Nabokov's interview. (13) BBC-2 [1969]



      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.