The Montreux-Palace Hotel on Lake Geneva is an establishment of baroque design, the main part rebuilt most recently in 1906. Outside, people and cars pour down the Grand-Rue, which separates the hotel from its summer grounds by the lake. The ground floor possesses a number of high-ceilinged foyers and other rooms with murals, gilt architraves, and chandeliers. It is here that Vladimir Nabokov, professional exile, has ended up in his old age, living off the proceeds of a sensational novel.
When I reached the reception desk I found a letter addressed to me. “Welcome!” it read:
“I have devoted a lot of pleasurable time to answering in writing the questions sent to me by your office. I have done so in a concise, stylish, printable form. My replies represent unpublished material, should be printed verbatim and in toto, and copyrighted in my name. Unprepared remarks, quips, etc., may come from me during the actual colloquy but may not be published without my approval. The article will be shown to me before publication so as to avoid factual errors. I am leaving the attached material with the concierge because I think you might want to peruse it before we meet. I am very much looking forward to seeing you. Please give me a ring when you are ready.”
I sought a quiet place in the corner of a grand room and sunk into a sofa to peruse the attached material. Nabokov is obsessed with controlling what others write about him: ever since an unfortunate relationship with a writer armed with a tape recorder, who insisted on reporting what the master actually said, he has insisted on questions being posed and answered in writing. This leads to a certain formality, and encourages the general question over the particular. The reporter, unable to follow up or restate queries, is in the master’s hands.
First question: “Who are you?”
Nabokov:I am an American writer, born in Russia and educated in England where I studied French literature before spending fifteen years in Germany.
Reporter:Do you consider yourself an American?"
Nabokov:Yes I do. 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, light-hearted pride when I show my green USA passport at European frontiers.
I put down the material and leaned back into the sofa as a herd of American tourists shuffled noisily by. Despite leaving the United States at the first feasible moment, Nabokov has always been publicly appreciative of the place. In 1965 he even sent Lyndon Johnson a telegram, on the occasion of the president’s gall bladder operation, congratulating him on the good work he was doing—which included, of course, the Vietnam War. I recalled Nabokov’s response to an interviewer who asked him if he had watched the moon landing.
“Of course,” the exile replied. “I rented a television set. That gentle little minuet that despite their awkward suits the two men danced with such grace to the tune of lunar gravity was a lovely sight.”
I returned to the material.
Reporter:Do you enjoy being famous?
Nabokov:Lolita is famous, not I. I am an obscure, doubly obscure, novelist with an unpronounceable name.
Reporter:So how do you pronounce it? (This question had not been on my list.)
Nabokov:Na-bo-kov. A heavy open “o” as in “Knickerbocker”. Incidentally, the first name is pronounced Vladeemer—rhyming with “redeemer”.
Reporter:Will you return to Russia?
Nabokov:I will never go back, for the simple reason that all the Russia I need is always with me: literature, language, and my own Russian childhood. I will never return. I will never surrender.
Reporter:Are you reconciled to the English language by now?
Nabokov:I think like a genius, I write like a distinguished author, and I speak like a child.
Reporter:The switch between writing in Russian and English was hard?
Nabokov:Exceedingly painful—like learning anew to handle things after losing seven or eight fingers in an explosion.
Reporter:Which language is the most beautiful?
Nabokov:My head says English, my heart, Russian, my ear, French.
Reporter:What do you enjoy and hate most?
Nabokov:My loathings are simple: stupidity, oppression, crime, cruelty, soft music. My pleasures are the most intense known to man: butterfly hunting and writing.
Reporter:Who do you write for?
Nabokov:I don’t think that an artists should bother about his audience. His best audience is the person he sees in his shaving mirror every morning.
Reporter:Could you have done something else?
Nabokov:I have often dreamt of a long and exciting career as an obscure curator of Lepidoptera in a great museum.
Reporter:Why do you write?
Nabokov:I have no purpose at all when composing my stuff except to compose it. I work hard, I work long, on a body of words until it grants me complete possession and pleasure. If the reader has to work in his turn—so much the better. Art is difficult.
