On  June  26,  1969,  Allene  Talmey,  Associate Editor of
Vogue, New York, sent me the questions  answered  below.
The interview appeared in the Christmas number of that journal.

     Magic,  sleight-of-hand,  and  other tricks have played
quite a role in your fiction. Are they for amusement or do they
serve yet another purpose? 

     Deception is practiced even more beautifully by that other
V.N., Visible Nature. A useful purpose is assigned  by  science
to  animal  mimicry,  protective patterns and shapes, yet their
refinement transcends the crude purpose of  mere  survival.  In
art,  an  individual  style  is  essentially  as  futile and as
organic as a fata morgana. The sleight-of-hand you  mention  is
hardly  more  than an insect's sleight-of-wing. A wit might say
that it protects me from half-wits.  A  grateful  spectator  is
content  to  applaud  the grace with which the masked performer
melts into Nature's background.

     In  your  autobiography.  Speak,   Memory,   you
describe  a  series  of concurrent, insignificant events around
the world "forming an instantaneous and transparent organism of
events, " of which the poet (sitting in a lawn chair at lthaca.
New York) is the nucleus. How does this open out on your larger
belief in the precedence of the imagination over the mind? 

     The simultaneousness of these random  events,  and  indeed
the  fact of their occurring at all as described by the central
percipient, would only then conform to "reality" if he  had  at
his  disposal the apparatus to reproduce those events optically
within the frame of one screen; but the central figure  in  the
passage  you  quote  is  not  equipped  with  any kind of video
attached to his lawn chair and must therefore rely on the power
of pure imagination. Incidentally, I  tend  more  and  more  to
regard  the  objective existence of all events as a form
of  impure  imagination--  hence  my  inverted  commas   around
"reality."  Whatever  the  mind  grasps,  it  does  so with the
assistance of creative fancy, that drop of  water  on  a  glass
slide  which  gives  distinctness  and  relief  to the observed
organism.

     1969 marks  the  fiftieth  anniversary  of  your  first
publication.  What do that first book and your latest, Ada,
have in common? What of your  intention  and  technique  has
changed, what has remained? 

     My first publication, a collection of love poems, appeared
not fifty,  but  fifty-three  years  ago.  Several copies of it
still lurk in my native country. The versification is fair, the
lack of originality complete. Ten  years  later,  in  1926,  my
first  novel, printed abroad, in Russian, rendered that boyhood
romance with a more acceptable glow,  supplied,  no  doubt,  by
nostalgia,  invention,  and a dash of detachment. Finally, upon
reaching middle age and, with it, a certain degree of precision
in the use of my private English, I devoted  a  chapter  of  my
Speak,  Memory  to  the  same  theme, this time adhering
faithfully to the actual past.  As  to  flashes  of  it  in  my
fiction, I alone can judge if details that look like bits of my
"real"  self  in this or that novel of mine are as authentic as
Adam's rib in the most famous of garden scenes. The  best  part
of a writer's biography is not the record of his adventures but
the  story  of  his  style. Only in that light can one properly
assess the relationship, if any, between my first  heroine  and
my   recent   Ada.   While   two   ancestral   parks   may   be
generically alike, true art deals not  with  the  genus,
and  not even with the species, but with an aberrant individual
of the species. Raisins of fact in the cake of fiction are many
stages removed from  the  initial  grape.  I  have  accumulated
enough  aphorisms here to make it seem that your question about
Ada has been answered.

     You are reported to have said that you live more in the
future  than  in  the  present  or  past--  in  spite  of  your
preoccupation with memory. Can you say why this is so? 

     I  do  not  recall  the  exact  wording of that statement.
Presumably I meant that in professional action I look  forward,
rather than back, as I try to foresee the evolution of the work
in progress, try to perceive the fair copy in the crystal of my
inkstand,  try to read the proof, long before it is printed, by
projecting into an imagined section of time the growth  of  the
book,  whose every line belongs to the present moment, which in
its turn is nothing but the ever rising horizon  of  the  past.
Using  another,  more  emotional  metaphor,  I  might  concede,
however,  that  I  keep  the  tools  of  my  trade,   memories,
experiences,  sharp  shining things, constantly around me, upon
me, within me, the way instruments are stuck into the loops and
flaps of a mechanician's magnificently elaborate overalls.

     You are often superficially  linked  to  a  handful  of
international  writers like Beckett and Borges. Do you feel any
affinity with them or with your other contemporaries? 

     Oh, I am well aware of  those  commentators:  slow  minds,
hasty  typewriters!  They  would do better to link Beckett with
Maeterlinck and Borges with Anatole France. It might prove more
instructive than gossiping about a stranger.

