This   exchange   with   Alvin   Toffler    appeared    in
Playboy  for  January,  1964. Great trouble was taken on
both  sides  to  achieve  the   illusion   of   a   spontaneous
conversation.  Actually,  my  contribution  as printed conforms
meticulously to the answers, every word of which I had  written
in  longhand before having them typed for submission to Toffler
when he came to Montreux in mid-March, 1963. The  present  text
takes  into  account the order of my interviewer's questions as
well as the fact that a  couple  of  consecutive  pages  of  my
typescript  were apparently lost in transit. Egreto perambis

     With the American publication of Lolita in 1958,
your fame and fortune mushroomed  almost  overnight  from  high
repute  among  the  literary cognoscenti-- which you bad
enjoyed for more than 30 years-- to both acclaim and  abuse  as
the  world-renowned  author of a sensational bestseller. In the
aftermath of this cause  celebre,  do  you  ever  regret
having written Lolita?

     On  the  contrary, I shudder retrospectively when I recall
that there was a moment, in 1950, and again in 1951, when I was
on the point of burning Humbert Humbert's little  black  diary.
No,  I  shall  never  regret  Lolita.  She  was like the
composition of a beautiful puzzle--  its  composition  and  its
solution  at  the  same time, since one is a mirror view of the
other, depending on the way you look. Of course she  completely
eclipsed  my  other  works-- at least those I wrote in English:
The Real Life of Sebastian  Knight,  Bend  Sinister,  my
short  stories,  my  book of recollections; but I cannot grudge
her this. There is a queer, tender charm  about  that  mythical

     Though  many  readers and reviewers would disagree that
her charm is tender, few would deny that it is queer-- so  much
so that when director Stanley Kubrick proposed his plan to make
a movie of Lolita, you were quoted as saying, "Of course
they'll  have to change the plot. Perhaps they will make Lolita
a dwarfess. Or they will make her 16 and Humbert 26.  "  Though
you  finally  wrote  the screenplay yourself, several reviewers
took  the  film  to  task  for  watering   down   the   central
relationship. Were you satisfied with the final product? 

     I  thought  the  movie was absolutely first-rate. The four
main actors deserve the very highest praise. Sue Lyon  bringing
that breakfast tray or childishly pulling on her sweater in the
car--  these are moments of unforgettable acting and directing.
The killing of Quilty is a masterpiece, and so is the death  of
Mrs.  Haze.  I must point out, though, that I had nothing to do
with the actual production. If I had, I might have insisted  on
stressing  certain things that were not stressed-- for example,
the different motels at which they stayed. All I did was  write
the  screenplay,  a preponderating portion of which was used by
Kubrick. The "watering down," if any,  did  not  come  from  my

     Do  you  feel  that Lolita's twofold success has
affected your life for the better or for the worse? 

     I gave up teaching--  that's  about  all  in  the  way  of
change.  Mind  you,  I loved teaching, I loved Cornell, I loved
composing and delivering my lectures  on  Russian  writers  and
European  great books. But around 60, and especially in winter,
one begins to find hard the physical process of  teaching,  the
getting  up  at  a fixed hour every other morning, the struggle
with the snow in the driveway, the march through long corridors
to the classroom, the effort of drawing on the blackboard a map
of James Joyce's Dublin or the arrangement of the semi-sleeping
car of the St. Petersburg-Moscow express in the  early  1870s--
without  an  understanding  of which neither Ulysses nor
Anna Karenin, respectively, makes sense. For some reason
my most vivid memories concern examinations.  Big  amphitheater
in  Goldwin  Smith.  Exam  from  8  a.m.  to  10:30.  About 150
students--  unwashed,  unshaven  young  males  and   reasonably
well-groomed  young  females.  A  general  sense  of tedium and
disaster. Half-past  eight.  Little  coughs,  the  clearing  of
nervous  throats,  coming  in  clusters  of  sound, rustling of
pages. Some of the martyrs plunged in  meditation,  their  arms
locked  behind  their heads. I meet a dull gaze directed at me,
seeing in me w^ith  hope  and  hate  the  source  of  forbidden
knowledge.  Girl  in  glasses  comes  up  to  my  desk  to ask:
"Professor Kafka, do you want us to say that . . . ? Or do  you
want  us  to  answer  only the first part of the question?" The
great fraternity of C-minus, backbone of the  nation,  steadily
scribbling  on.  A  rustle arising simultaneously, the majority
turning a page in their bluebooks, good teamwork.  The  shaking
of  a cramped wrist, the failing ink, the deodorant that breaks
down. When I catch eyes directed  at  me,  they  are  forthwith
raised  to the ceiling in pious meditation. Windowpanes getting
misty. Boys peeling off sweaters. Girls chewing  gum  in  rapid
cadence. Ten minutes, five, three, time's up.

     Citing  in  Lolita  the same kind of acid-etched
scene you've just described, many critics have called the  book
a  masterful  satiric  social  commentary  on America. Are they

     Well, 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.

     But haven't you written yourself that there is "nothing
more exhilarating than American Philistine vulgarity"? 

     No, I did not say that. That phrase has been lifted out of
context,  and,  like  a  round, deep-sea fish, has burst in the
process. If you look up  my  little  after-piece,  "On  a  Book
Entitled  Lolita,"  which I appended to the novel, you will see
that what I really  said  was  that  in  regard  to  Philistine
vulgarity--   which   I  do  feel  is  most  exhilarating--  no
difference exists between American and European manners.  I  go
on  to  say  that  a  proletarian  from  Chicago can be just as
Philistine as an English duke.

     Many readers have concluded that the  Philistinism  you
seem  to find the most exhilarating is that of America's sexual

     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.