Nabokov does himself no favours by forcing interviewers to go through this routine. It encourages him towards pomposity, enables him to stick to well-trodden paths, and brings out an elephantine playfulness which, whatever its appropriateness in Russian, does not translate well at all. And this damn obsession with control, the control habitually practiced by teachers, artists, aristocrats. In Paris in 1939 he gave one of his books to two friends with the inscription “Read it, please, both of you, and no skipping.” I have thought about all these things in preparation for the interview, and consider it my duty to save the master from himself. I have a plan. Collecting the papers, I walk through the public rooms of this hotel deluxe and ask the concierge to ring Mr Nabokov, who is expecting me.
His suite is on the sixth floor of an old wing, and one is admitted through double doors to smallish rooms which do not quite live up to their entrance. I am greeted by Vera, his wife, a stately woman with a mass of white hair, who leads me into the presence of genius. A 67-years old man slouched on a couch, wearing a loosely cut suit of immaculate cloth, but what I notice are the eyes, which belong to a brilliant, frighteningly over-confident child. His face is puffy, big nose, bald skull. And the eyes—their expression is sardonic, there is some private joke; surreptitiously I send my fingers to check that my fly is closed. After a bit of chat and some coffee I explain that I would like him to tell me about his life, just the major details.
“I told everything about myself in Speak, Memory, and it was not a very pleasant portrait. I appear as a precious person in that book. All that chess and those butterflies.”
This is unexpectedly honest—and, I realise, not for publication. I now have to confess that I am going to beat Vladimir Nabokov, by the shabby means of a tape recorder concealed on my person and running even now. If this appalls you, then you must read no further.
He was born in 1899 in his family’s pink townhouse in St Petersburg. The Nabokovs were wealthy and distinguished, and Nabokov’s father, a liberal politician, had several large country estates. The parents were people of great culture, and their son spoke English before he could talk in Russian, and French soon after. The young children were brought up by governesses and tutors, and the family took its holidays in the south of France and other fashionable destinations. Then he went to school. “Belonging, as he did by choice, to the great classless intelligentsia of Russia,” Nabokov says, “my father thought it right to have me attend a school that was distinguished by its democratic principles, its policy of nondiscrimination in matters of rank, race and creed, and its up-to-date educational methods.” The Nabokovs owned a Rolls-Royce. “With his face all screwed up in a grimace of disgust, one teacher suggested to me that the least I could do was to have the automobile stop two or three blocks away, so that my schoolmates might be spared the sight of a liveried chauffeur doffing his cap.” Nabokov seems always in his presentation of himself to have stepped out of the womb completely formed. From his written and spoken words there appears to be no change, let alone development, in his character over the years. “The worst situation,” he continues with the story of his schooldays, “arose from the fact that even then I was intensely averse to joining movements or associations of any kind. I enraged the kindest and most well-meaning among my teachers by declining to participate in extra-curricular group work—debating societies with the solemn election of officers and the reading of reports on historical questions, and, in the higher grades, more ambitious gatherings for the discussion of current political events.”
In 1917 Lenin and the other Bolsheviks took over and, says Nabokov, “subordinated everything to the retention of power, and a regime of bloodshed, concentration camps, and hostages entered upon its stupendous career.” Nabokov’s father sent the family to the Crimea, which was still free, “for what we thought would be a brief wait”. They travelled by train. At a small station on the way the train paused and Nabokov went for a walk down the platform. “I wore spats and a derby,” he recalls. “The cane I carried, a collector’s item that had belonged to my uncle Ruka, was of a light-coloured, beautifully freckled wood, and the knob was a smooth pink globe of coral cupped in a gold coronet. As I was about to board the train, it gave a jerk and started to move.” Nabokov’s foot slipped and the cane fell onto the track between the wheels. He had no particular affection for the cane but he was being watched, and its recovery was a matter of pride. “I waited for one, two, three, four cars to pass,” he says, “(Russian trains are notoriously slow in gaining momentum) and when, at last, the rails were revealed, I picked up my cane from between them and raced after the nightmarishly receding bumpers. A sturdy proletarian arm conformed to the rules of sentimental fiction by helping me to swarm up.”
