In September, 1965, Robert Hughes visited me here to make
a filmed interview for the Television 13 Educational Program in
New York. At our initial meetings I read from prepared cards,
and this part of the interview is given below. The rest,
represented by some fifty pages typed from the tape, is too
colloquial and rambling to suit the scheme of the present book.
As with Gogol and even James Ag?e, there is
occasionally confusion about the pronunciation of your last
name. How does one pronounce it correctly?
It is indeed a tricky name. It is often misspelt, because
the eye tends to regard the "a" of the first syllable as a
misprint and then tries to restore the symmetrical sequence by
triplicating the "o"-- filling up the row of circles, so to
speak, as in a game of crosses and naughts. No-bow-cough. How
ugly, how wrong. Every author whose name is fairly often
mentioned in periodicals develops a bird-watcher's or
caterpillar-picker's knack when scanning an article. But in my
case I always get caught by the word "nobody" when capitalized
at the beginning of a sentence. As to pronunciation, Frenchmen
of course say Nabokoff, with the accent on the last
syllable. Englishmen say Nabokov, accent on the first,
and Italians say Nabokov, accent in the middle, as Russians
also do. Na-bo-kov. A heavy open "o" as in
"Knickerbocker". My New England ear is not offended by the long
elegant middle "o" of Nabokov as delivered in American
academies. The awful "Na-bah-kov" is a despicable gutterism.
Well, you can make your choice now. Incidentallv, the first
name is pronounced Vladeemer-- rhyming with "redeemer"-- not
Vladimir rhyming with Faddimere (a place in England, I think).
How about the name of your extraordinary creature.
The "p" is sounded, that's all. But since the "p" is mute
in English words starting w-ith "pn", one is prone to insert a
supporting "uh" sound-- "Puh-- nin"-- which is wrong. To get
the "pn" right, try the combination "Up North", or still better
"Up, Nina!", leaving out the initial "u". Pnorth, Pnina, Pmn.
Can you do that? . . . That's fine.
You 're responsible for brilliant summaries of the
lives and works of Pushkin and Gogol. How would you summarize
It is not so easy to summarize something which is not
quite finished yet. However, as I've pointed outelsewhere, the
first part of my life is marked by a rather pleasing
chronological neatness. I spent my first twenty years in
Russia, the next twenty in Western Europe, and the twenty years
after that, from 1940 to 1960, in America. I've been living in
Europe again for five years now, but I cannot promise to stay
around another fifteen so as to retain the rhythm. Nor can I
predict what new books I may write. My best Russian novel is a
thing called, in English, The Gift. My two best American
ones are Lolita and Pale Fire.
I am now in the process of translating Lolita into
Russian, which is like completing the circle of my creative
life. Or rather starting a new spiral. I've lots of
difficulties with technical terms, especially with those
pertaining to the motor car, which has not really blended with
Russian life as it, or rather she, has with American life. I
also have trouble with finding the right Russian terms for
clothes, varieties of shoes, items of furniture, and so on. On
the other hand, descriptions of tender emotions, of my
nymphet's grace and of the soft, melting American landscape
slip very delicately into lyrical Russian. The book will be
published in America or perhaps Paris; traveling poets and
diplomats will smuggle it into Russia, I hope. Shall I read
three lines of this Russian version? Of course, incredible as
it may seem, perhaps not everybody remembers the way
Lolita starts in English. So perhaps I should do the
first lines in English first. Note that for the necessary
effect of dreamy tenderness both "l"s and the "t" and indeed
the whole word should be iberized and not pronounced the
American way with crushed "l"s, a coarse "t", and a long "o":
"Eolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul.
Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps
down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta."
Now comes the Russian. Here the first syllable of her name
sounds more like an "ah" sound than an "o" sound, but the rest
is like Spanish: (Reads in Russian) "Lah-lee-ta, svet moey
zhizni, ogon' moih chresel. Greh may, dusha moya."' And so
Beyond what's stated and implied in your various
prefaces, have you anything to add about your readers and/or
Well, when I think about critics in general, I divide the
family of critics into three subfamilies. First, professional
reviewers, mainly hacks or hicks, regularly filling up their
allotted space in the cemeteries of Sunday papers. Secondly,
more ambitious critics \vho every other year collect their
magazine articles into volumes with allusive scholarly titles--
The Undiscovered Country, that kind of thing. And
thirdly, my fellow writers, who review a book they like or
loathe. Many bright blurbs and dark feuds have been engendered
that way. When an author whose work I admire praises my work, I
cannot help experiencing, besides a ripple of almost human
warmth, a sense of harmony and satisfied logic. But I have also
the idiotic feeling that he or she will very soon cool down and
vaguely turn away if I do not do something at once, but I don't
know what to do, and I never do anything, and next morning cold
clouds conceal the bright mountains. In all other cases, I must
confess, I yawn and forget. Of course, every worthwhile author
has quite a few clowns and criticules-- wonderful word:
criti-cules, or criticasters-- around him, demolishing one
another rather than him with their slapsticks. Then, also, my
various disgusts which I like to voice now and then seem to
irritate people. I happen to find second-rate and ephemeral the
works of a number of puffed-up writers-- such as Camus, Lorca,
Kazantzakis, D. H. Lawrence, Thomas Mann, Thomas Wolfe, and
literally hundreds of other "great" second-raters. And for
this, of course, I'm automatically disliked by their
camp-followers, kitsch-followers, fashion-followers, and all
kinds of automatons. Generally speaking, Vm supremely
indifferent to adverse criticism in regard to my fiction. But
on the other hand, I enjoy retaliating when some pompous dunce
finds fault with my translations and divulges a farcical
ignorance of the Russian language and literature.