     Have you ever been psychoanalyzed?
     Have I been what?
     Subjected to psychoanalytical examination.
     Why, good God?

     In order to see how it is done. Some critics have  felt
that   your   barbed   comments  about  the  fashionability  of
Freudianism, as  practiced  by  American  analysts,  suggest  a
contempt based upon familiarity. 

     Bookish  familiarity  only.  The ordeal itself is much too
silly and  disgusting  to  be  contemplated  even  as  a  joke.
Freudism and all it has tainted with its grotesque implications
and  methods  appears  to  me  to  be one of the vilest deceits
practiced by people on themselves and on others.  I  reject  it
utterly,  along with a few other medieval items still adored by
the ignorant, the conventional, or the very sick.

     Speaking of the very sick, you suggested in  Lolita
that  Humbert  Humbert's appetite for nymphets is the result
of an unrequited childhood love affair; in Invitation to  a
Beheading  you wrote about a 12-year-old girl, Emmie, who is
erotically interested in a man twice her age; and  in  Bend
Sinister your protagonist dreams that he is "surreptitiously
enjoying  Mariette  (his maid) while she sat, wincing a little,
in his lap during the rehearsal of a  play  in  which  she  was
supposed  to  be  his  daughter. " Some critics, in poring over
your works for clues to your personality, have pointed to  this
recurrent  theme as evidence of an unwholesome preoccupation on
your  part  with  the  subject  of  sexual  attraction  between
pubescent girls and middle-aged men. Do you feel that there may
be some truth in this charge? 

     I  think  it  would  be more correct to say that had I not
written Lolita, readers would not have  started  finding
nymphets  in my other works and in their own households. I find
it very amusing when a friendly, polite  person  says  to  me--
probably  just  in  order  to  be  friendly  and  polite-- "Mr.
Naborkov,"  or  "Mr.  Nabahkov,"  or  "Mr.  Nabkov"   or   "Mr.
Nabohkov,"  depending  on  his  linguistic abilities, "I have a
little daughter who  is  a  regular  Lolita."  People  tend  to
underestimate  the  power  of my imagination and my capacity of
evolving serial selves in my writings.  And  then,  of  course,
there   is   that   special   type   of  critic,  the  ferrety,
human-interest  fiend,  the  jolly  vulgarian.   Someone,   for
instance,  discovered  telltale  affinities  between  Humbert's
boyhood romance on the Riviera and my own  recollections  about
little Colette, with whom I built damp sand castles in Biarritz
when  I was ten. Somber Humbert was, of course, thirteen and in
the throes of a pretty extravagant sexual  excitement,  whereas
my  own  romance with Colette had no trace of erotic desire and
indeed was perfectly common-place and normal. And,  of  course,
at  nine  and ten years of age, in that set, in those times, we
knew nothing whatsoever about the false facts of life that  are
imparted nowadays to infants by progressive parents.

     Why false? 

     Because  the  imagination  of a small child-- especially a
town child-- at once distorts, stylizes,  or  otherwise  alters
the bizarre things he is told about the busy bee, which neither
he nor his parents can distinguish from a bum-blebee, anyway.

     What  one  critic  has  termed  your  "almost obsessive
attention to the phrasing, rhythm, cadence and  connotation  of
words"  is  evident even in the selection of names for your own
celebrated bee and bumblebee-- Lolita and Humbert Humbert.  How
did they occur to you? 

     For  my  nymphet I needed a diminutive with a lyrical lilt
to it. One of the most limpid and luminous letters is "L".  The
suffix  "-ita"  has  a  lot  of  Latin  tenderness,  and this I
required  too.  Hence:  Lolita.  However,  it  should  not   be
pronounced  as you and most Americans pronounce it: Low-lee-ta,
with a heavy, clammy "L" and a long "o". No, the first syllable
should be as in "lollipop", the "L" liquid  and  delicate,  the
"lee"  not  too  sharp. Spaniards and Italians pronounce it, of
course, with exactly the necessary note of archness and caress.
Another consideration was the  welcome  murmur  of  its  source
name, the fountain name: those roses and tears in "Dolores." My
little  girl's  heartrending  fate had to be taken into account
together with the cuteness and limpidity. Dolores also provided
her  with  another,  plainer,  more  familiar   and   infantile
diminutive:  Dolly,  which went nicely with the surname "Haze,"
where Irish mists blend with a German bunny-- 1 mean,  a  small
German hare.

     You're  making  a word-playful reference, of course, to
the German term for rabbit-- Hase. But what inspired you
to dub Lolita's aging inamorato with such engaging  redundancy?

     That,  too,  was easy. The double rumble is, I think, very
nasty, very suggestive. It is a  hateful  name  for  a  hateful
person.  It  is  also  a  kingly  name,  and I did need a royal
vibration for Humbert the Fierce and Humbert the Humble.  Lends
itself  also  to a number of puns. And the execrable diminutive
"Hum" is on a par, socially and emotionally, with "Lo," as  her
mother calls her.

     Another  critic  has  written  of you that "the task of
sifting and selecting just the right succession of  words  from
that  multilingual memory, and of arranging their many-mirrored
nuances into the proper  juxtapositions,  must  be  psychically
exhausting  work.  "  Which  of  all your books, in this sense,
would you say was the most difficult to write? 

     Oh,  Lolita,  naturally.  I  lacked  the  necessary
information--  that  was the initial difficulty. I did not know
any American 12-year-old girls, and I did not know  America;  I
had  to  invent  America and Lolita. It had taken me some forty
years to invent Russia and Western Europe, and now I was  faced
by a similar task, with a lesser amount of time at my disposal.
The  obtaining  of  such local ingredients as would allow me to
inject average "reality" into  the  brew  of  individual  fancy
proved,  at  fifty,  a  much more difficult process than it had
been in the Europe of my youth.