The Nabokovs, soon rejoined by their father, lived in a villa lent them by a friend. “Except for a few jewels astutely buried in the normal filling of a talcum powder container, we were absolutely ruined,” he says idly. “But this was a very minor matter.” Authorities of the old regime were being murdered in a nearby port. “On certain nights, when rumours of nearing assassins were especially strong, the men of our family took turns patrolling the house. Chance treated us kindly; nothing happened beyond the shock we got in the middle of a January night, when a brigand-like figure, all swathed in leather and fur, crept into our midst—but it turned out to be only our former chauffeur, Tsiganov, who had thought nothing of riding all the way from St Petersburg, on buffers and in freight cars, through the immense, frosty and savage expanse of Russia, for the mere purpose of bringing us a very welcome sum of money unexpectedly sent us by some good friends of ours.”
Soon the family fled to Greece and then London, where it was decided Nabokov and his brother would go to Cambridge. There Nabokov would stare into his fire and think “of all I had missed in my country, of the things I would not have omitted to note and treasure, had I suspected before that my life was to veer in such a violent way.” He swears that not once did he visit the university library. “I skipped lectures. I sneaked to London and elsewhere. I conducted several love affairs simultaneously.” When not playing soccer (goalkeeper) or translating Alice in Wonderland into Russian, he tried to explain to friends, such as one he now refers to as Nesbit, what was really going on in Russia.
Lenin was very popular among many undergraduates, to Nabokov’s annoyance. “Nesbit and his highbrow friends saw in him a kind of sensitive, poetic-minded patron and promoter of the newest trends in art and would smile a superior smile when I tried to explain that the connection between advanced politics and advanced art was a purely verbal one (gleefully exploited by Soviet propaganda), and that the more radical a Russian was in politics, the more conservative he was on the artistic side. I had at my disposal a number of such truths that I liked to air. The history of Russia (I might, for example, declare) could be considered from two points of view: first, as the evolution of the police (a curiously impersonal and detached force, sometimes working in a kind of void, sometimes helpless, and at other times outdoing the government in brutal persecution); and second, as the development of a marvelous culture. Under the Tsars (I might go on), despite the fundamentally inept and ferocious character of their rule, a freedom-loving Russian had had incomparably more means of expressing himself, and used to run incomparably less risk in doing so, than under Lenin. Since the reforms of the eighteen-sixties, the country had possessed (though not always adhered to) a legislation of which any Western democracy might have been proud, a vigorous public opinion that held despots at bay, widely read periodicals of all shades of liberal political thought, and what was especially striking, fearless and independent judges (‘Oh come . . .’ Nesbit would interpose). When revolutionaries did get caught, banishment to Tomsk or Omsk (near Bombsk) was a restful vacation in comparison to the concentration camps that Lenin introduced. Political exiles escaped from Siberia with farcical ease.”
The British—and, later, the American—intellectuals had never heard of Russian liberals, and assumed from his attacks on Lenin that Nabokov must be a reactionary. Even more than the incomprehension of people like Nesbit, he resented the attempts by English ultraconservatives to rally to his side with their anti-Semitism and “crude reactionary motivation”.
Leaving Cambridge in 1922, Nabokov settled among the large number of Russians in Berlin. (The White Russian diaspora in those years numbered some three million souls worldwide.) He was poor—he says his father, for patriotic reasons, had refused to invest any of his money outside Russia. It was a strange life. “As I look back at those years of exile, I see myself, and thousands of other Russians, leading an odd but by no means unpleasant existence, in material indigence and intellectual luxury, among perfectly unimportant strangers, spectral Germans and [from 1933 in Paris] Frenchmen in whose more or less illusory cities we, emigres, happened to dwell. These aborigines were to the mind’s eye as flat and transparent as figures cut out of cellophane, and although we used their gadgets, applauded their clowns, picked their roadside plums and apples, no real communication of the rich human sort so widespread in our own midst, existed between us and them.” In 1922 Nabokov’s father was shot dead while grappling with an assassin who had tried to kill a speaker at a public meeting.
In 1925 Nabokov married Vera, another Russian exile, and the next year, at the age of 27, he published his first novel, Mary. They survived by giving language lessons, by stenography and translation (Vera) and by teaching tennis and boxing (Vladimir). Other books soon followed and Nabokov’s reputation was established in emigre circles, as an artist with no interest in current events or causes, an artist whose subject was usually art itself. His main characters are usually artists themselves, often frustrated or just plain unsuccessful. The novels are chessboards, their characters pawns whose every move is, we are constantly reminded, dependent on the hand of the master. (Nabokov was at this time a keen composer of chess problems.) As a general rule, the characters Nabokov displays any sympathy for are Russian, the others foreigners, often German. The books often concern the emotional torture and destruction of these unsympathetic characters, and charges of cruelty have been laid by critics. Are they correct? “I don't know,” is Nabokov’s response. “Maybe. Some of my characters are, no doubt, pretty beastly, but I really don’t care, they are outside my inner self like the mournful monsters of a cathedral facade—demons placed there merely to show that they have been booted out. Actually, I’m a mild old gentleman who loathes cruelty.”
