Of the fifty-eight questions James  Mossman  submitted  on
September 8, 1969, for Review, BBC-2 (October 4) some 40
were  answered  and  recorded  by  me  from  written  cards  in
Montreux.  The  Listener  published  the  thing  in   an
incomplete  form  on October 23 of that year. Printed here from
my final typescript.

     You have said that you explored time's prison and  have
found no way out. Are you still exploring, and is it inevitably
a  solitary  excursion, from which one returns to the solace of
others? 

     I'm a very poor speaker. I hope our audience won't mind my
using notes.

     My exploration of time's prison as described in the  first
chapter  of  Speak,  Memory  was only a stylistic device
meant to introduce my subject.

     Memory often presents a life broken into episodes, more
or less perfectly recalled.  Do  you  see  any  themes  working
through from one episode to another? 

     Everyone  can  sort  out  convenient  patterns  of related
themes in the past development of his life. Here again I had to
provide pegs and echoes when furnishing my reception halls.

     Is the strongest tie between men this common  captivity
in time? 

     Let  us  not  generalize.  The common captivity in time is
felt differently by different people, and some people  may  not
feel  it  at  all.  Generalizations  are  full of loopholes and
traps.  I  know  elderly  men  for  whom  "time"   only   means
"timepiece."

     What distinguishes us from animals? 

     Being  aware of being aware of being. In other words, if I
not only know that I am but also know that  I  know  it,
then  I belong to the human species. All the rest follows-- the
glory of thought, poetry, a vision of  the  universe.  In  that
respect,  the  gap  between ape and man is immeasurably greater
than the one between amoeba and ape. The difference between  an
ape's  memory  and  human  memory  is the difference between an
ampersand and the British Museum library.

     Judging from your  own  awakening  consciousness  as  a
child,  do you think that the capacity to use language, syntax,
relate ideas, is something we learn from adults, as if we  were
computers  being  programed,  or  do  we begin to use a unique,
built-in capability of our own-- call it imagination? 

     The stupidest person in the world is an  all-round  genius
compared to the cleverest computer. How we learn to imagine and
express  things is a riddle with premises impossible to express
and a solution impossible to imagine.

     In your acute scrutiny of your past, can you  find  the
instruments that fashioned you? 

     Yes-- unless I refashion them retrospectively, by the very
act of  evoking  them. There is quite a lot of give and take in
the game of metaphors.

     As you recall a patch  of  time,  its  shapes,  sounds,
colors,  and  occupants, does this complete picture help combat
time or offer any clue to its mysteries, or is it pleasure that
it affords? 

     Let  me  quote  a  paragraph  in   my   book   Ada:
"Physiologically  the  sense  of  Time is a sense of continuous
becoming. . . . Philosophically, on the other hand, Time is but
memory in the making. In every individual life there  goes  on,
from  cradle to deathbed, the gradual shaping and strengthening
of that backbone of consciousness, which is the Time  of
the  strong."  This  is  Van  speaking,  Van Veen, the charming
villain of mv book. I have not decided yet if I agree with  him
in all his view's on the texture of time. I suspect I don't.

     Does  the  inevitable  distortion  of detail worry you?


     Not at all. The distortion of a remembered image  may  not
only  enhance  its beauty with an added refraction, but provide
informative links with earlier or later patches of the past.

     You've said that  the  man  in  you  revolts  sometimes
against the fictionist. Can you say why? (Note: I'm thinking of
your regret at giving items of your past to characters.) 

     One  hates  oneself  for leaving a pet with a neighbor and
never returning for it.

     Doesn't giving away past memories  to  your  characters
alleviate the burden of the past? 

     Items  of  one's  past are apt to fade from exposure. They
are like those richly pigmented butterflies and moths which the
ignorant amateur hangs up in a display case on the wall of  his
sunny  parlor  and  which, after a few years, are bleached to a
pitiful drab hue. The metallic  blue  of  so-called  structural
wing  scales  is  hardier,  but even so a wise collector should
keep specimens in the dry dark of a cabinet.

     You have written of yourself as looking  out  "from  my
present  ridge  of remote, isolated, almost uninhabited time. "
Why uninhabited? 

     Well, for the same reason that a desert island is  a  more
deserving  island  than  one  with  a  footprint initialing its
beach. Moreover, "uninhabited" makes direct sense  here,  since
most of my former companions are gone.

     Does  the  aristocrat in you despise the fictionist, or
is it only English aristocrats who feel  queasy  about  men  of
letters? 

