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1967 The Paris Review

"Most of the questions were submitted by Herbert Gold,
during a visit to Montreux in September, 1966.

Некоторые НАБОКОВские интервью / Nabokov's interview

Источник: www


     Most  of  the  questions  were  submitted by Herbert Gold,
during a  visit  to  Montreux  in  September,  1966.  The  rest
(asterisked)  were  mailed  to  me  by  George A. Plimpton. The
combined set appeared in The Paris  Review  of  October,

     Good morning. Let me ask forty-odd questions. 

     Good morning. I am ready.

     Your  sense  of  the  immorality  of  the  relationship
between Humbert Humbert and Lolita is very strong. In Hollywood
and New York, however, relationships are frequent  between  men
of  forty and girls very little older than Lolita. They marry--
to no particular public outrage; rather, public cooing. 

     No, it is not my sense of  the  immorality  of  the
Humbert  Humbert-Lolita  relationship  that  is  strong;  it is
Humbert's sense. He cares, I do not. I  do  not  give  a
damn  for  public morals, in America or elsewhere. And, anyway,
cases of men in their forties marrying girls in their teens  or
early  twenties have no bearing on Lolita whatever. Humbert was
fond of "little girls"-- not simply "young girls." Nymphets are
girl-children, not  starlets  and  "sex  kittens."  Lolita  was
twelve,  not  eighteen,  when Humbert met her. You may remember
that by the time she is fourteen,  he  refers  to  her  as  his
"aging mistress."

     One  critic  has  said about you that "his feelings are
like no one else's. " Does this make sense to you? Or  does  it
mean  that  you  know  your  feelings  better  than others know
theirs? Or that you have discovered yourself at  other  levels?
Or simply that your history is unique? 

     I do not recall that article; but if a critic makes such a
statement,  it  must  surely  mean  that  he  has  explored the
feelings of literally millions of people,  in  at  least  three
countries,  before  reaching  his  conclusion. If so, lama rare
fowl indeed. If, on the  other  hand,  he  has  merely  limited
himself  to  quizzing  members  of  his  family  or  club,  his
statement cannot be discussed seriously.

     Another  critic  has  written  that  your  "worlds  are
static.  They  may become tense with obsession, but they do not
break apart like the worlds  of  everyday  reality.  "  Do  you
agree? Is there a static quality in your view of things? 

     Whose "reality"? "Everyday" where? Let me suggest that the
very term   "everyday  reality"  is  utterly  static  since  it
presupposes  a  situation  that  is   permanently   observable,
essentially  objective,  and  universally  known. I suspect you
have  invented  that  expert  on  "everyday  reality."  Neither

     He  does  (names  him).  A third critic has said
that you "diminish" your characters "to the  point  where  they
become  ciphers in a cosmic farce. " I disagree; Humbert, while
comic, retains a touching and insistent quality-- that  of  the
spoiled artist. 

     I  would put it differently: Humbert Humbert is a vain and
cruel wretch who manages to appear "touching." That epithet, in
its true, tear-iridized sense, can only apply to my poor little
girl. Besides, how can I "diminish" to the level of ciphers, et
cetera,  characters  that  I  have  invented  myself?  One  can
"diminish" a biographee, but not an eidolon.


     **E.  M.  Forster speaks of his major characters sometimes
taking over and dictating the course of his  novels.  Has  this
ever  been  a  problem for you, or are you in complete command?

     My knowledge of Mr. Forster's  works  is  limited  to  one
novel  which  I  dislike; and anyway it was not he who fathered
that trite little whimsy about characters getting out of  hand;
it  is as old as the quills, although of course one sympathizes
with his people if they try to wriggle out of that  trip
to  India  or whereever he takes them. My characters are galley

     **Clarence Brown of Princeton has pointed out  striking
similarities  in  your  work.  He  refers  to you as "extremely
repetitious" and that in  wildly  different  ways  you  are  in
essence  saying  the  same  thing.  He speaks of fate being the
"muse of Nabokov." Are  you  consciously  aware  of  "repeating
yourself,  "  or  to  put it another way, that you strive for a
conscious unity to your shelf of books? 