There are themes in Nabokov’s work, although he rarely admits to this. The major one is the wonder of marriage, and the horror of sexual relationships outside of or contrary to the idea of marriage. Lolita is the climax of this theme in its perverse form, and is unusual in that its hero is one for whom Nabokov clearly feels both sympathy and disgust. Three early novels show the theme in more simple form. These are: King, Queen, Knave, Laughter in the Dark, and Despair. In all of them a German businessman with pathetic artistic inclinations goes crazy while his wife cuckolds him. All of them end with a death, in two cases a murder. Put like that—and omitting the artists manques—they sound like parodies of popular story-telling, which indeed they are. When trying to summarise Nabokov’s work it is tempting to talk in terms of what he is not, more specifically what he is reacting against. But it is a temptation that should be resisted, as his genius lies in a more positive attribute, albeit one less easy to encapsulate—his prose. I’m not going to quote him here—long quotations slow down a profile unbearably—so go read him yourself. After Lolita, his most accessible book is Pnin, his most clever, Pale Fire, his best, The Gift. But more of them later.
Nina Berberova knew Nabokov in Paris. She is one of the few prepared to criticise him on the record. “I gradually got used to his manner of not recognising people, of addressing Ivan Ivanovich, after knowing him many years, as ‘Ivan Petrovich’, of washing from the face of the earth someone who had been kind to him, of mocking in print a man kindly disposed to him, of taking something from a great author and then saying he had never heard of him.”
“When did you see him last?”
It was just before he left Paris. “He had the grippe. He lay pale, thin, in bed. Suddenly he got up and led me to the nursery, to his son who was then about six or seven. Nabokov took a huge boxing glove and gave it to the boy, telling him to show me his art, and Mitya, having put on the glove, began with all his child’s strength to beat Nabokov about the face. I saw this was painful to Nabokov but he smiled and endured it. This was training, his and the boy’s. With a feeling of relief I left the room when this was over.”
This reminds me of Nabokov’s answer when asked the best things that people can do: “To be kind, to be proud, to be fearless.” Fearless.
In May 1939 Nabokov and his family arrived at St Nazaire to take ship to the New World. “There, one last little garden surrounded us, as you and I, and our child, by now six, between us, walked through it on our way to the docks.” The account of this walk finishes Speak, Memory, Nabokov’s autobiography. “There, in front of us, where a broken row of houses stood between us and the harbour, and where the eye encountered all sorts of stratagems, such as pale-blue and pink underwear cakewalking on a clothesline, or a lady’s bicycle and a striped cat oddly sharing a rudimentary balcony of cast iron, it was most satisfying to make out among the jumbled angles of roofs and walls, a splendid ship’s funnel, showing from behind the clothesline as something in a scrambled picture—Find What The Sailor Has Hidden—that the finder cannot unsee once it has been seen.”
Vera was Jewish. The refugee organisation that had hired the liner Champlain gave the Nabokovs a first-class cabin, in gratitude for the stand Nabokov’s father had once made against the anti-Semitic policies of the Russian government. Lucky in this, the Nabokov’s were twice lucky: the Champlain was to be sunk on its next crossing.
When the customs officers in New York opened Nabokov’s trunk they found two pairs of boxing gloves lying on top. Two of them put on the gloves and began to spar with each other, while a third examined part of Nabokov’s butterfly collection and proposed a name for one species. “Where would that happen?” Nabokov cries with delight when recounting the story. “Where would that happen?”
