On August 18, 1964, Jane Howard of Life magazine
sent me eleven questions. I have kept the typescript of my
replies. In mid-September she arrived in Montreux with the
photographer Henry Grossman. Text and pictures appeared in the
November 20 issue of Life.
What writers and persons and places have influenced you
In my boyhood I was an extraordinarily avid reader. By the
age of 14 or 15 I had read or re-read all Tolstoy in Russian,
all Shakespeare in English, and all Flaubert in French--
besides hundreds of other books. Today I can always tell when a
sentence I compose happens to resemble in cut and intonation
that of any of the writers I loved or detested half a century
ago; but I do not believe that any particular writer has had
any definite influence upon me. As to the influence of places
and persons, I owe many metaphors and sensuous associations to
the North Russian landscape of my boyhood, and I am also aware
that my father was responsible for my appreciating very early
in life the thrill of a great poem.
Have you ever seriously contemplated a career other
than in letters?
Frankly, I never thought of letters as a career. Writing
has always been for me a blend of dejection and high spirits, a
torture and a pastime-- but I never expected it to be a source
of income. On the other hand, I have often dreamt of a long and
exciting career as an obscure curator of lepidoptera in a great
Which of your writings has pleased you most?
I would say that of all my books Lolita has left me
with the most pleasurable afterglow-- perhaps because it is the
purest of all, the most abstract and carefully contrived. I am
probably responsible for the odd fact that people don't seem to
name their daughters Lolita any more. I have heard of young
female poodles being given that name since 1956, but of no
human beings. Well-wishers have tried to translate
Lolita into Russian, but with such execrable results
that I'm now doing a translation myself. The word "jeans," for
example, is translated in Russian dictionaries as "wide, short
trousers"-- a totally unsatisfactory definition.
In the foreword to The Defense you allude to
psychiatry. Do you think the dependence of analyzed on analysts
is a great danger?
I cannot conceive bow anybody in his right mind
should go to a psychoanalyst, but of course if one's mind is
deranged one might try anything; after all, quacks and cranks,
shamans and holy men, kings and hypnotists have cured people--
especially hysterical people. Our grandsons no doubt will
regard today's psychoanalysts with the same amused contempt as
we do astrology and phrenology. One of the greatest pieces of
charlatanic, and satanic, nonsense imposed on a gullible public
is the Freudian interpretation of dreams. I take gleeful
pleasure every morning in refuting the Viennese quack by
recalling and explaining the details of my dreams without using
one single reference to sexual symbols or mythical complexes. I
urge my potential patients to do likewise.
How do your views on politics and religion affect what
I have never belonged to any political party but have
always loathed and despised dictatorships and police states, as
well as any sort of oppression. This goes for regimentation of
thought, governmental censorship, racial or religious
persecution, and all the rest of it. Whether or not my simple
credo affects my writing does not interest me. I suppose that
my indifference to religion is of the same nature as my dislike
of group activities in the domain of political or civic
commitments. I have allowed some of my creatures in some of my
novels to be restless freethinkers but here again I do not care
one bit what kind of faith or brand of non-faith my reader may
assign to their maker.
Would you have liked to have lived at a time other than
My choice of "when" would be influenced by that of
"where." As a matter of fact, I would have to construct a
mosaic of time and space to suit my desires and demands. It
would be too complicated to tabulate all the elements of this
combination. But I know pretty well what it should include. It
should include a warm climate, daily baths, an absence of radio
music and traffic noise, the honey of ancient Persia, a
complete microfilm library, and the unique and indescribable
rapture of learning more and more about the moon and the
planets. In other words, I think I would like my head to be in
the United States of the nineteen-sixties, but would not mind
distributing some of my other organs and limbs through various
centuries and countries.
With what living writers do you feel a particular
When Mr. N. learns from an interview that Mr. X., another
writer, has named as his favorites Mr. A., Mr. B. and Mr. N.,
this inclusion may puzzle Mr. N. who considers, say, Mr. A.'s
work to be primitive and trite. I would not like to puzzle Mr.
C., Mr. D., or Mr. X., all of whom I like.
Do you anticipate that more of your works will be made
into films? On the basis of Lolita, does the prospect
I greatly admired the film Lolita as a film-- but
was sorry not to have been given an opportunity to collaborate
in its actual making. People who liked my novel said the film
was too reticent and incomplete. If, however, all the next
pictures based on my books are as charming as Kubrick's, I
shall not grumble too much.
Which of the languages you speak do you consider the
My head says English, my heart, Russian, my ear, French.
Why do you prefer Montreux as a headquarters? Do you in
any way miss the America you parodied so exquisitely in
Lolita^ Do you find that Europe and the US are coming to
resemble each other to a discouraging degree?
I think I am trying to develop, in this rosy exile, the
same fertile nostalgia in regard to America, my new country, as
I evolved for Russia, my old one, in the first post-revolution
years of West-European expatriation. Of course, I miss
America-- even Miss America. If Europe and America are coming
to resemble each other more and more-- why should I be
discouraged? Amusing, perhaps, and, perhaps, not quite true,
but certainly not discouraging in any sense I can think of. My
wife and I are very fond of Montreux, the scenery of which I
needed for Pale Fire, and still need for another book.
There are also family reasons for our living in this part of
Europe. I have a sister in Geneva and a son in Milan. He is a
graduate of Harvard who came to Italy to complete his operatic
training, which he combines with racing an Italian car in major
events and translating the early works of his father from
Russian into English.
What is your prognosis for the health of Russian letters?
There is no plain answer to your question. The trouble is
that no government however intelligent or humane is capable of
generating great artists, although a bad government certainly
can pester, thwart, and suppress them. We must also remember--
and this is very important-- that the only people who flourish
under all types of government are the Philistines. In the aura
of mild regimes there is exactly as rare a chance of a great
artist's appearing on the scene as there is in the less happy
times of despicable dictatorships. Therefore I cannot predict
anything though I certainly hope that under the influence of
the West, and especially under that of America, the Soviet
police state will gradually wither away. Incidentally, I
deplore the attitude of foolish or dishonest people who
ridiculously equate Stalin with McCarthy, Auschwitz with the
atom bomb, and the ruthless imperialism of the USSR with the
earnest and unselfish assistance extended by the USA to nations
Dear Miss Howard, allow me to add the following three
1) My answers must be published accurately and completely:
verbatim, if quoted; in a faithful version, if not.
2) I must see the proofs of the interview-- semifinal and
3) I have the right to correct therein all factual errors
and specific slips ("Mr. Nabokov is a small man with long