     Pushkin,  professional  poet and Russian nobleman, used to
shock the beau monde by declaring that he wrote for  his
own  pleasure  but  published  for  the  sake  of  money-  I do
likewise, but have never shocked anybody-- except,  perhaps,  a
former  publisher  of  mine  who  used  to counter my indignant
requests by saying that I'm much too  good  a  writer  to  need
extravagant advances.

     Is  the  capacity to recall and to celebrate patches of
past time a special quality of yours? 

     No, I don't think so. I could name many writers,  English,
Russian,  and  French,  who  have done it at least as well as I
have. Funny, I notice that when mentioning my three tongues,  I
list  them  in  that  order  because  it  is  the best rhythmic
arrangement:  either  dactylic,  with  one  syllable   skipped,
"English,   Russian,   and  French,"  or  anapestic,  "English,
Russian, and French." Little lesson in prosody.

     Have  you  ever  experienced  hallucinations  or  heard
voices  or had visions, and if so, have they been illuminating?


     When about to fall asleep after a good deal of writing  or
reading,  I  often  enjoy, if that is the right word, what some
drug addicts experience-- a continuous series of  extraordinary
bright,  fluidly  changing  pictures.  Their  type is different
nightly, but on a given night it remains the same: one night it
may  be  a  banal  kaleidoscope  of  endlessly  recombined  and
reshaped stained-window designs; next time, comes a subhuman or
superhuman  face  with  a  formidably growing blue eye; or, and
this is the most striking type, I see  in  realistic  detail  a
long-dead  friend  turning  toward  me and melting into another
remembered figure against the black velvet of my eyelids' inner
side. As to voices, I have described  in  Speak,  Memory
the snatches of telephone talk which now and then vibrate in my
pillowed ear. Reports on those enigmatic phenomena can be found
in  the  case  histories  collected  by  psychiatrists  but  no
satisfying interpretation has come my way. Freudians, keep out,
please.

     Your best memories seem to be golden days,  with  great
green  trees,  splashes  of sun on venerable stone, harmony-- a
world in which people were going  to  live  for  ever.  Do  you
manipulate  the  past  in  order  to  combat  life  at its less
harmonious? 

     My existence has always remained as harmonious  and  green
as it was throughout the span dealt with in my memoirs, that is
from  1903  to  1940. The emotions of my Russian childhood have
been replaced by new excitements, by new mountains explored  in
search  of  new butterflies, by a cloudless family life, and by
the monstrous delights of novelistic invention.

     Is writing your novels pleasure or drudgery? 

     Pleasure and agony while composing the book  in  my  mind;
harrowing   irritation   when  struggling  with  my  tools  and
viscera-- the pencil that needs resharpening, the card that has
to be rewritten, the bladder that has to be drained,  the  word
that  I  always  misspell  and always have to look up. Then the
labor of reading the typescript prepared by  a  secretary,  the
correction   of   my   ma)or   mistakes  and  her  minor  ones,
transferring corrections to  other  copies,  misplacing  pages,
trying  to  remember  something  that  had to be crossed out or
inserted. Repeating the process  when  proofreading.  Unpacking
the  radiant  beautiful  plump  advance  copy, opening it-- and
discovering a stupid oversight committed by me, allowed  by  me
to  survive. After a month or so I get used to the book's final
stage, to its having been weaned from my brain. I now regard it
with a kind of amused tenderness as a man regards not his  son,
but the young wife of his son.

     You say you are not interested in what critics say, yet
you got  very  angry  with Edmund Wilson once for commenting on
you, and let off some heavy field  guns  at  him,  not  to  say
multiple rockets. You must have cared. 

     I  never  retaliate  when  my  works of art are concerned.
There the arrows of adverse criticism cannot scratch, let alone
pierce,  the  shield  of  what  disappointed  archers  call  my
"self-assurance."  But  I  do  reach for my heaviest dictionary
when my scholarship is questioned, as was the case with my  old
friend  Edmund Wilson, and I do get annoyed when people I never
met impinge on my privacy with false and  vulgar  assumptions--
as  for  example  Mr. Updike, who in an otherwise clever
article absurdly suggests that my fictional  character,  bitchy
and  lewd  Ada,  is, I quote, "in a dimension or two, Nabokov's
wife." I might add that I collect clippings--  for  information
and entertainment.

     Do  you  see  yourself  sometimes as Nabokov the writer
isolated  from  others,  flaming  sword  to  scourge  them,  an
entertainer, a drudge, a genius, which? 

