But what could I
do with Portuguese or Hebrew or Danish? Then I imagined
something else. I imagined that in some distant future somebody
might produce a Russian version of Lolita. I trained my
inner telescope upon that particular point in the distant
future and I saw that every paragraph, pock-marked as it is
with pitfalls, could lend itself to hideous mistranslation. In
the hands of a harmful drudge, the Russian version of
Lolita would be entirely degraded and botched by vulgar
paraphrases or blunders. So I decided to translate it myself.
Up to now I have about sixty pages ready.
Are you presently at work on any new project?
Good question, as they say on the lesser screen. I have
just finished correcting the last proofs of my work on
Pushkin's Eugene Onegin-- four fat little volumes which
are to appear this year in the Bollingen Series; the actual
translation of the poem occupies a small section of volume one.
The rest of the volume and volumes two, three and four contain
copious notes on the subject. This opus owes its birth to a
casual remark my wife made in 1950-- in response to my disgust
with rhymed paraphrases of Eugene Onegin, every line of
which I had to revise for my students-- "Why don't you
translate it yourself?" This is the result. It has taken some
ten years of labor. The index alone runs to 5,000 cards in
three long shoe boxes; you see them over there on that shelf.
My translation is, of course, a literal one, a crib, a pony.
And to the fidelity of transposal I have sacrificed everything:
elegance, euphony, clarity, good taste, modern usage, and even
In view of these admitted flaws, are you looking
forward to reading the reviews of the book?
I really don't read reviews about myself with any special
eagerness or attention unless they are masterpieces of wit and
acumen-- which does happen now and then. And I never reread
them, though my wife collects the stuff, and though maybe I
shall use a spatter of the more hilarious Lolita items
to write someday a brief history of the nymphet's tribulations.
I remember, however, quite vividly, certain attacks by Russian
emigre critics who wrote about my first novels 30 years ago;
not that I was more vulnerable then, but my memory was
certainly more retentive and enterprising, and I was a reviewer
myself. In the nineteen-twenties I was clawed at by a certain
Mochulski who could never stomach my utter indifference to
organized mysticism, to religion, to the church-- any church.
There were other critics who could not forgive me for keeping
aloof from literary "movements," for not airing the
"angoisse" that they wanted poets to feel, and for not
belonging to any of those groups of poets that held sessions of
common inspiration in the back rooms of Parisian cafes. There
was also the amusing case of Georgiy lvanov, a good poet but a
scurrilous critic. I never met him or his literary wife Irina
Odoevtsev; but one day in the late nineteen-twenties or early
nineteen-thirties, at a time when I regularly reviewed books
for an emigre newspaper in Berlin, she sent me from Paris a
copy of a novel of hers with the wily inscription "Spasibo
za Korolya, damn, valeta" (thanks for King,
Queen, Knave)-- which I was free to understand as "Thanks
for writing that book," but which might also provide her with
the alibi: "Thanks for sending me your book," though I never
sent her anything. Her book proved to be pitifully
trite, and I said so in a brief and nasty review, lvanov
retaliated with a grossly personal article about me and my
stuff. The possibility of venting or distilling friendly or
unfriendly feelings through the medium of literary criticism is
what makes that art such a skewy one.
You have been quoted as saying: My pleasures are the
most intense known to man: butterfly hunting and writing. Are
they in any way comparable?
No, they belong essentially to quite different types of
enjoyment. Neither is easy to describe to a person who has not
experienced it, and each is so obvious to the one who has that
a description would sound crude and redundant. In the case of
butterfly hunting I think I can distinguish four main elements.
First, the hope of capturing-- or the actual capturing-- of the
first specimen of a species unknown to science: this is the
dream at the back of every lepidopterist's mind, whether he be
climbing a mountain in New Guinea or crossing a bog in Maine.