Would you describe your first reactions to America? And
how you first came to write in English?
I had started rather sporadically to compose in English a
few years before migrating to America, where I arrived in the
lilac mist of a May morning, May 28, 1940. In the late
thirties, when living in Germany and France, I had translated
two of my Russian books into English and had written my first
straight English novel, the one about Sebastian Knight. Then,
in America, I stopped writing in my native tongue altogether
except for an occasional poem which, incidentally, caused my
Russian poetry to improve rather oddly in urgency and
concentration. My complete switch from Russian prose to English
prose was exceedingly painful-- like learning anew to handle
things after losing seven or eight fingers in an explosion. I
have described the writing of Lolita in the afterpiece
appended in '58 to the American edition. The book was first
published in Paris at a time when nobody else wanted it, 10
years ago now-- 10 years-- how time crawls!
As to Pale Fire, although I had devised some odds
and ends of Zemblan lore in the late fifties in lthaca, New
York, I felt the first real pang of the novel, a rather
complete vision of its structure in miniature, and jotted it
dow^n-- 1 have it in one of my pocket diaries-- while sailing
from New York to France in 1959. The American poem discussed in
the book by His Majesty, Charles of Zembia, was the hardest
stuff I ever had to compose. Most of it I wrote in Nice, in
winter, walking along the Promenade des Anglais or rambling in
the neighboring hills. A good deal of Kinbote's commentary was
written here in the Montreux Palace garden, one of the most
enchanting and inspiring gardens I know.* I'm especially fond
of its weeping cedar, the arboreal counterpart of a very shaggy
dog with hair hanging over its eyes.
What is your approach to the teaching of literature?
I can give you some examples. When studying Kafka's famous
story, my students had to know exactly what kind of insect
Gregor turned into (it was a domed beetle, not the flat
cockroach of sloppy translators) and they had to be able to
describe exactly the arrangement of the rooms, with the
position of doors and furniture, in the Sarnsa family's flat.
They had to know the map of Dublin for Ulysses. I
believe in stressing the specific detail; the general ideas can
take care of themselves. Ulysses, of course, is a divine
work of art and will live on despite the academic nonentities
who turn it into a collection of symbols or Greek myths. I once
gave a student a C-minus, or perhaps a D-plus, just for
applying to its chapters the titles borrowed from Homer while
not even noticing the comings and goings of the man in the
brown mackintosh. He didn't even know who the man in the brown
mackintosh was. Oh, yes, let people compare me to Joyce by all
means, but my English is patball to Joyce's champion game.
How did you come to live in Switzerland?
The older I get and the more T weigh, the harder it is for
me to get out of this or that comfortable armchair or deckchair
into which I have sunk with an exhalation of content. Nowadays
I find it as difficult to travel from Montreux to Lausanne as
to travel to Paris, London, or New- York. On the other hand,
I'm ready to walk 10 or 15 miles per day, up and down mountain
trails, in search of butterflies, as I do every summer. One of
the reasons I live in Montreux is because I find the view from
my easy chair wonderfully soothing and exhilarating according
to my mood or the mood of the lake. I hasten to add that not
only am I not a tax dodger, but that I also have to pay a plump
little Swiss tax on top of my massive American taxes which are
so high they almost cut off that beautiful view. I feel very
nostalgic about America and as soon as I muster the necessary
energy I shall return there for good.
Where is the easy chair?
The easy chair is in the other room, in my study. It was a
metaphor, after all: the easy chair is the entire hotel, the
Where would you live in America?
I think I would like to live either in California, or in
New York, or in Cambridge, Mass. Or in a combination of
Because of your mastery of our language, you are
frequently compared with Joseph Conrad.
Well, I'll put it this way. When a boy, I was a voracious
reader, as all boy writers seem to be, and between 8 and 14 I
used to enjoy tremendously the romantic productions-- romantic
in the large sense-- of such people as Conan Doyle, Kipling,
Joseph Conrad, Chesterton, Oscar Wilde, and other authors who
are essentially writers for very young people. But as I have
well said somewhere before, I differ from Joseph Conradically.
First of ail, he had not been writing in his native tongue
before he became an English writer, and secondly, I cannot
stand today his polished clich?s and primitive clashes. He once
wrote that he preferred Mrs. Garnett's translation of Anna
Karenin to the original! This makes one dream-- "ca fait
rever" as Flaubert used to say when faced with some abysmal
stupidity. Ever since the days when such formidable
mediocrities as Galsworthy, Dreiser, a person called Tagore,
another called Maxim Gorky, a third called Romain Rolland, used
to be accepted as geniuses, I have been perplexed and amused by
fabricated notions about so-called "great books". That, for
instance, Mann's asinine Death in Venice or Pasternak's
melodramatic and vilely written Zhivago or Faulkner's
corncobby chronicles can be considered "masterpieces," or at
least what journalists call "great books," is to me an absurd
delusion, as when a hypnotiz.ed person makes love to a chair.