     The  word  "genius"  is  passed  around rather generously,
isn't it? At least in English, because its Russian counterpart,
geniy, is a term brimming with a sort  of  throaty  aw^e
and is used only in the case of a very small number of writers,
Shakespeare,  Milton,  Pushkin, Tolstoy. To such deeply beloved
authors as Turgenev and Chekhov  Russians  assign  the  thinner
term,  talnt,  talent,  not  genius.  It  is  a bizarre
example of semantic discrepancy--  the  same  word  being  more
substantial  in  one  language  than  in  another.  Although my
Russian and my English are practically  coeval,    still  feel
appalled   and  puzzled  at  seeing  "genius"  applied  to  any
important storyteller, such as Maupassant  or  Maugham.  Genius
still  means  to  me, in my Russian fastidiousness and pride of
phrase, a unique, dazzling gift, the genius of James Joyce, not
the talent of Henry James. I'm afriad I have lost the thread of
my reply to your question. What is your next one, please?

     Can political ideas solve any of the big problems of an
individual's life? 

     I have always marveled at the neatness of such  solutions:
ardent   Stalinists   transforming   themselves  into  harmless
Socialists, Socialists finding a sunset harbor in Conservatism,
and so forth. I suppose this  must  be  rather  like  religious
conversion,  of  which  I  know very little. I can only explain
God's popularity by an atheist's panic.

     Why do you say you dislike "serious" writers? Don't you
just mean "bad" artists? 

     Let me put it this way. By inclination and intent I  avoid
squandering  my  art  on  the  illustrated catalogues of solemn
notions and serious opinions; and  I  dislike  their  pervasive
presence in the works of others. What ideas can be traced in my
novels  belong  to my creatures therein and may be deliberately
flawed. In  my  memoirs,  quotable  ideas  are  merely  passing
visions,  suggestions,  mirages  of  the  mind. They lose their
colors or explode like football fish when  lifted  out  of  the
context of their tropical sea.

     Great   writers   have   had   strong   political   and
sociological preferences or ideas. Tolstoy was  one.  Does  the
presence  of  such ideas in his work make you think the less of
him? 

     I  go  by  books,  not  by  authors.  I  consider  Anna
Karenin   the  supreme  masterpiece  of  nineteenth-century
literature; it is closely followed  by  The  Death  of  Ivan
llyich.  I  detest  Resurrection  and The Kreuzer
Sonata. Tolstoy's publicistic forays are unreadable. War
and Peace, though  a  little  too  long,  is  a  rollicking
historical  novel  written for that amor-phic and limp creature
known as "the general reader," and more  specifically  for  the
young. In terms of artistic structure it does not satisfy me. I
derive  no  pleasure  from  its  cumbersome  message,  from the
didactic interludes, from  the  artificial  coincidences,  with
cool   Prince  Audrey  turning  up  to  witness  this  or  that
historical moment, this or that footnote in  the  sources  used
often uncritically by the author.

     Why do you dislike writers who go in for soul-searching
and self-revelations  in  print? After all, do you not do it at
another remove, bebind a thicket of art? 

     If you are alluding to Dostoevski's  worst  novels,  then,
indeed,  I  dislike intensely The Karamazov Brothers and
the ghastly Crime and Punishment rigmarole. No, I do not
object to soul-searching  and  self-revelation,  but  in  those
books  the  soul, and the sins, and the sentimentality, and the
journalese, hardly warrant the tedious and muddled search.

     Is your attachment to childhood specially nostalgic and
intense because you were abruptly and forever banished from the
place where it evolved by the Russian Revolution? 

     Yes, that's right.  But  the  stress  is  not  on  Russian
Revolution.  It  could  have  been  anything, an earthquake, an
illness,  an  individual  departure  prompted  by   a   private
disaster. The accent is on the abruptness of the change.

     Would  you  ever  try  to go back there, just to have a
look? 

     There's nothing to look at. New tenement  houses  and  old
churches  do  not interest me. The hotels there are terrible. I
detest the Soviet theater. Any palace in Italy is  superior  to
the  repainted  abodes  of  the  Tsars. The village huts in the
forbidden hinterland are- as dismally poor  as  ever,  and  the
wretched  peasant  flogs  his wretched cart horse with the same
wretched zest. As to my  special  northern  landscape  and  the
haunts  of my childhood-- well, I would not wish to contaminate
their images preserved in my mind.

     How would you define your alienation  from  present-day
Russia? I loathe and despise dictatorships.

     You called the Revolution there "trite. " Why? 

     Because  it  followed  the  banal  historical  pattern  of
bloodshed, deceit, and  oppression,  because  it  betrayed  the
democratic  dream,  and  because  all it can promise the Soviet
citizen is the material article, second-hand Philistine values,
imitation of Western foods and gadgets, and of  course,  caviar
for the decorated general.