Secondly, there is the capture of a very rare or very local
butterfly-- things you have gloated over in books, in obscure
scientific reviews, on the splendid plates of famous works, and
that you now see on the wing, in their natural surroundings,
among plants and minerals that acquire a mysterious magic
through the intimate association with the rarities they produce
and support, so that a given landscape lives twice: as a
delightful wilderness in its own right and as the haunt of a
certain butterfly or moth. Thirdly, there is the naturalist's
interest in disentangling the life histories of little-known
insects, in learning about their habits and structure, and in
determining their position in the scheme of classification-- a
scheme which can be sometimes pleasurably exploded in a
dazzling display of polemical fireworks when a new discovery
upsets the old scheme and confounds its obtuse champions. And
fourthly, one should not ignore the element of sport, of luck,
of brisk motion and robust achievement, of an ardent and
arduous quest ending in the silky triangle of a folded
butterfly lying on the palm of one's hand.
What about the pleasures of writing?
They correspond exactly to the pleasures of reading, the
bliss, the felicity of a phrase is shared by writer and reader:
by the satisfied writer and the grateful reader, or-- which is
the same thing-- by the artist grateful to the unknown force in
his mind that has suggested a combination of images and by the
artistic reader whom this combination satisfies.
Every good reader has enjoyed a few good books in his life
so why analyze delights that both sides know? I write mainly
for artists, fellow-artists and follow-artists. However, I
could never explain adequately to certain students in my
literature classes, the aspects of good reading-- the fact that
you read an artist's book not with your heart (the heart is a
remarkably stupid reader), and not with your brain alone, but
with your brain and spine. "Ladies and gentlemen, the tingle in
the spine really tells you what the author felt and wished you
to feel." I wonder if I shall ever measure again with happy
hands the breadth of a lectern and plunge into my notes before
the sympathetic abyss of a college audience.
What is your reaction to the mixed feelings vented by
one critic in a review which characterized you as having a fine
and original mind, but "not much trace of a generalizing
intellect, "and as "the typical artist who distrusts ideas"?
In much the same solemn spirit, certain crusty
lepidopterists have criticized my works on the classification
of butterflies, accusing me of being more interested in the
subspecies and the subgenus than in the genus and the family.
This kind of attitude is a matter of mental temperament, I
suppose. The middlebrow or the upper Philistine cannot get rid
of the furtive feeling that a book, to be great, must deal in
great ideas. Oh, I know the type, the dreary type! He likes a
good yarn spiced with social comment; he likes to recognize his
own thoughts and throes in those of the author; he wants at
least one of the characters to be the author's stooge. If
American, he has a dash of Marxist blood, and if British, he is
acutely and ridiculously class-conscious; he finds it so much
easier to write about ideas than about words; he does not
realize that perhaps the reason he does not find general ideas
in a particular writer is that the particular ideas of that
writer have not yet become general.
Dostoevski, who dealt with themes accepted by most
readers as universal in both scope and significance, is
considered one of the world's great authors. Yet you have
described him as "a cheap sensationalist, clumsy and vulgar. "
Non-Russian readers do not realize two things: that not
all Russians love Dostoevski as much as Americans do, and that
most of those Russians who do, venerate him as a mystic and not
as an artist. He was a prophet, a claptrap journalist and a
slapdash comedian. I admit that some of his scenes, some of his
tremendous, farcical rows are extraordinarily amusing. But his
sensitive murderers and soulful prostitutes are not to be
endured for one moment-- by this reader anyway.
Is it true that you have called Hemingway and Conrad
"writers of books for boys"?
That's exactly what they are. Hemingway is certainly the
better of the two; he has at least a voice of his own and is
responsible for that delightful, highly artistic short story,
"The Killers." And the description of the iridescent fish and
rhythmic urination in his famous fish story is superb. But I
cannot abide Conrad's souvenir-shop style, bottled ships and
shell necklaces of romanticist cliches. In neither of those two
writers can I find anything that I would care to have written
myself. In mentality and emotion, they are hopelessly juvenile,
and the same can be said of some other beloved authors, the
pets of the common room, the consolation and support of
graduate students, such as-- but some are still alive, and I
hate to hurt living old boys while the dead ones are not yet
What did you read when you were a boy?