     Though born in Russia, you have lived  and  worked  for
many  years  in  America  as well as in Europe. Do you feel any
strong sense of national identity? 

     I am an American writer, born in Russia  and  educated  in
England  where  I  studied  French  literature, before spending
fifteen years in Germany. I came to America in 1940 and decided
to become an American citizen, and make America my home. It  so
happened  that  I  was  immediately exposed to the very best in
America, to its rich intellectual life and  to  its  easygoing,
good-natured   atmosphere.  I  immersed  myself  in  its  great
libraries and its Grand Canyon. I worked in the laboratories of
its zoological museums. I acquired more friends than I ever had
in Europe, My books-- old  books  and  new  ones--  found  some
admirable readers. I became as stout as Cortez-- mainly because
I  quit  smoking  and  started to munch molasses candy instead,
with the result that my weight went up from my usual 140  to  a
monumental  and  cheerful  200.  In consequence, I am one-third
American-- good American flesh keeping me warm and safe.

     You spent 20 years in America, and yet you never  owned
a  home  or  had  a  really  settled  establishment there. Your
friends report that you camped impermanently in motels, cabins,
furnished apartments and the rented homes of professors away on
leave. Did you feel so restless or so alien that  the  idea  of
settling down anywhere disturbed you? 

     The  main  reason,  the  background reason, is, I suppose,
that nothing short of a replica of  my  childhood  surroundings
would  have  satisfied  me.  I  would  never manage to match my
memories   correctly--   so   why   trouble    with    hopeless
approximations? Then there are some special considerations: for
instance,  the  question  of  impetus,  the habit of impetus. I
propelled  myself  out  of  Russia  so  vigorously,  with  such
indignant force, that I have been rolling on and on ever since.
True,  I have rolled and lived to become that appetizing thing,
a "full professor," but at heart I have always remained a  lean
"visiting  lecturer."  The few times I said to myself anywhere:
"Now, that's a  nice  spot  for  a  permanent  home,"  I  would
immediately  hear  in  my  mind  the  thunder  of  an avalanche
carrying away the hundreds of far places which I would  destroy
by  the  very  act  of  settling  in one particular nook of the
earth. And finally, I don't much care for furniture, for tables
and chairs and lamps and rugs and things-- perhaps  because  in
my  opulent  childhood  I  was  taught  to  regard  with amused
contempt any too-earnest attachment to material  wealth,  which
is  why  I felt no regret and no bitterness when the Revolution
abolished that wealth.

     You lived in Russia for twenty years,  in  West  Europe
for  20  years,  and  in America for twenty years. But in 1960,
after the success of Lolita, you  moved  to  France  and
Switzerland and have not returned to the U. S. since. Does this
mean,  despite  your self-identification as an American writer,
that you consider your American period over? 

     I am living in Switzerland for  purely  private  reasons--
family  reasons and certain professional ones too, such as some
special research for a special book. I hope to return very soon
to America-- back to its library stacks and mountain passes. An
ideal arrangement would be an absolutely soundproofed  flat  in
New York, on a top floor-- no feet walking above, no soft music
anywhere--  and  a bungalow in the Southwest. Sometimes I think
it might be fun to  adorn  a  university  again,  residing  and
writing   there,   not  teaching,  or  at  least  not  teaching

     Meanwhile you remain secluded-- and somewhat sedentary,
from all reports-- in your hotel suite. How do you  spend  your

     I  awake  around  seven  in  winter:  my alarm clock is an
Alpine chough-- big, glossy, black thing with big yellow beak--
which visits the balcony and emits a  most  melodious  chuckle.
For a while I lie in bed mentally revising and planning things.
Around  eight:  shave,  breakfast,  enthroned  meditation,  and
bath-- in that order. Then I  work  till  lunch  in  my  study,
taking time out for a short stroll with my wife along the lake.
Practically  all  the  famous Russian writers of the nineteenth
century have rambled here at one time  or  another.  Zhukovski,
Gogol, Dostoevski, Tolstoy-- who courted the hotel chambermaids
to  the  detriment  of his health-- and many Russian poets. But
then, as much could be said of Nice or Rome.  We  lunch  around
one  p.m.,  and  I am back at my desk by half-past one and work
steadily till half-past six. Then a stroll to a  newsstand  for
the  English papers, and dinner at seven. No work after dinner.
And bed around nine. I read till  half-past  eleven,  and  then
tussle  with insomnia till one a.m. about twice a week I
have a good, long nightmare with unpleasant characters imported
from earlier  dreams,  appearing  in  more  or  less  iterative
surroundings--    kaleidoscopic    arrangements    of    broken
impressions,  fragments  of  day  thoughts,  and  irresponsible
mechanical   images,  utterly  lacking  any  possible  Freudian
implication  or  explication,  but  singularly  akin   to   the
procession  of  changing  figures  that one usually sees on the
inner palpebral screen when closing one's weary eyes.

     Funny that witch doctors and their patients have  never
hit  on  that  simple  and absolutely satisfying explanation of
dreaming. Is it true that you write standing up, and  that  you
write in longhand rather than on a typewriter? 

     Yes. I never learned to type. I generally start the day at
a lovely  old-fashioned  lectern  I have in my study. Later on,
when I feel gravity nibbling at my calves, I settle down  in  a
comfortable  armchair  alongside  an ordinary writing desk; and
finally, when gravity begins climbing up my spine, I  lie  down
on  a  couch  in  a  corner of my small study. It is a pleasant
solar routine. But when I was young, in my twenties  and  early
thirties,  I  would  often  stay  all  day  in bed, smoking and
writing. Now  things  have  changed.  Horizontal  prose,
vertical verse, and sedent scholia keep swapping qualifiers and
spoiling the alliteration.