Compared with some refugees, the Nabokovs were fortunate. They all spoke good English, for a start, and Nabokov had already completed his first book written in English, The Real Life Of Sebastian Knight. He already had a temporary teaching job. The year after his arrival he met Edmund Wilson, America’s leading literary critic, and the two became friends. Wilson wrote a magnificent recommendation for Sebastian Knight, which was printed on the cover, and got Nabokov reviewing work. This was all just as well, for as a novelist Nabokov was unknown in America. Almost none of his Russian novels would be translated into English until after the success of Lolita almost twenty years later. Yet with The Gift, published serially in 1937-38 (except for a large part that was censored by the publisher), Nabokov had already written one of the finest Russian novels of this century. His last book written in Russian, it concerns the life of Fyodor Godunov-Cherdynstev, a young Russian emigre writer in Berlin. In particular it concerns his love for Zina and the development of his art, part of which is actually shown by an entire biography of the Russian revolutionary Chernyshevski, which Fyodor is supposed to have written. (The biography was considered by many emigres to be blasphemous. Not the least of its sins was that it ignores Chernyshevski’s actual death and extends his life into an ignominious old age. It was this part of The Gift that was not printed when it was serialised.) Even if the book had been available in English in the 1940s, it is doubtful that this would have done much for Nabokov’s reputation in America—it is densely Russian in its subject matter and has relatively few readers even today. And in any case, with the USSR unexpectedly allied with America later in the war, criticism of that great nation, of the sort found in The Gift and other of Nabokov’s books, was not encouraged. Edmund Wilson, who considered himself a Marxist, had many arguments with Nabokov over the real nature of Soviet communism.
From 1941-48 Nabokov carried out entomological research at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology and lectured in European literature at Wellesley College, and then gained a position on the faculty of Cornell University. “He was tall and thickly, loosely built, with brown hair and somewhat dry, ruddy, weathered skin,” recalls Wellesley student Hannah Green, “and he had a large, well-formed face. His aura was one of casual, relaxed manliness. He had the pleasing smell of a man who smokes, and an air of a certain diffidence, of a natural aristocratic dignity.” In the second semester her sweet-smelling lecturer awarded grades to a number of Russian writers. “Tolstoy was A-plus. Pushkin and Chekhov were A. Turgenev A-minus. Gogol was B-minus. And Dostoevsky was C-minus.” Just what he thought of his new job, and his students, he has never said. Green recalls them entering the hall one day in winter and “peeling off our heavy coats, our mittens, our scarves and hats, sitting there with our green spiral notebooks, in our plaid skirts and sweaters over white blouses with Peter Pan collars, wearing our thick white wool socks and brown leather Weejuns or white-and-brown saddle shoes, listening, taking notes, our legs crossed.” (In Alfred Appel Jr’s class at Cornell in 1954 the girls were not so attentive: he can remember them knitting throughout their lectures.) “I suppose Mr Nabokov did not take us seriously,” Green says. “Certainly he did not take us personally. No doubt it was we who inspired Humbert Humbert’s extreme distaste for the lot of us.”
Recalls Nabokov: “My approach and principles 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, those “serious” courses were quite easy ones, with the student required to know not the books but about the books. In my classes, readers had to discuss specific details, not general ideas. All my [exam] questions were impelled by only one purpose: to discover at all cost if the student had thoroughly imbibed and assimilated the novels in my course.” He urged his students to “Caress the details, the divine details!” and gave them exam questions such as “What colour was the bottle containing the arsenic with which Emma poisoned herself?” Cornell ex-student Ross Wetzsteon remembers the lecture on Bleak House when Nabokov announced “I want you to copy this down exactly as I draw it” and turned to the blackboard, some of which he proceeded to cover with curving sentences written at strange angles to each other. The lines read “the theme of inheritance”, “the theme of social consciousness”, “the theme of political protest” and so on, until the last, a gentle curving “the theme of art” which, his pupils saw, formed the smile on the face of a cat composed of the other sentences.
Some of Nabokov’s colleagues were as intrigued as his students. “I was fascinated not only by the range and depth of Vladimir’s knowledge but by his exclusions,” recalls Cornell academic Morris Bishop. “He got the news not from the New York Times but from the Daily News, quivering with wickedness, lust and bloodshed.” Nabokov’s university experience stands him in good stead during interviews in these days of his fame. Some of the most fascinating lines he gave me, with such spontaneous authority, also occur in students’ reminiscences. He would urge them, just as he urged me, that a reader must approach a book “with the passion of the scientist and the precision of the artist. (Pause) Have I made a mistake? Don’t I mean the passion of the artist and the precision of the scientist? (Pause) No!” No, of course he had not made a mistake: the scientist’s passion and the artist’s precision.
