In mid-July, 1962, Peter Duval-Smith and Christopher
Burstall came for a BBC television interview to Zermatt where I
happened to be collecting that summer. The lepidoptera lived up
to the occasion, so did the weather. My visitors and their crew
had never paid much attention to those insects and I was
touched and flattered by the childish wonderment with which
they viewed the crowds of butterflies imbibing moisture on
brookside mud at various spots of the mountain trail. Pictures
were taken of the swarms that arose at my passage, and other
hours of the day were devoted to the reproduction of the
interview proper. It eventually appeared on the
Bookstand program and was published in The
Listener (November 22, 1962). I have mislaid the cards on
which I had written my answers. I suspect that the published
text was taken straight from the tape for it teems with
inaccuracies. These I have tried to weed out ten years later
but was forced to strike out a few sentences here and there
when memory refused to restore the sense flawed by defective or
improperly mended speech.
The poem I quote (with metrical accents added) will be
found translated into English in Chapter Two of The Gift,
G. P. Putnam's Sons, New York, 1963.
Would you ever go back to Russia?
I will never go back, for the simple reason that all the
Russia I need is always with me: literature, language, and my
own Russian childhood. I will never return. I will never
surrender. And anyway, the grotesque shadow of a police state
will not be dispelled in my lifetime. I don't think they know
my works there-- oh, perhaps a number of readers exist there in
my special secret service, but let us not forget that Russia
has grown tremendously provincial during these forty years,
apart from the fact that people there are told what to read,
what to think. In America I'm happier than in any other
country. It is in America that I found my best readers, minds
that are closest to mine. I feel intellectually at home in
America. It is a second home in the true sense of the word.
You're a professional lepidopterist?
Yes, I'm interested in the classification, variation,
evolution, structure, distribution, habits, of lepidoptera:
this sounds very grand, but actually I'm an expert in only a
very small group of butterflies. I have contributed several
works on butterflies to the various scientific journals-- but I
want to repeat that my interest in butterflies is exclusively
Is there any connection with your writing?
There is in a general way, because I think that in a work
of art there is a kind of merging between the two things,
between the precision of poetry and the excitement of pure
In your new novel, Pale Fire, one of the
characters says that reality is neither the subject nor the
object of real art, which creates its own reality. What is that
Reality is a very subjective affair. I can only define it
as a kind of gradual accumulation of information; and as
specialization. If we take a lily, for instance, or any other
kind of natural object, a lily is more real to a naturalist
than it is to an ordinary person. But it is still more real to
a botanist. And yet another stage of reality is reached with
that botanist who is a specialist in lilies. You can get nearer
and nearer, so to speak, to reality; but you never get near
enough because reality is an infinite succession of steps,
levels of perception, false bottoms, and hence unquenchable,
unattainable. You can know more and more about one thing but
you can never know everything about one thing: it's hopeless.
So that we live surrounded by more or less ghostly objects--
that machine, there, for instance. It's a complete ghost to
me-- 1 don't understand a thing about it and, well, it's a
mystery to me, as much of a mystery as it would be to Lord
You say that reality is an intensely subjective matter,
but in your books it seems to me that y ou seem to take an
almost perverse delight in literary deception.
The fake move in a chess problem, the illusion of a
solution or the conjuror's magic: I used to be a little
conjuror when I was a boy. I loved doing simple tricks--
turning water into wine, that kind of thing; but I think I'm in
good company because all art is deception and so is nature; all
is deception in that good cheat, from the insect that mimics a
leaf to the popular enticements of procreation. Do you know how
poetry started? I always think that it started when a cave boy
came running back to the cave, through the tall grass, shouting
as he ran, "Wolf, wolf," and there was no wolf. His baboon-like
parents, great sticklers for the truth, gave him a hiding, no
doubt, but poetry had been born-- the tall story had been born
in the tall grass.
You talk about games of deception, like chess and
conjuring. Are you, in fact, fond of them yourself?
I am fond of chess but deception in chess, as in art, is
only part of the game; it's part of the combination, part of
the delightful possibilities, illusions, vistas of thought,
which can be false vistas, perhaps. I think a good combination
should always contain a certain element of deception.
You spoke about conjuring in Russia, as a child, and
one remembers that some of the most intense passages in a
number of your books are concerned with the memories of your
lost childhood. What is the importance of memory to you?
Memory is, really, in itself, a tool, one of the many
tools that an artist uses; and some recollections, perhaps
intellectual rather than emotional, are very brittle and
sometimes apt to lose the flavor of reality when they are
immersed by the novelist in his book, when they are given away
Do you mean that you lose the sense of a memory once
you have written it down?
