In  September, 1965, Robert Hughes visited me here to make
a filmed interview for the Television 13 Educational Program in
New York. At our initial meetings I read from  prepared  cards,
and  this  part  of  the  interview  is  given below. The rest,
represented by some fifty pages typed from  the  tape,  is  too
colloquial and rambling to suit the scheme of the present book.

     As   with   Gogol   and   even  James  Age,  there  is
occasionally confusion about the  pronunciation  of  your  last
name. How does one pronounce it correctly? 

     It  is indeed a tricky name. It is often misspelt, because
the eye tends to regard the "a" of  the  first  syllable  as  a
misprint  and then tries to restore the symmetrical sequence by
triplicating the "o"-- filling up the row  of  circles,  so  to
speak,  as  in a game of crosses and naughts. No-bow-cough. How
ugly, how wrong.  Every  author  whose  name  is  fairly  often
mentioned   in   periodicals   develops   a  bird-watcher's  or
caterpillar-picker's knack when scanning an article. But in  my
case  I always get caught by the word "nobody" when capitalized
at the beginning of a sentence. As to pronunciation,  Frenchmen
of  course  say  Nabokoff,  with  the accent on the last
syllable. Englishmen say Nabokov, accent on  the  first,
and  Italians  say  Nabokov,  accent in the middle, as Russians
also  do.  Na-bo-kov.   A   heavy   open   "o"   as   in
"Knickerbocker". My New England ear is not offended by the long
elegant   middle  "o"  of  Nabokov  as  delivered  in  American
academies. The awful "Na-bah-kov" is  a  despicable  gutterism.
Well,  you  can  make  your choice now. Incidentallv, the first
name is pronounced Vladeemer-- rhyming  with  "redeemer"--  not
Vladimir rhyming with Faddimere (a place in England, I think).

     How  about  the  name  of  your extraordinary creature.
Professor P-N-I-N? 

     The "p" is sounded, that's all. But since the "p" is  mute
in  English words starting w-ith "pn", one is prone to insert a
supporting "uh" sound-- "Puh-- nin"-- which is  wrong.  To  get
the "pn" right, try the combination "Up North", or still better
"Up,  Nina!",  leaving out the initial "u". Pnorth, Pnina, Pmn.
Can you do that? . . . That's fine.

     You 're responsible  for  brilliant  summaries  of  the
lives  and  works of Pushkin and Gogol. How would you summarize
your own? 

     It is not so easy to  summarize  something  which  is  not
quite  finished yet. However, as I've pointed outelsewhere, the
first  part  of  my  life  is  marked  by  a  rather   pleasing
chronological  neatness.  I  spent  my  first  twenty  years in
Russia, the next twenty in Western Europe, and the twenty years
after that, from 1940 to 1960, in America. I've been living  in
Europe  again  for five years now, but I cannot promise to stay
around another fifteen so as to retain the rhythm.  Nor  can  I
predict  what new books I may write. My best Russian novel is a
thing called, in English, The Gift. My two best American
ones are Lolita and Pale Fire. 

     I am now in the process of translating Lolita  into
Russian,  which  is  like  completing the circle of my creative
life.  Or  rather  starting  a  new  spiral.   I've   lots   of
difficulties   with  technical  terms,  especially  with  those
pertaining to the motor car, which has not really blended  with
Russian  life  as  it, or rather she, has with American life. I
also have trouble with finding  the  right  Russian  terms  for
clothes,  varieties of shoes, items of furniture, and so on. On
the  other  hand,  descriptions  of  tender  emotions,  of   my
nymphet's  grace  and  of  the soft, melting American landscape
slip very delicately into lyrical Russian.  The  book  will  be
published  in  America  or  perhaps  Paris; traveling poets and
diplomats will smuggle it into Russia, I  hope.  Shall  I  read
three  lines  of this Russian version? Of course, incredible as
it  may  seem,  perhaps  not  everybody   remembers   the   way
Lolita  starts  in  English.  So perhaps I should do the
first lines in English  first.  Note  that  for  the  necessary
effect  of  dreamy  tenderness both "l"s and the "t" and indeed
the whole word  should  be  iberized  and  not  pronounced  the
American  way  with crushed "l"s, a coarse "t", and a long "o":
"Eolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin,  my  soul.
Lo-lee-ta:  the  tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps
down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo.  Lee.  Ta."
Now  comes  the  Russian.  Here  the first syllable of her name
sounds more like an "ah" sound than an "o" sound, but the  rest
is  like  Spanish: (Reads in Russian) "Lah-lee-ta, svet moey
zhizni, ogon' moih chresel. Greh may, dusha moya."' And  so
on.