     I do not think I have seen Clarence Brown's essay, but  he
may  have  something  there.  Derivative writers seem versatile
because they imitate many others, past  and  present.  Artistic
originality has only its own self to copy.

     **Do you think literary criticism is at all purposeful?
Either in general, or specifically about y our own books? Is it
ever instructive? 

     The purpose of a critique is to say something about a book
the critic has or has not read. Criticism can be instructive in
the sense  that  it  gives readers, including the author of the
book, some information  about  the  critic's  intelligence,  or
honesty, or both.

     **And  the  function  of  the  editor? Has one ever had
literary advice to offer? 

     By "editor" I suppose you mean proofreader. Among these  I
have  known  limpid  creatures of limitless tact and tenderness
who would discuss with me a semicolon as if it were a point  of
honor-- which, indeed, a point of art often is. But I have also
come across a few pompous avuncular brutes who would attempt to
"make suggestions" which I countered with a thunderous "stet!"

     Are  you a lepidopterist, stalking your victims? If so,
doesn't your laughter startle them? 

     On the contrary, it lulls them into the  state  of  torpid
security  which  an  insect  experiences  when mimicking a dead
leaf. Though by no means an avid reader of reviews dealing with
my own stuff, I happen to remember the essay by  a  young  lady
who  attempted to find entomological symbols in my fiction. The
essay might have been amusing had  she  known  something  about
Lepidoptera.  Alas,  she  revealed  complete  ignorance and the
muddle of terms she employed proved  to  be  only  jarring  and

     How  would  y  ou  de  fine  y  our alienation from the
so-called "White Russian " refugees? 

     Well, historically I am a "White  Russian"  myself,  since
all  Russians  who  left  Russia  as my family did in the first
years of the Bolshevist tyranny because of their opposition  to
it  were  and remained "White Russians" in the large sense. But
these refugees were split into as  many  social  fractions  and
political  factions  as  the  entire nation had been before the
Bolshevist coup.  I  do  not  mix  with  "black-hundred"  White
Russians and do not mix with the so-called "bolshevizans," that
is   "pinks."   On   the  other  hand,  I  have  friends  among
intellectual  Constitutional  Monarchists  as  well  as   among
intellectual   Social   Revolutionaries.   My   father  was  an
old-fashioned liberal, and I  do  not  mind  being  labeled  an
old-fashioned liberal too.

     How  would  you define your alienation from present-day

     As a deep distrust of the phony thaw now advertised. As  a
constant  awareness  of  unredeemable iniquities. As a complete
indifference to all that moves  a  patriotic  Sovetski  man  of
today. As the keen satisfaction of having discerned as early as
1918   (nineteen   eighteen)   the  meshchantsvo  (petty
bourgeois smugness, Philistine essence) of Leninism.

     **How do you now regard the poets Blok and  Mandelshtam
and others who were writing in the days before you left Russia?

     I  read  them in my boyhood, more than a half-century ago.
Ever since that time  I  have  remained  passionately  fond  of
Blok's  lyrics. His long pieces are weak, and the famous The
Twelve is dreadful, self-consciously  couched  in  a  phony
"primitive"  tone,  with a pink cardboard Jesus Christ glued on
at the end. As to Mandelshtam, I also knew him by heart, but he
gave me a less fervent pleasure. Today, through the prism of  a
tragic  fate,  his  poetry seems greater than it actually is. I
note incidentally that professors of  literature  still  assign
these two poets to different schools. There is only one school:
that of talent.

     /  know  your work has been read and is attacked in the
Soviet Union. How would you feel about a Soviet edition of your

     Oh, they are welcome to my work. As a matter of fact,  the
Editions   Victor  are  bringing  out  my  Invitation  to  a
Beheading in a reprint of the original Russian of 1935, and
a  New  York  publisher  (Phaedra)  is  printing   my   Russian
translation  of  Lolita. I am sure the Soviet Government
will be happy to admit officially a novel that seems to contain
a prophecy of Hitler's regime, and a novel that is  thought  to
condemn bitterly the American system of motels.

