In  April, 1969, Alden Whitman sent me these questions and
came to Montreux  for  a  merry  interview  shortly  before  my
seventieth  birthday.  His  piece  appeared  in The New York
Times, April 19, 1969, with only two or three of my answers
retained. The rest are to be used, I suppose,  as  "Special  to
The  New  York  Times"  at  some  later  date  by  A. W., if he
survives, or  by  his  successor.  I  transcribe  some  of  our
exchanges.

     You  have  called yourself "an American writer, born in
Russia and educated in England. " How does  this  make  you  an
American writer? 

     An  American  writer  means, in the present case, a writer
who has been an American citizen for a quarter of a century. It
means, moreover, that all my works appear first in America.  It
also  means  that  America  is  the  only  country where I feel
mentally and emotionally at home. Rightly or wrongly, I am  not
one  of  those  perfectionists  who by dint of hypercriticizing
America find themselves wallowing in the same muddy  camp  with
indigenous rascals and envious foreign observers. My admiration
for  this  adopted country of mine can easily survive the jolts
and flaws that:, indeed, are nothing in comparison to the abyss
of evil in the history of Russia, not to speak of  other,  more
exotic, countries.

     In  the  poem  "To  My  Soul,  "you  wrote, possibly of
yourself, as "a provincial naturalist,  an  eccentric  lost  in
paradise.  "  This appears to link your interest in butterflies
to other aspects of your life, writing, for  instance.  Do  you
feel that you are "an eccentric lost in paradise"? 

     An eccentric is a person whose mind and senses are excited
by things  that  the average citizen does not even notice. And,
per contra, the average eccentric-- for there are many  of  us,
of  diffrent  waters  and  magnitudes-- is utterly baffled and
bored by the  adjacent  tourist  who  boasts  of  his  business
connections.  In that sense, I often feel lost; but then, other
people feel lost in my presence too. And I also know, as a good
eccentric should, that the  dreary  old  fellow  who  has  been
telling  me  all  about the rise of mortgage interest rates may
suddenly turn out  to  be  the  greatest  living  authority  on
springtails or tumblebugs.

     Dreams  of flight or escape recur in many of your poems
and stories.  Is  this  a  reflection  of  your  own  years  of
wandering? 

     Yes,  in  part. The odd fact, however, is that in my early
childhood, long before the tremendously  dull  peripatetics  of
Revolution  and  Civil  War  set in, I suffered from nightmares
full of wanderings and escapes, and desolate station platforms.

     What did you  enjoy  (and  disenjoy)  in  your  Harvard
experience? And what induced you to leave Cambridge? 

     My  Harvard  experience  consisted of seven blissful years
(1941-1948) of entomological  research  at  the  wonderful  and
unforgettable  Museum  of Comparative Zoology and of one spring
term (1952) of lecturing on the European novel to an  audieince
of  some  600 young strangers in Memorial Hall. Apart from that
experience, I lectured at Wellesley for half-a-dozen years  and
then, from 1948, was on the faculty of Corrnell, ending as full
professor   of   Russian  Literature  and  author  of  American
Lolita, after which (in 1959) I decided to devote myself
entirely to writing. I greatly enjoyed Cornell.

     In the United States you are probably more widely known
for Lolita than for any other single book or poem. If  you  had
your way, what book or poem or story would you like to be known
for in the U.S.? 

     I  am immune to the convulsions of fame; yet, I think that
the harmful drudges who define today, in popular  dictionaries,
the  word  "nymphet"  as  "a very young but sexually attractive
girl," without any additional comment or reference, should have
their knuckles rapped.

     Has the sexual kick in literature reached a peak?  Will
it not now decline? 

     I  am  completely indifferent to the social aspect of this
or any other group  activity.  Historically,  the  pornographic
record   set   by   the   ancients   still   remains  unbroken.
Artistically, the dirtier typewriters  try  to  get,  the  more
conventional  and corny their products become, e.g. such novels
as Miller's Thumb and Tailor's Spasm.

     What is your attitude toward modern violence? 

     I abhor the brutality of all brutes, white or black, brown
or red. I despise red knaves and pink fools.

     Reflecting on your  life,  what  have  been  its  truly
significant moments? 

     Every  moment,  practically.  Yesterday's  letter  from  a
reader in Russia, the capture of an undescribed butterfly  last
year, learning to ride a bicycle in 1909.

     How  do you rank yourself among writers (living) and of
the immediate past? 

     I often think there should exist a  special  typographical
sign  for  a  smile-- some sort of concave mark, a supine round
bracket, which I would now like  to  trace  in  reply  to  your
question.

     If  you  were writing your own obituary, what would you
stress or emphasize as your contribution to literature, to  the
climate  of  opinion  (art and esthetics) of the last 50 years?


     In  my  case  the  afterglow  of  a  recent   work   (say,
Ada,  finished  last Christmas) mingles at once with the
hazy aurora of a new task. My next book, dawning as it does  in
ideal  tint and tone, seems for the moment better than anything
I wrote before. What I am trying  to  emphasize  is  a  special
thrill  of  anticipation  which  by  its  very nature cannot be
treated necrologically.

     What books have you enjoyed lately? 

     I seldom experience nowadays the spinal  twinge  which  is
the  only  valid reaction to a new piece of great poetry-- such
as, for example, Richard Wilbur's "Complaint," a poem about his
marvelous duchess (Phoenix Bookshop edition, 1968).

: 38, Last-modified: Sat, 25 Jul 1998 20:41:16 GMT