Vladimir Nabokov and the Art of the Self-Interview

Sarah Fay writes a fantastic piece on Vladimir Nabokov and the art of the self-interview in this month’s Paris Review.

She mentions her father, who attended Nabokov’s lectures at Cornell. This is how Nabokov taught:

My father took Nabokov’s American literature course and says he can’t remember anything about it except for the way that Nabokov, wearing a black cape, used to sweep into the lecture hall with Vera, his wife and assistant, in tow. Nabokov would then deliver his lecture from prepared notes to great affect. His dramatic performances in class drew students to him, and, according to Nabokov’s most meticulous biographer Brian Boyd, his European literature course was second in enrollment to Pete Seger’s folk-song course. As a literature teacher, Nabokov emphasized the importance of reading for detail, assigning students fewer books in order to read them slowly. He quizzed students on the pattern of Madame Bovary’s wallpaper and sketched the path that Bloom walks in Ulysses on the blackboard. According to Nabokov, this approach “‘irritated or puzzled such students of literature (and their professors) as were accustomed to ‘serious’ courses replete with ‘trends,’ and ‘schools,’ and ‘myths,’ and ‘symbols,’ and ‘social comment,’ and something unspeakably spooky called ‘climate of thought.’ Actually these ‘serious’ courses were quite easy ones with the students required to know not the books but about the books.”

In case you didn’t know, this is good trivia. Nabokov took the pen name “Sirin” in his life. But why?

To taunt the critic Georgy Adamovich, Nabokov published under the pen name Sirin. In a review of one of “Sirin’s” books, Adamovich, after having dismissed Nabokov as a writer, wrote that “Sirin” promised to be one of the world’s great talents.

And perhaps the most relevant part of the piece: doing the self interview. According to Sarah Fay, Nabokov is the only author in the world to conduct an interview by requiring the interviewer to send questions in advance:

Although Nabokov is one of the many practitioners of the self-interview, a tradition which includes Oscar Wilde, James Barrie, Evelyn Waugh, Norman Mailer, Truman Capote, Gore Vidal, Glenn Gould, Milan Kundera, and Philip Roth, he was the only writer who always conducted his own interviews. Nabokov—to my knowledge—never conducted an interview without having received and answered the questions in advance.

Read the full piece in Paris Review, and don’t miss the embedded video.

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Related and highly recommended: Nabokov’s Invitation to an Interview. See also my book review of Nabokov’s Invitation to a Beheading.