     Beyond  what's  stated  and  implied  in  your  various
prefaces, have you anything to add about  your  readers  and/or
your critics? 

     Well,  when I think about critics in general, I divide the
family of critics into three subfamilies.  First,  professional
reviewers,  mainly  hacks  or hicks, regularly filling up their
allotted space in the cemeteries of  Sunday  papers.  Secondly,
more  ambitious  critics  \vho  every  other year collect their
magazine articles into volumes with allusive scholarly titles--
The  Undiscovered  Country,  that  kind  of  thing.  And
thirdly,  my  fellow  writers,  who  review a book they like or
loathe. Many bright blurbs and dark feuds have been  engendered
that way. When an author whose work I admire praises my work, I
cannot  help  experiencing,  besides  a  ripple of almost human
warmth, a sense of harmony and satisfied logic. But I have also
the idiotic feeling that he or she will very soon cool down and
vaguely turn away if I do not do something at once, but I don't
know what to do, and I never do anything, and next morning cold
clouds conceal the bright mountains. In all other cases, I must
confess, I yawn and forget. Of course, every worthwhile  author
has  quite  a  few  clowns  and  criticules--  wonderful  word:
criti-cules, or  criticasters--  around  him,  demolishing  one
another  rather  than him with their slapsticks. Then, also, my
various disgusts which I like to voice now  and  then  seem  to
irritate people. I happen to find second-rate and ephemeral the
works  of a number of puffed-up writers-- such as Camus, Lorca,
Kazantzakis, D. H. Lawrence, Thomas  Mann,  Thomas  Wolfe,  and
literally  hundreds  of  other  "great"  second-raters. And for
this,  of  course,  I'm   automatically   disliked   by   their
camp-followers,  kitsch-followers,  fashion-followers,  and all
kinds  of  automatons.   Generally   speaking,   Vm   supremely
indifferent  to  adverse criticism in regard to my fiction. But
on the other hand, I enjoy retaliating when some pompous  dunce
finds  fault  with  my  translations  and  divulges  a farcical
ignorance of the Russian language and literature.

     Would you describe your first reactions to America? And
how you first came to write in English? 

     I had started rather sporadically to compose in English  a
few  years  before migrating to America, where I arrived in the
lilac mist of  a  May  morning,  May  28,  1940.  In  the  late
thirties,  when  living in Germany and France, I had translated
two of my Russian books into English and had written  my  first
straight  English  novel, the one about Sebastian Knight. Then,
in America, I stopped writing in my  native  tongue  altogether
except  for  an  occasional poem which, incidentally, caused my
Russian  poetry  to  improve  rather  oddly  in   urgency   and
concentration. My complete switch from Russian prose to English
prose  was  exceedingly  painful-- like learning anew to handle
things after losing seven or eight fingers in an  explosion.  I
have  described  the writing of Lolita in the afterpiece
appended in '58 to the American edition.  The  book  was  first
published  in  Paris  at  a time when nobody else wanted it, 10
years ago now-- 10 years-- how time crawls!
     As to Pale Fire, although I had devised  some  odds
and  ends  of  Zemblan  lore in the late fifties in lthaca, New
York, I felt the  first  real  pang  of  the  novel,  a  rather
complete  vision  of  its structure in miniature, and jotted it
dow^n-- 1 have it in one of my pocket diaries--  while  sailing
from New York to France in 1959. The American poem discussed in
the  book  by  His  Majesty, Charles of Zembia, was the hardest
stuff I ever had to compose. Most of it I  wrote  in  Nice,  in
winter,  walking along the Promenade des Anglais or rambling in
the neighboring hills. A good deal of Kinbote's commentary  was
written  here  in  the  Montreux Palace garden, one of the most
enchanting and inspiring gardens I know.* I'm  especially  fond
of its weeping cedar, the arboreal counterpart of a very shaggy
dog with hair hanging over its eyes.

     What  is  your  approach to the teaching of literature?