Sometimes, but that only refers to a certain type of
intellectual memory. But, for instance-- oh, I don't know, the
freshness of the flowers being arranged by the undergardener in
the cool drawing-room of our country house, as I was running
downstairs with my butterfly net on a summer day half a century
ago: that kind of thing is absolutely permanent, immortal, it
can never change, no matter how many times I farm it out to my
characters, it is always there with me; there's the red sand,
the white garden bench, the black fir trees, everything, a
permanent possession. I think it is all a matter of love: the
more you love a memory, the stronger and stranger it is. I
think it's natural that I have a more passionate affection for
my old memories, the memories of my childhood, than I have for
later ones, so that Cambridge in England or Cambridge in New
England is less vivid in my mind and in my self than some kind
of nook in the park on our country estate in Russia.
Do you think that such an intense power of memory as
yours has inhibited your desire to invent in your books?
No, I don't think so.
The same sort of incident turns up again and again,
sometimes in slightly different forms. That depends on my
Do you still feel Russian, in spite of so many years in
I do feel Russian and I think that my Russian wwks, the
various novels and poems and short stories that I have written
during these years, are a kind of tribute to Russia. And I
might define them as the waves and ripples of the shock caused
by the disappearance of the Russia of my childhood. And
recently I have paid tribute to her in an English work on
Why are you so passionately concerned with Pushkin?
It started with a translation, a literal translation. T
thought it was very difficult and the more difficult it was,
the more exciting it seemed. So it's not so much caring about
Pushkin-- 1 love him dearly of course, he is the greatest
Russian poet, there is no doubt about that-- but it was again
the combination of the excitement of finding the right way of
doing things and a certain approach to reality, to the reality
of Pushkin, through my own translations. As a matter of fact I
am very much concerned with things Russian and I have just
finished revising a good translation of my novel, The
Gift, which I wrote about thirty years ago. It is
the longest, I think the best, and the most nostalgic of my
Russian novels. It portrays the adventures, literary and
romantic, of a young Russian expatriate in Berlin, in the
twenties; but he's not myself. I am very careful to keep my
characters beyond the limits of my own identity. Only the
background of the novel can be said to contain some
biographical touches. And there is another thing about it that
pleases me: probably my favorite Russian poem is one that I
happened to give to my main character in that novel.
Written by yourself?
Which I wrote myself, of course; and now I'm wondering
whether I might be able to recite it in Russian. Let me explain
it: there are two persons involved, a boy and a girl, standing
on a bridge above the reflected sunset, and there are swallows
skimming by, and the boy turns to the girl and says to her,
"Tell me, will you always remember that swallow?-- not
any kind of swallow, not those swallows, there, but that
particular swallow that skimmed by?" And she says, "Of course I
will," and they both burst into tears.
Odnazhdy my pod-vecher oba
Stoyali na starom mostu.
Skazhi mne, sprosil ya, do groba
Zapomnish' von lastochku tu?
I ty otvechala: eshchyo by!
I kak my zaplakali oba,
Kak vskriknula zhizn' na letu!
Do zavtra, naveki, do groba,
Odnazhdy na starom mostu . . .
What language do you think in?
I don't think in any language. I think in images. I don't
believe that people think in languages. They don't move their
lips when they think. It is only a certain type of illiterate
person who moves his lips as he reads or ruminates. No, I think
in images, and now and then a Russian phrase or an English
phrase will form with the foam of the brainwave, but that's
You started writing in Russian and then you switched to
English, didn't you?
Yes, that was a very difficult kind of switch. My private
tragedy, which cannot, indeed should not, be anybody's concern,
is that I had to abandon my natural language, my natural idiom,
my rich, infinitely rich and docile Russian tongue, for a
second-rate brand of English.
You have written a shelf of books in English as well as
your books in Russian. And of them only Lolita is well
known. Does it annoy you to be the Lolita man?
No, I wouldn't say that, because Lolita is a
special favorite of mine. It was my most difficult book-- the
book that treated of a theme which was so distant, so remote,
from my own emotional life that it gave me a special pleasure
to use my combinational talent to make it real.
Were you surprised at the wild success when it came?
I was surprised that the book was published at all.
Did you, in fact, have any doubts about whether
Lolita ought to be printed, considering its subject matter?
No; after all, when you write a book you generally
envisage its publication, in some far future. But I was pleased
that the book was published.
What was the genesis of Lolita?
She was born a long time ago, it must have been in 1939,
in Paris; the first little throb of Lolita went through
me in Paris in '39, or perhaps early in '40, at a time when I
was laid up with a fierce attack of intercostal neuralgia which
is a very painful complaint-- rather like the fabulous stitch
in Adam's side. As far as I can recall the first shiver of
inspiration was somehow prompted in a rather mysterious way by
a newspaper story, I think it was in Paris Soir, about
an ape in the Paris Zoo, who after months of coaxing by
scientists produced finally the first drawing ever charcoaled
by an animal, and this sketch, reproduced in the paper,
showed the bars of the poor creature's cage.