     Have you ever had contact with Soviet citizens? Of what

     I  have practically no contact with them though I did once
agree, in the early thirties or late twenties, to meet-- out of
sheer curiosity-- an  agent  from  Bolshevist  Russia  who  was
trying  hard to get emigre writers and artists to return to the
fold. He had a double name, Tarasov something, and had  written
a  novelette  entitled  Chocolate, and I thought I might
have some sport with him. I asked him would I be  permitted  to
write  freely  and would I be able to leave Russia if I did not
like it there. He said that I would be so busy liking it  there
that  I  would  have  no time to dream of going abroad again. I
would, he said, be perfectly free to choose  any  of  the  many
themes  Soviet  Russia bountifully allows a writer to use, such
as  farms,  factories,  forests  in  Pakistan--  oh,  lots   of
fascinating subjects. I said farms, et cetera, bored me, and my
wretched  seducer  soon  gave  up.  He had better luck with the
composer Prokofiev.

     Do you consider yourself an American? 

     Yes, I do. I am as  American  as  April  in  Arizona.  The
flora,  the  fauna,  the air of the Western states are my links
with Asiatic and Arctic Russia. Of course, I owe  too  much  to
the  Russian  language and landscape to be emotionally involved
in, say, American regional literature,  or  Indian  dances,  or
pumpkin  pie on a spiritual plane; but I do feel a suffusion of
warm, lighthearted pride when I show my green USA  passport  at
European frontiers. Crude criticism of American affairs offends
and   distresses   me.   In   home   politics   I  am  strongly
anti-segregationist. In foreign policy, I am definitely on  the
government's  side.  And  when  in  doubt,  I always follow the
simple method of choosing that line of conduct which may be the
most displeasing to the Reds and the Russells.

     Is there a community of which you consider  yourself  a

     Not really. I can mentally collect quite a large number of
individuals  whom  I  am  fond  of  but  they would form a very
disparate and discordant group if gathered in real life,  on  a
real   island.   Otherwise,  I  would  say  that  I  am  fairly
comfortable in the company of American intellectuals  who  have
read my books.

     **  What  is  your  opinion  of the academic world as a
milieu for the creative writer? Could you speak specifically of
the value or detriment of your teaching at Cornell? 

     A first-rate college library  with  a  comfortable  campus
around it is a fine milieu for a writer. There is of course the
problem  of  educating  the young. I remember how once, between
terms, not at Cornell, a student brought a transistor set  with
him  into  the reading room. He managed to state that 1) he was
playing "classical" music; that 2) he was  doing  it  "softly";
and  that  3) "there were not many readers around in summer." I
was there, a one-man multitude.

     Would  you  describe   your   relationship   with   the
contemporary  literary  community?  With  Edmund  Wilson,  Mary
McCarthy, your magazine editors and book publishers? 

     The only time I ever collaborated with any writer was when
I translated  with  Edmund  Wilson  Pushkin's   Mozart   and
Salieri  for the New Republic twenty-five years ago,
a rather paradoxical recollection in view of his making such  a
fool  of  himself  last  year  when  he  had  the  audacity  of
questioning my  understanding  of  Eugene  Onegin.  Mary
McCarthy,  on the other hand, has been very kind to me recently
in the same New Republic, although I do think she  added
quite  a  bit of her own angelica to the pale fire of Kinbote's
plum pudding. I prefer not to mention here my relationship with
Girodias. I have answered in Evergreenhis scurvy article
in the Olympia anthology. Otherwise, I am  on  excellent  terms
with all my publishers. My warm friendship with Catharine White
and Bill Maxwell of The New Yorker is something the most
arrogant author cannot evoke without gratitude and delight.

     **Could  you  say something of your work habits? Do you
write to a preplanned chart? Do you jump from  one  section  to
another,  or do you move from the beginning through to the end?

     The pattern of the thing precedes the thing. I fill in the
gaps of the crossword at any spot I  happen  to  choose.  These
bits  I  write  on  index  cards  until  the  novel is done. My
schedule is flexible  but  I  am  rather  particular  about  my
instruments:  lined  Bristol  cards and well-sharpened, not too
hard, pencils capped with erasers.