Between the ages of ten and fifteen in St. Petersburg, I
must have read more fiction and poetry-- English, Russian and
French-- than in any other five-year period of my life. I
relished especially the works of Wells, Poe, Browning, Keats,
Flaubert, Verlaine, Rimbaud, Chekhov, Tolstoy, and Alexander
Blok. On another level, my heroes were the Scarlet Pimpernel,
Phileas Fogg, and Sherlock Holmes. In other words, I was
a perfectly normal trilingual child in a family with a large
library. At a later period, in Western Europe, between the ages
of 20 and 40, my favorites were Housman, Rupert Brooke, Norman
Douglas, Bergson, Joyce, Proust, and Pushkin. Of these top
favorites, several-- Poe, Jules Verne, Emmuska Orezy, Conan
Doyle, and Rupert Brooke-- have lost the glamour and thrill
they held for me. The others remain intact and by now are
probably beyond change as far as I am concerned. I was never
exposed in the twenties and thirties, as so many of my coevals
have been, to the poetry of the not quite first-rate Eliot and
of definitely second-rate Pound. I read them late in the
season, around 1945, in the guest room of an American friend's
house, and not only remained completely indifferent to them,
but could not understand why anybody should bother about them.
But I suppose that they preserve some sentimental value for
such readers as discovered them at an earlier age than I did.
What are your reading habits today?
Usually I read several books at a time-- old books, new
books, fiction, nonfiction, verse, anything-- and when the
bedside heap of a dozen volumes or so has dwindled to two or
three, which generally happens by the end of one week, I
accumulate another pile. There are some varieties of fiction
that I never touch-- mystery stories, for instance, which I
abhor, and historical novels. I also detest the so-called
"powerful" novel-- full of commonplace obscenities and torrents
of dialogue-- in fact, when I receive a new novel from a
hopeful publisher-- "hoping that I like the hook as much as he
does"-- 1 check first of all how much dialogue there is, and if
it looks too abundant or too sustained, I shut the book with a
bang and ban it from my bed.
Are there any contemporary authors you do enjoy
I do have a few favorites-- for example, Robbe-Grillet and
Borges. How freely and gratefully one breathes in their
marvelous labyrinths! I love their lucidity of thought, the
purity and poetry, the mirage in the mirror.
Many critics feel that this description applies no less
aptly to your own prose. To what extent do you feel that prose
and poetry intermingle as art forms?
Except that I started earlier-- that's the answer to the
first part of your question. As to the second: Well, poetry, of
course, includes all creative writing; I have never been able
to see any generic difference between poetry and artistic
prose. As a matter of fact, I would be inclined to define a
good poem of any length as a concentrate of good prose, with or
without the addition of recurrent rhythm and rhyme. The magic
of prosody may improve upon w^hat we call prose by bringing out
the full flavor of meaning, but in plain prose there are also
certain rhythmic patterns, the music of precise phrasing, the
beat of thought rendered by recurrent peculiarities of idiom
and intonation. As in today's scientific classifications, there
is a lot of overlapping in our concept of poetry and prose
today. The bamboo bridge between them is the metaphor.
You have also written that poetry represents "the
mysteries of the irrational perceived through rational words. "
But many feel that the "irrational" has little place in an age
when the exact knowledge of science has begun to plumb the most
profound mysteries of existence. Do you agree?
This appearance is very deceptive. It is a journalistic
illusion. In point of fact, the greater one's science, the
deeper the sense of mystery. Moreover, I don't believe that any
science today has pierced any mystery. We, as newspaper
readers, are inclined to call "science" the cleverness of an
electrician or a psychiatrist's mumbo jumbo. This, at best, is
applied science, and one of the characteristics of applied
science is that yesterday's neutron or today's truth dies
tomorrow. But even in a better sense of "science"-- as the
study of visible and palpable nature, or the poetry of pure
mathematics and pure philosophy-- the situation remains as
hopeless as ever. We shall never know the origin of life, or
the meaning of life, or the nature of space and time, or the
nature of nature, or the nature of thought.
Man's understanding of these mysteries is embodied in
his concept of a Divine Being. As a final question, do you
believe in God?
To be quite candid-- and what I am going to say now is
something I never said before, and I hope it provokes a
salutary little chill-- I know more than I can express in
words, and the little I can express would not have been
expressed, had I not known more.