Did Humbert Humbert, the middle-aged seducer, have any
No. He's a man I devised, a man with an obsession, and I
think many of my characters have sudden obsessions, different
kinds of obsessions; but he never existed. He did exist after I
had written the book. While I was writing the book, here and
there in a newspaper I would read all sorts of accounts about
elderly gentlemen who pursued little girls: a kind of
interesting coincidence but that's about all.
Did Lolita herself have an original?
No, Lolita didn't have any original. She was born in my
own mind. She never existed. As a matter of fact, I don't know
little girls very well. When I consider this subject, I don't
think I know a single little girl. I've met them socially now
and then, but Lolita is a figment of my imagination.
Why did you write Lolita?
It was an interesting thing to do. Why did I write any of
my books, after all? For the sake of the pleasure, for the sake
of the difficulty. I have no social purpose, no moral message;
I've no general ideas to exploit, I just like composing riddles
with elegant solutions.
How do you write? What are your methods?
I find now that index cards are really the best kind of
paper that I can use for the purpose. I don't write
consecutively from the beginning to the next chapter and so on
to the end. I just fill in the gaps of the picture, of this
jigsaw puzzle which is quite clear in my mind, picking out a
piece here and a piece there and filling out part of the sky
and part of the landscape and part of the-- 1 don't know, the
Another aspect of your not entirely usual consciousness
is the extraordinary importance you attach to color.
Color. I think I was born a painter-- really!-- and up to
my fourteenth year, perhaps, I used to spend most of the day
drawing and painting and I was supposed to become a painter in
due time. But I don't think I had any real talent there.
However, the sense of color, the love of color, I've had all my
life: and also I have this rather freakish gift of seeing
letters in color. It's called color hearing. Perhaps one in a
thousand has that. But I'm told by psychologists that most
children have it, that later they lose that aptitude when they
are told by stupid parents that it's all nonsense, an A isn't
black, a B isn't brown-- now don't be absurd.
What colors are your own initials, VN?
V is a kind of pale, transparent pink: I think it's
called, technically, quartz pink: this is one of the closest
colors that I can connect with the V. And the N, on the other
hand, is a greyish-yellowish oatmeal color. But a funny thing
happens: my wife has this gift of seeing letters in color, too,
but her colors are completely different. There are, perhaps,
two or three letters where we coincide, but otherwise the
colors are quite different. It turned out, we discovered one
day, that my son, who was a little boy at the time-- 1 think he
was ten or eleven-- sees letters in colors, too. Quite
naturally he would say, "Oh, this isn't that color, this is
this color," and so on. Then we asked him to list his colors
and we discovered that in one case, one letter which he sees as
purple, or perhaps mauve, is pink to me and blue to my wife.
This is the letter M. So the combination of pink and blue makes
lilac in his case. Which is as if genes were painting in
Whom do you write for? What audience?
I don't think that an artist should bother about his
audience. His best audience is the person he sees in his
shaving mirror every morning. I think that the audience an
artist imagines, when he imagines that kind of a thing, is a
room filled with people wearing his own mask.
In your books there is an almost extravagant concern
with masks and disguises: almost as if you were trying to hide
yourself behind something, as if you'd lost yourself.
Oh, no. I think I'm always there; there's no difficulty
about that. Of course there is a certain type of critic who
when reviewing a work of fiction keeps dotting all the i's with
the author's head. Recently one anonymous clown, writing on
Pale Fire in a New York book review, mistook all the
declarations of my invented commentator in the book for my own.
It is also true that some of my more responsible characters are
given some of my own ideas. There is John Shade in Pale
Fire, the poet. He does borrow some of my own opinions.
There is one passage in his poem, which is part of the book,
where he says something I think I can endorse. He says-- let me
quote it, if I can remember; yes, I think I can do it: "I
loathe such things as jazz, the white-hosed moron torturing a
black bull, rayed with red, abstractist bric-a-brac,
primitivist folk masks, progressive schools, music in
supermarkets, swimming pools, brutes, bores, class-conscious
philistines, Freud, Marx, fake thinkers, puffed-up poets,
frauds and sharks." That's how it goes.
It is obvious that neither John Shade nor his creator
are very clubbable men.
I don't belong to any club or group. I don't fish, cook,
dance, endorse books, sign books, co-sign declarations, eat
oysters, get drunk, go to church, go to analysts, or take part
It sometimes seems to me that in your novels-- in
Laughter in the Dark for instance-- there is a strain of
perversity amounting to cruelty.
I don't know. Maybe. Some of my characters are, no doubt,
pretty beastly, but I really don't care, they are outside my
inner self like the mournful monsters of a cathedral fa?ade--
demons placed there merely to show that they have been booted
out. Actually, I'm a mild old gentleman who loathes cruelty.