     You  have  witnessed  extraordinary  changes  in   your
lifetime  and  maintained  an  "esthetic  distance."  Would you
consider this a matter of your temperament or a quality you had
to cultivate? 

     My aloofness is an illusion resulting from my never having
belonged to any literary, political, or social coterie. I am  a
lone  lamb.  Let  me  submit,  however, that I have bridged the
"esthetic distance" in my own way by means of  such  absolutely
final  indictments  of Russian and German totalitarianism as my
novels Invitation to a Beheading and Bend Sinister.

     Gogol found a most congenial biographer in you. Whom would
you choose, free of time, to be your biographer, and why  would
you make your choice? 

     This  congeniality  is  another illusion. I loathe Gogol's
moralistic slant, I am  depressed  and  puzzled  by  his  utter
inability to describe young women, I deplore his obsession with
religion.  Verbal  inventiveness  is  not really a bond between
authors, it is merely a garland. He would have been appalled by
my novels and denounced as vicious  the  innocent,  and  rather
superficial,   little  sketch  of  his  life  that  I  produced
twenty-five years ago. Much more successful, because  based  on
longer  and  deeper research, was the life of Chernyshevski (in
my novel The Gift), whose works  I  found  risible,  but
whose  fate  moved  me  more  strongly  than  did Gogol's. What
Chernyshevski would have thought of it  is  another  question--
but  at least the plain truth of documents is on my side. That,
and only that, is what I would ask  of  my  biographer--  plain
facts,  no  symbol-searching,  no  jumping  at  attractive  but
preposterous conclusions, no Marxist bunkum, no Freudian rot.

     

     The maps and  diagrams--  your  entomological  proof  that
Gregor  Sarnsa  was a dung beetle and not a cockroach-- are now
well-known artifacts of your teaching  literature  at  Cornell.
What  other  refreshing antidotes to current literary criticism
might you suggest? 

     In my academic days I endeavored to  provide  students  of
literature  with  exact  information  about details, about such
combinations of details as  yield  the  sensual  spark  without
which  a book is dead. In that respect, general ideas are of no
importance. Any ass can assimilate the main points of Tolstoy's
attitude toward adultery but in order to  enjoy  Tolstoy's  art
the  good  reader  must  wish  to  visualize, for instance, the
arrangement of a  railway  carriage  on  the  Moscow-Petersburg
night  train  as  it was a hundred years ago. Here diagrams are
most helpful. Instead of perpetuating the pretentious  nonsense
of   Homeric,   chromatic,   and   visceral  chapter  headings,
instructors should prepare maps  of  Dublin  with  Bloom's  and
Stephen's  intertwining  itineraries  clearly traced. Without a
visual  perception  of  the  larch  labyrinth  in  Mansfield
Park  that novel loses some of its stereographic charm, and
unless  the  faade  of  Dr.  Jekyll's  house   is   distinctly
reconstructed   in   the   student's  mind,  the  enjoyment  of
Stevenson's story cannot be perfect.

     There is a great deal of easy talk about the "death  of
language "and the "obsolescence of books. " What are your views
on the future of literature? 

     I  am  not overly preoccupied with tomorrow's books. All I
would welcome is that in  the  future  editions  of  my  works,
especially in paperback, a few misprints were corrected.

     Is it right for a writer to give interviews? 

     Why  not? Of course, in a strict sense a poet, a novelist,
is not a  public  figure,  not  an  exotic  potentate,  not  an
international  lover,  not  a person one would be proud to call
Jim. I can quite understand people wanting to know my writings,
but I cannot sympathize with anybody wanting to know me.  As  a
human  specimen, I present no particular fascination. My habits
are simple, my tastes banal. I would not exchange  my  favorite
fare  (bacon  and eggs, beer) for the most misspelt menu in the
world. I irritate some of my best friends by  the  relish  with
which  I list the things I hate-- nightclubs, yachts, circuses,
pornographic shows, the soulful eyes of naked men with lots  of
Guevara  hair  in  lots  of places. It may seem odd that such a
modest and unassuming person as I should not disapprove of  the
widespread practice of self-description. No doubt some literary
interviews are pretty awful: trivial exchanges between sage and
stooge,  or  even  worse,  the French kind, starting "Jeanne
Dupont, qui etes-vous?" (who  indeed!)  and  sporting  such
intolerable     vulgarisms     as     "insolite"     and
"ecriture" (French weeklies, please  note!).  I  do  not
believe  that  speaking about myself can encourage the sales of
my books. What T really like about the better  kind  of  public
colloquy  is  the opportunity it affords me to construct in the
presence of my audience the semblance  of  what  I  hope  is  a
plausible and nor altogether displeasing personality.

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