     Is there a particular picture of the  world  which  you
wish  to  develop?  The past is very present for you, even in a
novel of the "future, " such as Bend Sinister. Are you a
"nostalgist"? In what time would you prefer to live? 

     In  the  coming  days  of  silent  planes   and   graceful
aircycles,  and cloudless silvery skies, and a universal system
of padded underground roads to which trucks shall be  relegated
like Morlocks. As to the past, I would not mind retrieving from
various  corners  of  spacetime  certain lost comforts, such as
baggy trousers and long, deep bathtubs.

     You know, you do not have to answer all my Kinbote-like

     It would never do to start skipping the tricky  ones.  Let
us continue.

     Besides writing novels, what do you, or would you, like
most to do? 

     Oh, hunting butterflies, of course, and studying them. The
pleasures  and  rewards  of  literary  inspiration  are nothing
beside the  rapture  of  discovering  a  new  organ  under  the
microscope  or an undescribed species on a mountainside in Iran
or Peru. It is not improbable that had there been no revolution
in  Russia,  I  would   have   devoted   myself   entirely   to
lepidopterology and never written any novels at all.

     What  is  most  characteristic  of  poshlust  in
contemporary writing? Are there  temptations  for  you  in  the
sin of poshlust? Have you ever fallen? 

     "Poshlust,"     or    in    a    better    transliteration
poshlost, has many nuances  and  evidently  I  have  not
described  them  clearly  enough in my little book on Gogol, if
you  think  one  can  ask  anybody  if   he   is   tempted   by
poshlost.  Corny  trash, vulgar clich?s, Philistinism in
all its phases, imitations of imitations,  bogus  profundities,
crude,  moronic  and  dishonest  pseudo-literature--  these are
obvious examples. Now, if we want to pin  down  poshlost
in  contemporary  writing  we  must  look  for  it  in Freudian
symbolism, moth-eaten mythologies, social  comment,  humanistic
messages, political allegories, overconcern with class or race,
and  the journalistic generalities we all know. Poshlost
speaks in such concepts as "America is no better  than  Russia"
or   "We   all  share  in  Germany's  guilt."  The  flowers  of
poshlost bloom in such phrases and terms as "the  moment
of   truth,"   "charisma,"   "existential"   (used  seriously),
"dialogue" (as applied to political talks between nations), and
"vocabulary" (as applied to a dauber). Listing  in  one  breath
Auschwitz, Hiroshima, and Vietnam is seditious poshlost.
Belonging to a very select club (which sports one Jewish
name--  that of the treasurer) is genteel poshlost. Hack
reviews are frequently poshlost, but it  also  lurks  in
certain  highbrow  essays.  Poshlost  calls  Mr. Blank a
great  poet,  and  Mr.  Bluff  a   great   novelist.   One   of
poshlost's  favorite breeding places has always been the
Art Exhibition; there it is  produced  by  so-called  sculptors
working with the tools of wreckers, building crankshaft cretins
of  stainless  steel,  zen  stereos,  polystyrene  stink-birds,
objects trouv?s in latrines, cannon balls, canned balls.
There we admire the gabinetti wallpatterns of  so-called
abstract  artists,  Freudian  surrealism,  roric  smudges,  and
Rorschach blots-- all of it as corny in its own  right  as  the
academic "September Morns" and "Florentine Flowergirls" of half
a  century ago. The list is long, and, of course, everybody has
his b?te noire, his black pet, in the  series.  Mine  is
that  airline  ad: the snack served by an obsequious wench to a
young couple-- she eyeing ecstatically the cucumber canap?,  he
admiring  wistfully  the  hostess.  And, of course, Death in
Venice. You see the range.

     Are there contemporary writers you  follow  with  great

     There are several such writers, but I shall not name them.
Anonymous pleasure hurts nobody.

     Do you follow some with great pain? 

     No.  Many  accepted  authors  simply  do not exist for me.
Their names are engraved  on  empty  graves,  their  books  are
dummies,  they  are complete nonentities insofar as my taste in
reading is concerned. Brecht,  Faulkner,  Camus,  many  others,
mean  absolutely nothing to me, and I must fight a suspicion of
conspiracy against my brain when  I  see  blandly  accepted  as
"great   literature"   by   critics  and  fellow  authors  Lady
Chatterley's copulations or the  pretentious  nonsense  of  Mr.
Pound,  that  total fake. I note he has replaced Dr. Schweitzer
in some homes.