     I can give you some examples. When studying Kafka's famous
story, my students had to know  exactly  what  kind  of  insect
Gregor  turned  into  (it  was  a  domed  beetle,  not the flat
cockroach of sloppy translators) and they had  to  be  able  to
describe  exactly  the  arrangement  of  the  rooms,  with  the
position of doors and furniture, in the Sarnsa  family's  flat.
They  had  to  know  the  map  of  Dublin for Ulysses. I
believe in stressing the specific detail; the general ideas can
take care of themselves. Ulysses, of course, is a divine
work of art and will live on despite the  academic  nonentities
who turn it into a collection of symbols or Greek myths. I once
gave  a  student  a  C-minus,  or  perhaps  a  D-plus, just for
applying to its chapters the titles borrowed from  Homer  while
not  even  noticing  the  comings  and goings of the man in the
brown mackintosh. He didn't even know who the man in the  brown
mackintosh  was. Oh, yes, let people compare me to Joyce by all
means, but my English is patball to Joyce's champion game.

     How did you come to live in Switzerland? 

     The older I get and the more T weigh, the harder it is for
me to get out of this or that comfortable armchair or deckchair
into which I have sunk with an exhalation of content.  Nowadays
I  find  it as difficult to travel from Montreux to Lausanne as
to travel to Paris, London, or New- York. On  the  other  hand,
I'm  ready to walk 10 or 15 miles per day, up and down mountain
trails, in search of butterflies, as I do every summer. One  of
the  reasons I live in Montreux is because I find the view from
my easy chair wonderfully soothing and  exhilarating  according
to  my  mood  or the mood of the lake. I hasten to add that not
only am I not a tax dodger, but that I also have to pay a plump
little Swiss tax on top of my massive American taxes which  are
so  high  they  almost cut off that beautiful view. I feel very
nostalgic about America and as soon as I muster  the  necessary
energy I shall return there for good.

     Where is the easy chair? 

     The easy chair is in the other room, in my study. It was a
metaphor,  after  all:  the easy chair is the entire hotel, the
garden, everything.

     Where would you live in America? 

     I think I would like to live either in California,  or  in
New  York, or in Cambridge, Mass. Or in a combination of
these three.

     Because of  your  mastery  of  our  language,  you  are
frequently compared with Joseph Conrad. 

     Well,  I'll put it this way. When a boy, I was a voracious
reader, as all boy writers seem to be, and between 8 and  14  I
used  to enjoy tremendously the romantic productions-- romantic
in the large sense-- of such people as  Conan  Doyle,  Kipling,
Joseph  Conrad,  Chesterton, Oscar Wilde, and other authors who
are essentially writers for very young people. But  as  I  have
well  said somewhere before, I differ from Joseph Conradically.
First of ail, he had not been  writing  in  his  native  tongue
before  he  became  an  English  writer, and secondly, I cannot
stand today his polished clichs and primitive clashes. He once
wrote that he preferred Mrs. Garnett's translation  of  Anna
Karenin  to  the  original! This makes one dream-- "ca fait
rever" as Flaubert used to say when  faced  with  some  abysmal
stupidity.   Ever   since   the   days   when  such  formidable
mediocrities as Galsworthy, Dreiser, a  person  called  Tagore,
another called Maxim Gorky, a third called Romain Rolland, used
to be accepted as geniuses, I have been perplexed and amused by
fabricated  notions  about  so-called  "great books". That, for
instance, Mann's asinine Death in Venice or  Pasternak's
melodramatic  and  vilely  written Zhivago or Faulkner's
corncobby chronicles can be considered  "masterpieces,"  or  at
least  what  journalists call "great books," is to me an absurd
delusion, as when a hypnotiz.ed person makes love to  a  chair.
My greatest masterpieces of twentieth century prose are,
in     this     order:    Joyce's    Ulysses,    Kafka's
Transformation, Biely's Petersburg, and the first
half of Proust's fairy tale In Search of Lost Time.
     What do you think of American writing? I noticed there are
no American masterpieces on your list. What  do  you  think  of
American writing since 1945? 

     Well,  seldom  more  than  two  or three really first-rate
writers exist simultaneously in a  given  generation.  I  think
that  Salinger  and  Updike  are  by  far the finest artists in
recent years. The sexy, phony type of best seller, the violent,
vulgar novel, the novelistic treatment of social  or  political
problems, and, in general, novels consisting mainly of dialogue
or  social  comment--  these  are  absolutely  banned  from  my
bedside. And the popular mixture of pornography and  idealistic
humhuggery makes me positively vomit.

     What do you think of Russian writing since 1945? 