     Can  you  tell  us  something  more  about  the  actual
creative process  involved  in  the  germination  of  a  book--
perhaps  by  reading  a few random notes for or excerpts from a
work in progress? 

     Certainly not. No  fetus  should  undergo  an  exploratory
operation. But I can do something else. This box contains index
cards  with  some  notes  I  made at various times more or less
recently and discarded when writing Pale  Fire.  It's  a
little  batch  of  rejects.  Help  yourself. "Selene, the moon.
Selenginsk, an old town in Siberia: moon-rocket  town"  .  .  .
"Berry:  the  black  knob  on  the bill of the mute swan" . . .
"Dropworm: a small caterpillar hanging on a thread" . .  .  "In
The  New  Bon Ton Magazine, volume five, 1820, page 312,
prostitutes are termed 'girls of the town' "... "Youth  dreams:
forgot  pants;  old man dreams: forgot dentures" , . . "Student
explains that when reading a novel he likes  to  skip  passages
'so as to get his own idea about the book and not be influenced
by  the  author'".  .  .  "Naprapathy:  the ugliest word in the

     "And after rain, on beaded wires,  one  bird,  two  birds,
three  birds,  and  none. Muddy tires, sun" . . . "Time without
consciousness-- lower animal world; time  with  consciousness--
man;  consciousness without time-- some still higher state" . .
. "We think not in words but in shadows of words. James Joyce's
mistake in those otherwise mar-velous mental soliloquies of his
consists in that he gives too much verbal body to thoughts" . .
. "Parody of politeness: That inimitable  'Please'  --  'Please
send  me  your beautiful-- ' which firms idiotically address to
themselves in printed forms meant  for  people  ordering  their
product." . . .

     "Naive,  nonstop,  peep-peep  twitter  of chicks in dismal
crates late,  late  at  night,  on  a  desolate  frost-bedimmed
station  platform" . . . "The tabloid headline TORSO KILLER MAY
BEAT CHAIR might be translated: 'Celui qui tw an buste  peat
bien battre une chaise" . . . "Newspaper vendor, handing me
a  magazine  with my story: 1 see you made the slicks.' " "Snow
falling, young father out with tiny child,  nose  like  a  pink
cherry.  Why  does a parent immediately say something to his or
her child if a stranger smiles at the latter? 'Sure,' said  the
father  to  the  infant's  interrogatory gurgle, which had been
going on for some time, and would have been left to  go  on  in
the  quiet  falling  snow,  had  I  not smiled in passing". . .
"Inter-columniation: dark-blue sky between two white  columns."
.  .  . "Place-name in the Orkneys: Papilio" . . . "Not 1, too,
lived in Arcadia,' but 'I,' says Death, even am  in  Arcadia'--
legend on a shepherd's tomb (Notes and Queries, June 13,
1868,  p. 561)" . . . "Marat collected butterflies" . . . "From
the aesthetic point of  view,  the  tapeworm  is  certainly  an
undesirable  boarder.  The gravid segments frequently crawl out
of a person's anal canal, sometimes in chains,  and  have  been
reported  a  source  of  social  embarrassment." (Ann. N. Y.
Acad. Sci. 48:558).

     What  inspires  you  to   record   and   collect   such
disconnected impressions and quotations? 

     All  I  know  is that at a very early stage of the novel's
development I get this urge to garner bits of straw and  fluff,
and  eat  pebbles. Nobody will ever discover how clearly a bird
visualizes, or if it visualizes at all, the future nest and the
eggs in it. When I remember afterwards the force that  made  me
jot  down  the correct names of things, or the inches and tints
of things, even before I actually needed the information, I  am
inclined to assume that what I call, for want of a better term,
inspiration,  had been already at work, mutely pointing at this
or that, having  me  accumulate  the  known  materials  for  an
unknown  structure.  After  the  first shock of recognition-- a
sudden sense of "this is what I'm going to write"--  the
novel  starts to breed by itself; the process goes on solely in
the mind, not on paper; and to be aware of  the  stage  it  has
reached  at  any given moment, I do not have to be conscious of
every exact phrase. I feel a kind  of  gentle  development,  an
uncurling  inside,  and  I  know  that  the  details  are there
already, that in fact I would see  them  plainly  if  I  looked
closer,   if  I  stopped  the  machine  and  opened  its  inner
compartment; but I prefer to wait until what is loosely  called
inspiration has completed the task for me. There comes a moment
when  I  am  informed  from within that the entire structure is
finished. All I have to do now is take it  down  in  pencil  or
pen.  Since  this  entire  structure,  dimly illumined in one's
mind, can be compared to a painting, and since you do not  have
to work gradually from left to right for its proper perception,
I  may  direct  my  flashlight  at  any part or particle of the
picture when setting it down in writing.  I  do  not  begin  my
novel  at  the beginning. I do not reach chapter three before I
reach chapter four, I do not go dutifully from one page to  the
next, in consecutive order; no, I pick out a bit here and a bit
there,  till I have filled all the gaps on paper. This is why I
like writing my stories and novels on  index  cards,  numbering
them  later  when  the  whole  set  is  complete. Every card is
rewritten many times. About three cards  make  one  typewritten
page,  and  when  finally I feel that the conceived picture has
been copied by me as faithfully as physically possible-- a  few
vacant  lots  always remain, alas-- then I dictate the novel to
my wife who types it out in triplicate.

