Vladimir Nabokov is one of my favorite authors. His command of the English language is rivaled by few other authors.
I’ve read Nabokov’s Lolita, Pale Fire (recently profiled in my newly-created page of classics), The Luzhin Defense, Invitation to a Beheading (read my review), and portions of his autobiographical memoir Speak, Memory. I’ve learned a lot about Nabokov through those books…
But the point of this post is to highlight my incredulity of his personality after reading Nabokov’s interview with Paris Review (#40, Winter-Spring 1967). As I highlight below, Nabokov comes across as pedantic, cynical, snarky, and yes, even arrogant. I knew Nabokov held himself in high regard, but as you’ll see below (and if you read the entire interview), he may be on another level here. The most important bits (in my opinion), I bold.
The prelude to the interview caught my attention, as Nabokov wrote the answers down rather than choose to voice them:
The interviewer had sent ahead a number of questions. When he arrived at the Montreux Palace, he found an envelope waiting for him—the questions had been shaken up and transformed into an interview. A few questions and answers were added later, before the interview’s appearance in the 1967 Summer/Fall issue of The Paris Review. In accordance with Nabokov’s wishes, all answers are given as he wrote them down. He claims that he needs to write his responses because of his unfamiliarity with English; this is a constant seriocomic form of teasing.
The first instance of Nabokov being blunt (and harsh) occurs with an interviewer referencing E. M. Forster:
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 wherever he takes them.
Which of E.M. Forster’s novels do you think Nabokov is referring to here? Passage to India? Howards End? A Room with a View?
I thought Nabokov gave a brilliant response here, addressing a critic:
INTERVIEWER. One critic (Pryce-Jones) 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?
NABOKOV. 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, I am a 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.
I liked Nabokov’s take on the definition of reality:
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 exists.
When the interviewer comments on Clarence Brown, the critic who labeled Nabokov as “extremely repetitive,” Nabokov has a brilliant reply:
Derivative writers seem versatile because they imitate many others, past and present. Artistic originality has only its own self to copy.
Nabokov on the purpose (or lack thereof) of a critique:
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.
Nabokov shares his distaste for editors (proofreaders). If you know Nabokov, this portion isn’t a surprise:
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!”
This is where Nabokov comes a-bashing. Just read this colorful explanation!
INTERVIEWER. How do you now regard the poets Blok and Mandelshtam and others who were writing in the days before you left Russia?
NABOKOV. 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 Mandelstam, 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.
The last portion from that exchange is worth its own highlight (and surely the reader understands the self-reference here):
There is only one school: that of talent.
If you had any doubts, Nabokov considered himself an American. What a description here:
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.
The interviewer asks a question most people familiar with Nabokov already knew: his fascination with butterflies and lepidopetry (do you sense the dismissal in the use of “of course” below?):
INTERVIEWER. Besides writing novels, what do you, or would you, like most to do?
NABOKOV. 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.
I found this surprising: Nabokov not disclosing which writers he admires. Anonymity is useful, but why the pretense here?
INTERVIEWER. Are there contemporary writers you follow with great pleasure?
NABOKOV. There are several such writers, but I shall not name them. Anonymous pleasure hurts nobody.
The conversation flows into a discussion about James Joyce. Notice the sardonic comment about Finnegan’s Wake:
I detest Punningans Wake in which a cancerous growth of fancy word-tissue hardly redeems the dreadful joviality of the folklore and the easy, too easy, allegory.
Interestingly, Nabokov explains that he liked James Joyce’s Ulysses (calling it “that most lucid of novels”), but, paradoxically, that Joyce has had zero influence on him. Does this response strike you as odd?
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.
So, you can strike Nabokov from this list: people who said they’ve read Ulysses, when they really haven’t.
The interviewer then moves on to Russian writers, and Nabokov fires away here, concerning Nikolai Gogol:
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.
That’s really bizarre to me. I always think there’s something to learn from anything or somebody; putting in a deliberate effort NOT to learn something is peculiar. Even if untrue, it comes across as an incredibly pompous comment.
However, I liked Nabokov’s honest response near the end of the interview here:
INTERVIEWER. If you had the choice of one and only one book by which you would be remembered, which one would it be?
NABOKOV. The one I am writing or rather dreaming of writing. Actually, I shall be remembered by Lolita and my work on Eugene Onegin.
And nothing like ending an interview on a self-deprecating note, right?
Lolita is famous, not I. I am an obscure, doubly obscure, novelist with an unpronounceable name.
I think the entire interview is worth reading. I didn’t highlight the parts where Nabokov discussed his youth, his emigration from the Soviet Union, Nabokov’s comments on his father and wife, and his connection to his students.
What do you think of this interview? Has your perception of him changed at all after reading it (or the parts I highlighted above)? Am I too critical in my assessment of him in the beginning of this post?