Everyone from the university days remembers how close Nabokov and his wife were. “Vera was as legendary as her husband,” Wetzsteon says, “breathtakingly beautiful, regal, and dignified, attending all his lectures, always seated in the front row—presumably in order to rush to his side with some sort of pill in the event of a heart attack. Or at least that was the rumour.” Nabokov never bought a house in his eighteen years in America, instead living in a succession of rented premises. When asked why, he says “The main reason, the background reason, is, I suppose, that nothing short of a replica of my childhood surroundings would have satisfied me.”
In 1955 Lolita, having been rejected by four American publishers, was published by Olympia Press in Paris. Three years later it appeared in America and was a huge success. Nabokov eventually received $250,000 from the book and $150,000 for the movie rights. Forty years after fleeing Russia, he was financially independent once again: he quit teaching college kids, he quit America, and went to live in Switzerland.
Duffy:Why did you write Lolita?
Nabokov:Why did I write any of my books? I just like composing riddles with elegant solutions.
Duffy:Does Humbert Humbert have an original?
Nabokov:No. Although an elderly woman in Colorado called Lolita Haze pestered me at one time with cranky protests.
Nabokov adds that he has “treated of a theme which was so distant, so remote, from my own emotional life that it gave me a special pleasure to use my combinational talent to make it real.”
I have a theory that Lolita stands for all those knitting college girls Nabokov, the son of a wealthy and noble Russian family, one of the greatest writers of the century, was forced to teach for eighteen years: that Lolita is Nabokov’s revenge on America, just as the fat Germans in his earlier black comedies were his revenge on Berlin and the life he was forced to live there. He denies this vehemently.
Nabokov:I can only repeat that I have neither the intent nor the temperament of a moral or social satirist. Whether or not critics think that in Lolita I am ridiculing human folly leaves me supremely indifferent. But I am annoyed when the glad news is spread that I am ridiculing America.
Duffy:Isn’t the sex in the novel a distraction from the art?
Nabokov:Sex as an institution, sex as a general notion, sex as a problem, sex as a platitude—all this is something I find too tedious for words. Let us skip sex.
In 1960 Nabokov went to Hollywood to write the screenplay for Lolita. When he saw the film at the New York premier two years later, he declared that “Kubrick was a great director, that his Lolita was a first-rate film with magnificent actors, and that only ragged odds and ends of my script had been used.” In truth the film was somewhat hampered by the fact that its leading lady was 17, and by the omission of the small detail of Humbert Humbert’s enthusiasm for nymphets. Kubrick would later call it his only complete failure. Nabokov’s private opinion is that it is “a scenic drive as perceived by the horizontal passenger of an ambulance.” There was a subsequent musical, called Lolita, My Love, but it never reached Broadway. Nabokov commented that “both girls—the one they fired and the one who replaced her—were awful: little bosomy girls, the wrong type altogether.”)
In the late fifties and early sixties Nabokov’s friendship with Edmund Wilson soured for an unusual reason: Wilson felt he knew more about Russian history and language than Nabokov. This emerged powerfully in his harsh criticism of Nabokov’s translation and commentary on Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin. The translation, it was generally accepted, favoured literalness over beauty, and Wilson suggested that Nabokov had sought “to torture both himself and the reader by flattening Pushkin out and denying to his own powers the scope for their full play.” In the next sentence he referred to Nabokov’s desire both to suffer and make suffer—“so important an element in his fiction”. Whatever the insight shown by such points, the attack in general was amazing, both because of its harshness and the many errors it contained, and because it was aimed at an old friend who had done Wilson no harm. Nabokov replied in the way he does best, at once foppish and hard. In a letter to the New York Review of Books in August 1965 he wrote: “A patient confidant of [Wilson’s] long and hopeless infatuation with the Russian language, I have always done my best to explain to him his mistakes of pronunciation, grammar, and interpretation. As late as 1957, at one of our last meetings, we both realised with amused dismay that despite my frequent comments on Russian prosody, he still could not scan Russian verse.”
After Lolita, Nabokov wrote Pnin, an uncharacteristically gentle work about an absent-minded Russian professor at an American university. In 1962 he published Pale Fire, consisting of a poem of 999 lines accompanied by a mammoth collection of notes by an editor who believes his own life is part of the subject of the poem and who, it gradually emerges, is quite mad. There is a fascinating and quite unreliable index. At the time of its publication the book was greatly praised, but it is perhaps too much a riddle with an elegant solution and not enough anything else. It is, nevertheless, one of the most radical and successful experiments with the form of the novel ever undertaken.