My greatest masterpieces of twentieth century prose are,
in this order: Joyce's Ulysses, Kafka's
Transformation, Biely's Petersburg, and the first
half of Proust's fairy tale In Search of Lost Time.
What do you think of American writing? I noticed there are
no American masterpieces on your list. What do you think of
American writing since 1945?
Well, seldom more than two or three really first-rate
writers exist simultaneously in a given generation. I think
that Salinger and Updike are by far the finest artists in
recent years. The sexy, phony type of best seller, the violent,
vulgar novel, the novelistic treatment of social or political
problems, and, in general, novels consisting mainly of dialogue
or social comment-- these are absolutely banned from my
bedside. And the popular mixture of pornography and idealistic
humhuggery makes me positively vomit.
What do you think of Russian writing since 1945?
Soviet literature . . . Well, in the first years after the
Bolshevik revolution, in the twenties and early thirties, one
could still distinguish through the dreadful platitudes of
Soviet propaganda the dying voice of an earlier culture. The
primitive and banal mentality of enforced politics-- any
politics-- can only produce primitive and banal art. This is
especially true of the so-called "social realist" and
"proletarian" literature sponsored by the Soviet police state.
Its jackbooted baboons have gradually exterminated the really
talented authors, the special individual, the fragile genius.
One of the saddest cases is perhaps that of Osip Mandelshtam--
a wonderful poet, the greatest poet among those trying to
survive in Russia under the Soviets-- whom that brutal and
imbecile administration persecuted and finally drove to death
in a remote concentration camp. The poems he heroically kept
composing until madness eclipsed his limpid gifts are admirable
specimens of a human mind at its deepest and highest. Reading
them enhances one's healthy contempt for Soviet ferocity.
Tyrants and torturers will never manage to hide their comic
stumbles behind their cosmic acrobatics. Contemptuous laughter
is all right, but it is not enough in the way of moral relief.
And when I read Mandelshtam's poems composed under the accursed
rule of those beasts, I feel a kind of helpless shame, being so
free to live and think and write and speak in the free part of
the world.-- That's the only time when liberty is bitter.
WALKING IN MONTREUX
This is a ginkgo-- the sacred tree of China, now rare in
the wild state. The curiously veined leaf resembles a butterfly
-- which reminds me of a little poem:
The ginkgo leaf, in golden hue, when shed,
A muscat grape,
Is an old-fashioned butterfly, ill-spread,
This, in my novel Pale Fire, is a short poem by
John hade-- by far the greatest of invented poets.
PASSING A SWIMMING POOL
I don't mind sharing the sun with sunbathers but I dislike
immersing myself in a swimming pool. It is after all only a big
tub where other people join you-- makes one think of those
horrible Japanese communal bathtubs, full of a loating family,
or a shoal of businessmen.
DOG NEAR TELEPHONE BOOTH
Must remember the life line of that leash from the meek
dog to the talkative lady in that telephone booth. "A long
wait"-- good legend for an oil painting of the naturalistic
BOYS KICKING A BALL IN A GARDEN
Many years have passed since I gathered a soccer ball to
my breast. I was an erratic but rather spectacular goalkeeper
in my Cambridge University days 45 years ago. After that I
played on a German team when I was about 30, and saved my last
game in 1936 when I regained consciousness in the pavilion,
knocked out by a kick but still clutching the ball which an
impatient teammate was trying to pry out of my arms.
DURING A STROLL NEAR VILLENEUVE
Late September in Central Europe is a bad season for
collecting butterflies. This is not Arizona, alas.
In this grassy nook near an old vineyard above the Lake of
Geneva, a few fairly fresh females of the very common Meadow
Brown still flutter about here and there-- lazy old widows.
Here is a little sky-blue butterfly, also a very common
thing, once known as the Clifden Blue in England.
The sun is getting hotter. I enjoy hunting in the buff but
I doubt anything interesting can be obtained today. This
pleasant lane on the banks of Geneva Lake teems with
butterflies in summer. Chapman's Blue and Mann's White, two
rather local things, occur not far from here. But the white
butterflies we see in this particular glade, on this nice but
commonplace autumn day, are the ordinary Whites; the Small
White and Green-Veined White.
Ah, a caterpillar. Handle with care. Its golden-brown coat
can cause a nasty itch. This handsome worm will become next
year a fat, ugly, drab-colored moth.
IN ANSWER TO THE QUESTION:
WHAT SCENES ONE WOULD
LIKE TO HAVE FILMED
Shakespeare in the part of the King's Ghost. The beheading
of Louis the Sixteenth, the drums drowning his speech on the
Herman Melville at breakfast, feeding a sardine to his
Poe's wedding. Lewis Carroll's picnics.
The Russians leaving Alaska, delighted with the deal. Shot
of a seal applauding.