     In  what  sense  do  you  copy  "the   conceived
picture" of a novel? 

     A  creative  writer  must study carefully the works of his
rivals, including the Almighty.  He  must  possess  the  inborn
capacity  not  only of recombining but of re-creating the given
world. In order to do this adequately, avoiding duplication  of
labor,   the   artist   should  know  the  given  world.
Imagination without knowledge leads no farther  than  the  back
yard of primitive art, the child's scrawl on the fence, and the
crank's  message  in  the market place. Art is never simple. To
return to my lecturing days: I  automatically  gave  low  marks
when  a student used the dreadful phrase "sincere and simple"--
"Flaubert writes with  a  style  which  is  always  simple  and
sincere"--  under  the  impression  that  this was the greatest
compliment payable to prose or poetry. When I struck the phrase
out, which I did with such rage in my pencil that it ripped the
paper, the student complained that this was what  teachers  had
always  taught  him: "Art is simple, art is sincere." Someday I
must trace this vulgar absurdity to its source. A schoolmarm in
Ohio? A progressive ass in New York? Because, of course, art at
its greatest is fantastically deceitful and complex.

     In terms of modern art,  critical  opinion  is  divided
about the sincerity or deceitfulness, simplicity or complexity,
of  contemporary  abstract  painting. What is your own opinion?

     I do not see any essential difference between abstract and
primitive art. Both  are  simple  and  sincere.  Naturally,  we
should  not  generalize  in these matters: it is the individual
artist that counts. But if we accept for a moment  the  general
notion  of  "modern  art,"  then we must admit that the trouble
with it is that it is so commonplace, imitative, and  academic.
Blurs  and blotches have merely replaced the mass prettiness of
a hundred  years  ago,  pictures  of  Italian  girls,  handsome
beggars,  romantic ruins, and so forth. But just as among those
corny oils there might occur the work of a true artist  with  a
richer  play  of  light and shade, with some original streak of
violence or tenderness, so among  th"  corn  of  primitive  and
abstract  art one may come across a flash of great talent. Only
talent interests me in paintings and books. Not general  ideas,
but the individual contribution.

     A contribution to society? 

     A work of art has no importance whatever to society. It is
only important  to  the  individual,  and  only  the individual
reader is important to me. I don't give a damn for  the  group,
the community, the masses, and so forth. Although I do not care
for  the  slogan  "art  for art's sake"-- because unfortunately
such promoters of it as, for instance, Oscar Wilde and  various
dainty poets, were in reality rank moralists and didacticists--
there can be no question that what makes a work of fiction safe
from  larvae and rust is not its social importance but its art,
only its art.

     What do you want to accomplish  or  leave  behind--  or
should this be of no concern to the writer? 

     Well, in this matter of accomplishment, of course, I don't
have a 35-year plan or program, but I have a fair inkling of my
literary  afterlife.  I  have sensed certain hints, I have felt
the breeze of certain promises. No doubt there will be ups  and
downs,  long  periods  of slump. With the Devil's connivance, I
open a newspaper of 2063 and in some article on the books  page
I  find:  "Nobody  reads  Nabokov  or  Fulmerford today." Awful
question: Who is this unfortunate Fulmerford?

     While we're on the subject of self-appraisal,  what  do
you  regard  as your principal failing as a writer-- apart from

     Lack of spontaneity; the nuisance  of  parallel  thoughts,
second  thoughts,  third  thoughts; inability to express myself
properly in any language unless I compose every damned sentence
in my bath, in my mind, at my desk.

     You're doing rather well at the moment, if we  may  say

     It's an illusion.

     Your  reply  might be taken as confirmation of critical
comments that  you  are  "an  incorrigible  leg  puller,  "  "a
mystificator, " and "a literary agent provocateur. " How
do you view yourself? 

     I think my favorite fact about myself is that I have never
been dismayed  by a critic's bilge or bile, and have never once
in my life asked or thanked a reviewer for a review. My  second
favorite fact-- or shall I stop at one?

     No, please go on. 

     The  fact  that  since  my  youth--  1  was 19 when I left
Russia--  my  political  creed  has  remained  as   bleak   and
changeless as an old gray rock. It is classical to the point of
triteness.  Freedom  of  speech, freedom of thought, freedom of
art. The social or economic structure of the ideal state is  of
little  concern  to me. My desires are modest. Portraits of the
head of the government should not exceed  a  postage  stamp  in
size.  No  torture  and  no executions. No music, except coming
through earphones, or played in theaters.

     Why no music? 

     I have no ear for music, a shortcoming I deplore bitterly.
When I attend a concert-- which  happens  about  once  in  five
years--   1   endeavor   gamely  to  follow  the  sequence  and
relationship of sounds but cannot keep it up for  more  than  a
few  minutes.  Visual  impressions,  reflections  of  hands  in
lacquered wood, a diligent bald spot over a fiddle, these  take
over,  and soon I am bored beyond measure by the motions of the
musicians. My knowledge of music is very slight; and I  have  a
special  reason  for finding my ignorance and inability so sad,
so unjust: There is a wonderful singer in my  family--  my  own
son.  His  great  gifts,  the  rare beauty of his bass, and the
promise of a splendid career-- all this affects me deeply,  and
I  fee] a fool during a technical conversation among musicians.
I am perfectly aware of the  many  parallels  between  the  art
forms  of  music and those of literature, especially in matters
of structure, but what can I do if  ear  and  brain  refuse  to
cooperate? I have found a queer substitute for music in chess--
more exactly, in the composing of chess problems.