     Soviet literature . . . Well, in the first years after the
Bolshevik  revolution,  in the twenties and early thirties, one
could still distinguish  through  the  dreadful  platitudes  of
Soviet  propaganda  the  dying voice of an earlier culture. The
primitive  and  banal  mentality  of  enforced  politics--  any
politics--  can  only  produce primitive and banal art. This is
especially  true  of  the  so-called   "social   realist"   and
"proletarian"  literature sponsored by the Soviet police state.
Its jackbooted baboons have gradually exterminated  the  really
talented  authors,  the special individual, the fragile genius.
One of the saddest cases is perhaps that of Osip  Mandelshtam--
a  wonderful  poet,  the  greatest  poet  among those trying to
survive in Russia under the  Soviets--  whom  that  brutal  and
imbecile  administration  persecuted and finally drove to death
in a remote concentration camp. The poems  he  heroically  kept
composing until madness eclipsed his limpid gifts are admirable
specimens  of  a human mind at its deepest and highest. Reading
them enhances  one's  healthy  contempt  for  Soviet  ferocity.
Tyrants  and  torturers  will  never manage to hide their comic
stumbles behind their cosmic acrobatics. Contemptuous  laughter
is  all right, but it is not enough in the way of moral relief.
And when I read Mandelshtam's poems composed under the accursed
rule of those beasts, I feel a kind of helpless shame, being so
free to live and think and write and speak in the free part  of
the world.-- That's the only time when liberty is bitter.
     WALKING IN MONTREUX
     WITH INTERVIEWER
     This  is  a ginkgo-- the sacred tree of China, now rare in
the wild state. The curiously veined leaf resembles a butterfly
-- which reminds me of a little poem:



     The ginkgo leaf, in golden hue, when shed,
     A muscat grape,
     Is an old-fashioned butterfly, ill-spread,
     In shape.



     This, in my novel Pale Fire, is  a  short  poem  by
John hade-- by far the greatest of invented poets.
     PASSING A SWIMMING POOL
     I don't mind sharing the sun with sunbathers but I dislike
immersing myself in a swimming pool. It is after all only a big
tub where  other  people  join  you--  makes one think of those
horrible Japanese communal bathtubs, full of a loating  family,
or a shoal of businessmen.
     DOG NEAR TELEPHONE BOOTH
     Must  remember  the  life line of that leash from the meek
dog to the talkative lady in  that  telephone  booth.  "A  long
wait"--  good  legend  for  an oil painting of the naturalistic
school.
     BOYS KICKING A BALL IN A GARDEN
     Many years have passed since I gathered a soccer  ball  to
my  breast.  I was an erratic but rather spectacular goalkeeper
in my Cambridge University days 45  years  ago.  After  that  I
played  on a German team when I was about 30, and saved my last
game in 1936 when I regained  consciousness  in  the  pavilion,
knocked  out  by  a  kick but still clutching the ball which an
impatient teammate was trying to pry out of my arms.
     DURING A STROLL NEAR VILLENEUVE
     Late September in Central  Europe  is  a  bad  season  for
collecting butterflies. This is not Arizona, alas.
     In this grassy nook near an old vineyard above the Lake of
Geneva,  a  few  fairly fresh females of the very common Meadow
Brown still flutter about here and  there--  lazy  old  widows.
There's one.
     Here  is  a  little sky-blue butterfly, also a very common
thing, once known as the Clifden Blue in England.
     The sun is getting hotter. I enjoy hunting in the buff but
I doubt  anything  interesting  can  be  obtained  today.  This
pleasant   lane   on  the  banks  of  Geneva  Lake  teems  with
butterflies in summer. Chapman's Blue  and  Mann's  White,  two
rather  local  things,  occur  not far from here. But the white
butterflies we see in this particular glade, on this  nice  but
commonplace  autumn  day,  are  the  ordinary Whites; the Small
White and Green-Veined White.
     Ah, a caterpillar. Handle with care. Its golden-brown coat
can cause a nasty itch. This handsome  worm  will  become  next
year a fat, ugly, drab-colored moth.
     IN ANSWER TO THE QUESTION:
     WHAT SCENES ONE WOULD
     LIKE TO HAVE FILMED
     Shakespeare in the part of the King's Ghost. The beheading
of Louis  the  Sixteenth,  the drums drowning his speech on the
scaffold.
     Herman Melville at breakfast, feeding  a  sardine  to  his
cat.
     Poe's wedding. Lewis Carroll's picnics.
     The Russians leaving Alaska, delighted with the deal. Shot
of a seal applauding.

: 64, Last-modified: Sat, 25 Jul 1998 20:40:22 GMT