     Why do you live in hotels? 

     It  simplifies  postal matters, it eliminates the nuisance
of private ownership, it confirms me in my favorite habit-- the
habit of freedom.

     Do you have a longing for one place ever,  a  place  in
which  family  or  racial  continuity  has  been  witnessed for
generations, a scrap of Russia in return for the whole  of  the
United States? I have no such longings.

     Is nostalgia debilitating or enriching? 

     Neither. It's one of a thousand tender emotions.

     Do you like being an American citizen? 

     Yes, very much so.

     Did you sit up to watch the Americans land on the moon?
Were you impressed? 

     Oh,  "impressed"  is not the right word! Treading the soil
of the moon gives one, I imagine (or rather my  projected  self
imagines), the most remarkable romantic thrill ever experienced
in  the  history  of  discovery.  Of  course, I rented a
television  set  to  watch  every  moment  of  their  marvelous
adventure. That gentle little minuet that despite their awkward
suits  the  two men danced with such grace to the tune of lunar
gravity was a lovely sight. It was also a moment  when  a  flag
means  to  one  more than a flag usually does. I am puzzled and
pained by the  fact  that  the  English  weeklies  ignored  the
absolutely   overwhelming  excitement  of  the  adventure,  the
strange  sensual  exhilaration  of  palpating  those   precious
pebbles,  of  seeing  our  marbled  globe  in the black sky, of
feeling along one's spine the shiver and wonder  of  it.  After
all,  Englishmen  should  understand that thrill, they who have
been the greatest, the purest explorers. Why then drag in  such
irrelevant matters as wasted dollars and power politics?

     If  you  ruled  any modern industrial state absolutely,
what would you abolish? 

     I would abolish trucks and transistors, I would outlaw the
diabolical roar of motorcycles, I would wring the neck of  soft
music  in  public  places. I would banish the bidet from
hotel bathrooms so as to make more room for a longer bathtub. I
would forbid farmers the use of insecticides and allow them  to
mow  their  meadows  only  once  a  year,  in  late August when
everyone has safely pupated.

     Do you like reading newspapers? 

     Yes, especially the Sunday papers.

     You refer somewhere to your father's study teaching you
to appreciate authentic poetry. Is any living poet authentic to
you now? 

     I used to have a veritable passion  for  poetry,  English,
Russian,  and  French.  That  passion started to dwindle around
1940 when I stopped gorging myself  on  contemporary  verse.  I
know as little about today's poetry as about new music.

     Are too many people writing novels? 

     I  read  quite  a  number of them every year. For some odd
reason what authors and  publishers  keep  sending  me  is  the
pseudo-picaresque  stuff  of clich characters and the enlarged
pores of dirty words.

     You parody the poet W. H. Auden in your novel  Ada,
I think. Why do you think so little of him? 

     I  do not parody Mr. Auden anywhere in Ada. I'm not
sufficiently familiar with his poetry  for  that.  I  do  know,
however,  a  few of his translations-- and deplore the blunders
he so lightheartedly permits himself. Robert Lowell, of course,
is the greater offender.

     Ada has a lot of word play, punning,  parody--  do  you
acknowledge   influence   by   James  Joyce  in  your  literary
upbringing, and do you admire him? 

     I played with words long  before  I  read  Ulysses.
Yes,  I  love  that  book  but  it  is  rather the lucidity and
precision of its prose that pleases me. The real  puns  are  in
Fmnegans Wake-- a tragic failure and a frightful bore.

     What  about  Kafka's  work,  and Gogol's. I am sniffing
about for early influences. 

     Every Russian writer owes something to Gogol, Pushkin, and
Shakespeare. Some Russian writers, as for example  Pushkin  and
Gogol,   were   influenced   by  Byron  and  Sterne  in  French
translation. I do not know German and so could not  read  Kafka
before  the  nineteen  thirties when his La metamorphose
appeared in La nouvelle revue  franaise,  and  by  that
time many of my so-called "kafkaesque" stories had already been
published.  Alas,  I  am  not  one  to  provide  much sport for
influence hunters.

     Tolstoy said, so they say, that life was a "tartine  de
merde" which one was obliged to eat slowly. Do you agree? 

     I've  never  heard  that  story. The old boy was sometimes
rather disgusting, wasn't he? My own life is fresh  bread  with
country butter and Alpine honey.

     Which is the worst thing men do? (Note: I'm thinking of
your remark about cruelty). 

     To stink, to cheat, to torture.

     Which is the best? 

     To be kind, to be proud, to be fearless.

: 39, Last-modified: Sat, 25 Jul 1998 20:44:13 GMT