     Another   substitute,   surely,   has   been  your  own
euphonious prose and poetry. As one of  few  authors  who  have
written  with.  eloquence  in more than one language, how would
you characterize the textural differences between  Russian  and
English, in which you are regarded as equally facile? 

     In  sheer  number  of  words,  English  is far richer than
Russian. This is especially noticeable in nouns and adjectives.
A very bothersome feature that Russian presents is the  dearth,
vagueness, and clumsiness of technical terms.

     For example, the simple phrase "to park a car" comes out--
if translated   back   from  the  Russian--  as  "to  leave  an
automobile standing for a long time." Russian, at least  polite
Russian,  is more formal than polite English. Thus, the Russian
word for "sexual"-- polovoy-- is slightly  indecent  and
not  to  be  bandied  around. The same applies to Russian terms
rendering various anatomical and biological  notions  that  are
frequently and familiarly expressed in English conversation. On
the  other  hand,  there are words rendering certain nuances of
motion and gesture and emotion in which Russian excels. Thus by
changing the head of a verb, for which one  may  have  a  dozen
different  prefixes to choose from, one is able to make Russian
express  extremely  fine  shades  of  duration  and  intensity.
English  is,  syntactically,  an extremely flexible medium, but
Russian can  be  given  even  more  subtle  twists  and  turns.
Translating  Russian  into  English  is  a  little  easier than
translating English into Russian,  and  10  times  easier  than
translating English into French.

     You  have  said  you  will never write another novel in
Russian. Why? 

     During  the  great,  and  still  unsung,  era  of  Russian
intellectual  expatriation--  roughly  between  1920 and 1940--
books written in Russian by emigre Russians  and  published  by
emigre  firms  abroad were eagerly bought or borrowed by
emigre readers but were absolutely banned in Soviet Russia-- as
they still are (except in the case of a few dead  authors  such
as  Kuprin  and  Bunin,  whose heavily censored works have been
recently reprinted there), no matter the theme of the story  or
poem.  An  emigre novel, published, say, in Paris and sold over
all free Europe, might have, in those years, a  total  sale  of
1,000 or 2,000 copies-- that would be a best seller-- but every
copy  would also pass from hand to hand and be read by at least
20 persons, and at least 50  annually  if  stocked  by  Russian
lending  libraries, of which there were hundreds in West Europe
alone. The era of expatriation can be said to have ended during
World  War  II.  Old  writers  died,  Russian  publishers  also
vanished,  and  worst  of  all, the general atmosphere of exile
culture,  with  its  splendor,  and  vigor,  and  purity,   and
reverberative force, dwindled to a sprinkle of Russian-language
periodicals,  anemic  in  talent and provincial in tone. Now to
take my own case: It was not the  financial  side  that  really
mattered;  I  don't  think  my Russian writings ever brought me
more than a few hundred dollars per year, and I am all for  the
ivory tower, and for writing to please one reader alone-- one's
own  self.  But  one  also  needs  some  reverberation,  if not
response,  and  a  moderate  multiplication   of   one's   self
throughout  a country or countries; and if there be nothing but
a void around one's desk, one would expect it to be at least  a
sonorous  void,  and not circumscribed by the walls of a padded
cell. With the passing of years I grew less and less interested
in Russia and more and more indifferent to  the  once-harrowing
thought  that  my books would remain banned there as long as my
contempt  for  the  police  state  and   political   oppression
prevented  me  from entertaining the vaguest thought of return.
No, I will not write another novel  in  Russian,  though  I  do
allow  myself  a  very few short poems now and then. I wrote my
last Russian novel a quarter of a century ago.  But  today,  in
compensation,  in  a  spirit  of  justice to my little American
muse, I am doing something else. But perhaps I should not  talk
about it at this early stage.

     Please do. 

     Well,  it occurred to me one day-- while I was glancing at
the  varicolored  spines  of  Lolita  translations  into
languages  I do not read, such as Japanese, Finnish or Arabic--
that the list of  unavoidable  blunders  in  these  fifteen  or
twenty  versions  would  probably  make, if collected, a fatter
volume than any of them. I had checked the French  translation,
which  was  basically  very  good  yet would have bristled with
unavoidable errors had I not corrected them. But what  could  I
do  with  Portuguese  or  Hebrew  or  Danish?  Then  I imagined
something else. I imagined that in some distant future somebody
might produce a Russian version of Lolita. I trained  my
inner  telescope  upon  that  particular  point  in the distant
future and I saw that every paragraph,  pock-marked  as  it  is
with  pitfalls, could lend itself to hideous mistranslation. In
the  hands  of  a  harmful  drudge,  the  Russian  version   of
Lolita  would be entirely degraded and botched by vulgar
paraphrases or blunders. So I decided to translate  it  myself.
Up to now I have about sixty pages ready.

     Are you presently at work on any new project? 

     Good  question,  as  they say on the lesser screen. I have
just  finished  correcting  the  last  proofs  of  my  work  on
Pushkin's  Eugene Onegin-- four fat little volumes which
are to appear this year in the  Bollingen  Series;  the  actual
translation of the poem occupies a small section of volume one.
The  rest of the volume and volumes two, three and four contain
copious notes on the subject. This opus owes  its  birth  to  a
casual  remark my wife made in 1950-- in response to my disgust
with rhymed paraphrases of Eugene Onegin, every line  of
which  I  had  to  revise  for  my  students--  "Why  don't you
translate it yourself?" This is the result. It has  taken  some
ten  years  of  labor.  The  index alone runs to 5,000 cards in
three long shoe boxes; you see them over there on  that  shelf.
My  translation  is,  of course, a literal one, a crib, a pony.
And to the fidelity of transposal I have sacrificed everything:
elegance, euphony, clarity, good taste, modern usage, and  even

     In  view  of  these  admitted  flaws,  are  you looking
forward to reading the reviews of the book? 