After an hour or so of questions, Nabokov announced that we would go for a walk. All the hotel employees we passed were extremely deferential, and at lunch he had tipped everyone involved with generosity. I am not sure whether this indicates the purchase of affection or simply the redistribution of wealth. Either would fit with what is known of Nabokov, but what is certain is the act makes him obviously happy. We proceeded down the GrandRue.
“Do you mind being interviewed?” I asked, having being struck by the apparent relish he displayed, despite the nervousness indicated by his elaborate safeguards.
Nabokov:Well, the luxury of speaking on one theme—oneself—is a sensation not to be despised. (Pause) I pride myself on being a person with no public appeal. I have never been drunk. No creed or school has any influence on me whatsoever. I don’t belong to any club or group. I don’t fish, cook, dance, endorse books, sign books, co-sign declarations, go to analysts, or take part in demonstrations.
Duffy:Would you ever return to America to live?
Nabokov:Sometimes I think it might be fun to adorn a university again.
We stopped at a newsstand where the world’s greatest living novelist purchased the International Herald Tribune, the Times, the Observer, the Telegraph, the New Statesman, Time, Playboy, and Lui, a European pornographic magazine. I am fairly sure that most of these were bought for my benefit, but I would not like to suggest which ones. When I returned to the newsstand later on, to enquire about this, unfortunately the man who had served Nabokov had gone home.
“Practically all the famous Russian writers of the nineteenth century have rambled here at one time or another,” he murmured as we wandered down to the edge of the lake. “Do you know the name of that tree?”
“Then you’ll never be a writer.”
“Thank you. Which are the best novels of our century, present company excepted?”
Nabokov frowned. “That Mann’s asinine Death In Venice or Pasternak’s melodramatic and viley written Zhivago or Faulkner’s corncobby chronicles can be considered “masterpieces” is to me an absurd delusion. 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.”
I asked him if art performs an emotional function for society, even if it has no moral purpose. “A work of art has no importance whatsoever to society,” he said. “Although I do not care for the slogan ‘art for art's sake’—because unfortunately such promoters of it as, for instance, Oscar Wilde, were in reality rank moralists and didacticists.” (In explaining his reasons for not attending a writers’ conference once, Nabokov wrote: “I am supremely indifferent to the ‘problems of a writer and the future of the novel’ that are to be discussed.”)
By this stage I had begun to perceive the only constant theme in Nabokov’s answers—a desire not to be associated with anyone else in any matter at all. His only ally is his wife, and about her and him he told me only one thing.
“I have this rather freakish gift of seeing letters in colour. It’s called colour hearing. V is a kind of pale, transparent pink. And the N, on the other hand, is a greyish-yellowish oatmeal colour. My wife has this gift, too, but her colours are completely different.”
Lest any reader fall into a state of depression at Nabokov’s extraordinary range of “gifts”, let me add that he is physically incapable of appreciating music. This is particularly unfortunate as his son, Dmitri, became an opera singer. (Maybe it is why Dmitri became an opera singer!)
Duffy:Would you tell me about your current book?
[We have turned around now, and are approaching the hotel where we will say goodbye. Nabokov seems in fine form, avuncular, so I throw him a few big ones.]
Duffy:What’s your principle failing as a writer?”
Nabokov:Lack of spontaneity; the nuisance of parallel thoughts, second thoughts, third thoughts.
[He pauses as though working on a fourth thought, so I persist hurriedly with my own concerns.]
Duffy:Advice to a young reviewer?
Nabokov:Learn to distinguish banality. Remember that mediocrity thrives on ‘ideas’. Beware of the modish message. Ask yourself if the symbol you have detected is not your own footprint. Ignore allegories.
Duffy:Advice to a young writer?
Nabokov:If possible, be Russian. And live in another country. Play chess. Be an active trader between languages. Know the names of plants and flying creatures—make science pay tribute.
Nabokov:Accept no fashions. Do not be awed by giant predecessors—be ill-tempered with their renown. Frighten reviewers from Time. Appear in Playboy. Sell to the movies.