     **As an admirer of Borges and Joyce you seem  to  share
their  pleasure  in teasing the reader with tricks and puns and
puzzles. What do you think the relationship should  be  between
reader and author? 

     I  do not recollect any puns in Borges but then I read him
only in translation. Anyway,  his  delicate  little  tales  and
miniature  Minotaurs  have nothing in common with Joyce's great
machines. Nor do I find many puzzles  in  that  most  lucid  of
novels,   Ulysses.   On   the   other   hand,  I  detest
Finnegans Wake in which  a  cancerous  growth  of  fancy
word-tissue  hardly  redeems  the  dreadful  joviality  of  the
folklore and the easy, too easy, allegory.

     What have you learned from Joyce? 


     Oh, come. 

     James  Joyce  has  not  influenced  me   in   any   manner
whatsoever.  My  first  brief  contact  with Ulysses was
around 1920 at  Cambridge  University,  when  a  friend,  Peter
Mrozovski,  who  had brought a copy from Paris, chanced to read
to me, as he stomped up and down my  digs,  one  or  two  spicy
passages  from  Molly's  monologue,  which,  entre nous soit
dit, is the weakest chapter in the book. Only fifteen years
later, when I was already well formed as a writer and reluctant
to learn or unlearn anything, I read Ulysses  and  liked
it  enormously.  I am indifferent to Finnegans Wake as I
am to all regional literature written in dialect-- even  if  it
be the dialect of genius.

     Aren't you doing a book about fames Joyce? 

     But  not  only about him. What I intend to do is publish a
number of twenty-page essays  on  several  works--  Ulysses,
Madame  Bovary, Kafka's Transformation, Don Quixote,
and others-- all based on my Cornell and  Harvard  lectures.  I
remember with delight tearing apart Don Quixote, a cruel
and  crude  old  book,  before six hundred students in Memorial
Hall, much to the horror and embarrassment of some of  my  more
conservative colleagues.

     What about other influences? Pushkin? 

     In  a  way--  no  more than, say, Tolstoy or Turgenev were
influenced by the pride and purity of Pushkin's art.


     I was careful not to learn anything from him. As  a
teacher,  he  is dubious and dangerous. At his worst, as in his
Ukrainian stuff, he is a worthless writer; at his best,  he  is
incomparable and inimitable.

     Anyone else? 

     H. G. Wells, a great artist, was my favorite writer when I
was a  boy.  The  Passionate Friends, Ann Veronica, The Time
Machine, The Country of the Blind, ail  these  stories  are
far  better  than anything Bennett, or Conrad, or, in fact, any
of  Wells'  contemporaries  would  produce.  His   sociological
cogitations  can be safely ignored, of course, but his romances
and fantasias are superb. There was an awful moment  at  dinner
in  our  St. Petersburg house one night, when Zina?da Vengerov,
his translator, informed Wells, with a toss of her  head:  "You
know,   my   favorite  work  of  yours  is  The  Lost
World" "She means the  war  the  Martians  lost,"  said  my
father quickly.

     Did  you  learn  from your students at Cornell? Was the
experience purely a  financial  one?  Did  teaching  teach  you
anything valuable? 

     My  method  of  teaching precluded genuine contact with my
students. At best, they regurgitated a few  bits  of  my  brain
during   examinations.  Every  lecture  I  delivered  had  been
carefully, lovingly handwritten and typed out, and I  leisurely
read  it out in class, sometimes stopping to rewrite a sentence
and sometimes repeating a paragraph-- a  mnemonic  prod  which,
however,  seldom  provoked  any  change in the rhythm of wrists
taking it down. I welcomed the  few  shorthand  experts  in  my
audience,  hoping  they  would communicate the information they
stored to their less fortunate  comrades.  Vainly  I  tried  to
replace  my  appearances  at the lectern by taped records to be
played over the college radio. On  the  other  hand,  I  deeply
enjoyed  the  chuckle of appreciation in this or that warm spot
of the lecture hall at this or that point  of  my  lecture.  My
best reward comes from those former students of mine who ten or
fifteen years later write to me to say that they now understand
what  I  wanted  of  them  when I taught them to visualize Emma
Bovary's mistranslated hairdo or the arrangement  of  rooms  in
the   Sarnsa  household  or  the  two  homosexuals  in  Anna
Karenin. I do not know if I learned anything from  teaching
but   I  know  I  amassed  an  invaluable  amount  of  exciting
information in analyzing a dozen novels  for  my  students.  My
salary as you happen to know was not exactly a princely one.