     I really don't read reviews about myself with any  special
eagerness  or attention unless they are masterpieces of wit and
acumen-- which does happen now and then.  And  I  never  reread
them,  though  my  wife  collects the stuff, and though maybe I
shall use a spatter of the more hilarious  Lolita  items
to write someday a brief history of the nymphet's tribulations.
I  remember, however, quite vividly, certain attacks by Russian
emigre critics who wrote about my first novels  30  years  ago;
not  that  I  was  more  vulnerable  then,  but  my  memory was
certainly more retentive and enterprising, and I was a reviewer
myself. In the nineteen-twenties I was clawed at by  a  certain
Mochulski  who  could  never  stomach  my utter indifference to
organized mysticism, to religion, to the church--  any  church.
There  were  other critics who could not forgive me for keeping
aloof  from  literary   "movements,"   for   not   airing   the
"angoisse"  that  they wanted poets to feel, and for not
belonging to any of those groups of poets that held sessions of
common inspiration in the back rooms of Parisian  cafes.  There
was  also the amusing case of Georgiy lvanov, a good poet but a
scurrilous critic. I never met him or his literary  wife  Irina
Odoevtsev;  but  one day in the late nineteen-twenties or early
nineteen-thirties, at a time when I  regularly  reviewed  books
for  an  emigre  newspaper  in Berlin, she sent me from Paris a
copy of a novel of hers with the wily  inscription  "Spasibo
za  Korolya,  damn,  valeta"  (thanks  for  King,
Queen, Knave)-- which I was free to understand  as  "Thanks
for  writing  that book," but which might also provide her with
the alibi: "Thanks for sending me your book,"  though  I  never
sent  her  anything.  Her  book  proved  to be pitifully
trite, and I said so  in  a  brief  and  nasty  review,  lvanov
retaliated  with  a  grossly  personal  article about me and my
stuff. The possibility of venting  or  distilling  friendly  or
unfriendly feelings through the medium of literary criticism is
what makes that art such a skewy one.

     You  have  been  quoted as saying: My pleasures are the
most intense known to man: butterfly hunting and  writing.  Are
they in any way comparable? 

     No,  they  belong  essentially to quite different types of
enjoyment. Neither is easy to describe to a person who has  not
experienced  it, and each is so obvious to the one who has that
a description would sound crude and redundant. In the  case  of
butterfly hunting I think I can distinguish four main elements.
First, the hope of capturing-- or the actual capturing-- of the
first  specimen  of  a  species unknown to science: this is the
dream at the back of every lepidopterist's mind, whether he  be
climbing  a  mountain in New Guinea or crossing a bog in Maine.
Secondly, there is the capture of a very  rare  or  very  local
butterfly--  things  you have gloated over in books, in obscure
scientific reviews, on the splendid plates of famous works, and
that you now see on the wing, in  their  natural  surroundings,
among  plants  and  minerals  that  acquire  a mysterious magic
through the intimate association with the rarities they produce
and support, so that  a  given  landscape  lives  twice:  as  a
delightful  wilderness  in  its own right and as the haunt of a
certain butterfly or moth. Thirdly, there is  the  naturalist's
interest  in  disentangling  the life histories of little-known
insects, in learning about their habits and structure,  and  in
determining  their position in the scheme of classification-- a
scheme  which  can  be  sometimes  pleasurably  exploded  in  a
dazzling  display  of  polemical fireworks when a new discovery
upsets the old scheme and confounds its obtuse  champions.  And
fourthly,  one should not ignore the element of sport, of luck,
of brisk motion  and  robust  achievement,  of  an  ardent  and
arduous  quest  ending  in  the  silky  triangle  of  a  folded
butterfly lying on the palm of one's hand.

     What about the pleasures of writing? 

     They correspond exactly to the pleasures of  reading,  the
bliss, the felicity of a phrase is shared by writer and reader:
by  the satisfied writer and the grateful reader, or-- which is
the same thing-- by the artist grateful to the unknown force in
his mind that has suggested a combination of images and by  the
artistic reader whom this combination satisfies.

     Every good reader has enjoyed a few good books in his life
so why  analyze  delights  that both sides know? I write mainly
for artists,  fellow-artists  and  follow-artists.  However,  I
could  never  explain  adequately  to  certain  students  in my
literature classes, the aspects of good reading-- the fact that
you read an artist's book not with your heart (the heart  is  a
remarkably  stupid  reader), and not with your brain alone, but
with your brain and spine. "Ladies and gentlemen, the tingle in
the spine really tells you what the author felt and wished  you
to  feel."  I  wonder  if I shall ever measure again with happy
hands the breadth of a lectern and plunge into my notes  before
the sympathetic abyss of a college audience.

     What  is  your reaction to the mixed feelings vented by
one critic in a review which characterized you as having a fine
and original mind,  but  "not  much  trace  of  a  generalizing
intellect,  "and  as  "the typical artist who distrusts ideas"?

     In  much  the   same   solemn   spirit,   certain   crusty
lepidopterists  have  criticized my works on the classification
of butterflies, accusing me of being  more  interested  in  the
subspecies  and  the subgenus than in the genus and the family.
This kind of attitude is a  matter  of  mental  temperament,  I
suppose.  The middlebrow or the upper Philistine cannot get rid
of the furtive feeling that a book, to be great, must  deal  in
great  ideas.  Oh, I know the type, the dreary type! He likes a
good yarn spiced with social comment; he likes to recognize his
own thoughts and throes in those of the  author;  he  wants  at
least  one  of  the  characters  to  be the author's stooge. If
American, he has a dash of Marxist blood, and if British, he is
acutely and ridiculously class-conscious; he finds it  so  much
easier  to  write  about  ideas  than  about words; he does not
realize that perhaps the reason he does not find general  ideas
in  a  particular  writer  is that the particular ideas of that
writer have not yet become general.