     Is  there  anything  y  ou  would care to say about the
collaboration y our wife has given you? 

     She presided as adviser and judge over the  making  of  my
first  fiction in the early twenties. I have read to her all my
stories and novels at least twice. She has reread them all when
typing them and correcting  proofs  and  checking  translations
into  several  languages. One day in 1950, at lthaca, New York,
she was responsible for stopping me and urging delay and second
thoughts as, beset with technical difficulties  and  doubts,  I
was  carrying the first chapters of Lolita to the garden

     What is your  relation  to  the  translations  of  your

     In  the case of languages my wife and I know or can read--
English, Russian, French, and to a certain  extent  German  and
Italian-- the system is a strict checking of every sentence. In
the  case of Japanese or Turkish versions, I try not to imagine
the disasters that probably bespatter every page.

     What are your plans for future work? 

     I am writing a new novel  but  of  this  I  cannot  speak.
Another  project  I  have  been  nursing  for  some time is the
publication of the complete screenplay of Lolita that  I
made  for  Kubrick.  Although  there are just enough borrowings
from it in his version to justify my legal position  as  author
of the script, the film is only a blurred skimpy glimpse of the
marvelous picture I imagined and set down scene by scene during
the  six  months I worked in a Los Angeles villa. I do not wish
to imply that Kubrick's film is mediocre; in its own right,  it
is  first-rate,  but  it  is  not  what  I  wrote.  A  tinge of
poshlost is often given by the cinema to  the  novel  it
distorts  and  coarsens in its crooked glass. Kubrick, I think,
avoided this fault in his version, but I shall never understand
why he did not follow my directions and dreams. It is  a  great
pity;  but  at  least  I  shall  be able to have people read my
Lolita play in its original form.

     If you had the choice of one and only one book by which
you would be remembered, which one would it be? 

     The one I  am  writing  or  rather  dreaming  of  writing.
Actually, I shall be remembered by Lolita and my work on
Eugene Onegin.

     Do  you  feel you have any conspicuous or secret flaw as a

     The absence of a  natural  vocabulary.  An  odd  thing  to
confess,  but  true.  Of  the two instruments in my possession,
one-- my native tongue-- 1 can no longer use, and this not only
because I  lack  a  Russian  audience,  but  also  because  the
excitement  of verbal adventure in the Russian medium has faded
away gradually after I turned to English in 1940.  My  English,
this  second  instrument  I  have  always  had,  is  however  a
stiffish,  artificial  thing,  which  may  be  all  right   for
describing  a  sunset  or  an  insect, but which cannot conceal
poverty of syntax and paucity of domestic diction when  I  need
the   shortest   road   between  warehouse  and  shop.  An  old
Rolls-Royce is not always preferable to a plain Jeep.

     What do you think about  the  contemporary  competitive
ranking of writers? 

     Yes,  I have noticed that in this respect our professional
book reviewers are veritable bookmakers. Who's in,  who's  out,
and where are the snows of yesteryear. All very amusing. I am a
little  sorry  to  be  left  out.  Nobody  can decide if I am a
middle-aged American writer or an old Russian  writer--  or  an
ageless international freak.

     What is your great regret in your career? 

     That I did not come earlier to America. I would have liked
to have  lived  in  New  York  in  the thirties. Had my Russian
novels been translated then, they might have provided  a  shock
and a lesson for pro-Soviet enthusiasts.

     Are  there  significant  disadvantages  to your present

     Lolita is famous, not  I.  I  am  an  obscure,  doubly
obscure, novelist with an unpronounceable name.


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