     Dostoevski, who dealt  with  themes  accepted  by  most
readers  as  universal  in  both  scope  and  significance,  is
considered one of the  world's  great  authors.  Yet  you  have
described  him as "a cheap sensationalist, clumsy and vulgar. "

     Non-Russian readers do not realize two  things:  that  not
all  Russians love Dostoevski as much as Americans do, and that
most of those Russians who do, venerate him as a mystic and not
as an artist. He was a prophet, a  claptrap  journalist  and  a
slapdash comedian. I admit that some of his scenes, some of his
tremendous,  farcical rows are extraordinarily amusing. But his
sensitive murderers and  soulful  prostitutes  are  not  to  be
endured for one moment-- by this reader anyway.

     Is  it  true  that you have called Hemingway and Conrad
"writers of books for boys"? 

     That's exactly what they are. Hemingway is  certainly  the
better  of  the  two; he has at least a voice of his own and is
responsible for that delightful, highly artistic  short  story,
"The  Killers."  And the description of the iridescent fish and
rhythmic urination in his famous fish story is  superb.  But  I
cannot  abide  Conrad's  souvenir-shop style, bottled ships and
shell necklaces of romanticist cliches. In neither of those two
writers can I find anything that I would care to  have  written
myself. In mentality and emotion, they are hopelessly juvenile,
and  the  same  can  be said of some other beloved authors, the
pets of  the  common  room,  the  consolation  and  support  of
graduate  students,  such  as-- but some are still alive, and I
hate to hurt living old boys while the dead ones  are  not  yet

     What did you read when you were a boy? 

     Between  the  ages of ten and fifteen in St. Petersburg, I
must have read more fiction and poetry-- English,  Russian  and
French--  than  in  any  other  five-year  period of my life. I
relished especially the works of Wells, Poe,  Browning,  Keats,
Flaubert,  Verlaine,  Rimbaud,  Chekhov, Tolstoy, and Alexander
Blok. On another level, my heroes were the  Scarlet  Pimpernel,
Phileas Fogg, and Sherlock Holmes. In other words, I was
a  perfectly  normal  trilingual child in a family with a large
library. At a later period, in Western Europe, between the ages
of 20 and 40, my favorites were Housman, Rupert Brooke,  Norman
Douglas,  Bergson,  Joyce,  Proust,  and  Pushkin. Of these top
favorites, several-- Poe, Jules  Verne,  Emmuska  Orezy,  Conan
Doyle,  and  Rupert  Brooke--  have lost the glamour and thrill
they held for me. The others  remain  intact  and  by  now  are
probably  beyond  change  as far as I am concerned. I was never
exposed in the twenties and thirties, as so many of my  coevals
have  been, to the poetry of the not quite first-rate Eliot and
of definitely second-rate  Pound.  I  read  them  late  in  the
season,  around 1945, in the guest room of an American friend's
house, and not only remained completely  indifferent  to  them,
but  could not understand why anybody should bother about them.
But I suppose that they preserve  some  sentimental  value  for
such readers as discovered them at an earlier age than I did.

     What are your reading habits today? 

     Usually  I  read  several books at a time-- old books, new
books, fiction, nonfiction,  verse,  anything--  and  when  the
bedside  heap  of  a dozen volumes or so has dwindled to two or
three, which generally happens  by  the  end  of  one  week,  I
accumulate  another  pile.  There are some varieties of fiction
that I never touch-- mystery stories,  for  instance,  which  I
abhor,  and  historical  novels.  I  also  detest the so-called
"powerful" novel-- full of commonplace obscenities and torrents
of dialogue-- in fact, when  I  receive  a  new  novel  from  a
hopeful  publisher-- "hoping that I like the hook as much as he
does"-- 1 check first of all how much dialogue there is, and if
it looks too abundant or too sustained, I shut the book with  a
bang and ban it from my bed.

     Are   there  any  contemporary  authors  you  do  enjoy

     I do have a few favorites-- for example, Robbe-Grillet and
Borges.  How  freely  and  gratefully  one  breathes  in  their
marvelous  labyrinths!  I  love  their lucidity of thought, the
purity and poetry, the mirage in the mirror.

     Many critics feel that this description applies no less
aptly to your own prose. To what extent do you feel that  prose
and poetry intermingle as art forms? 

     Except  that  I started earlier-- that's the answer to the
first part of your question. As to the second: Well, poetry, of
course, includes all creative writing; I have never  been  able
to  see  any  generic  difference  between  poetry and artistic
prose. As a matter of fact, I would be  inclined  to  define  a
good poem of any length as a concentrate of good prose, with or
without  the  addition of recurrent rhythm and rhyme. The magic
of prosody may improve upon w^hat we call prose by bringing out
the full flavor of meaning, but in plain prose there  are  also
certain  rhythmic  patterns, the music of precise phrasing, the
beat of thought rendered by recurrent  peculiarities  of  idiom
and intonation. As in today's scientific classifications, there
is  a  lot  of  overlapping  in our concept of poetry and prose
today. The bamboo bridge between them is the metaphor.

     You have  also  written  that  poetry  represents  "the
mysteries of the irrational perceived through rational words. "
But  many feel that the "irrational" has little place in an age
when the exact knowledge of science has begun to plumb the most
profound mysteries of existence. Do you agree? 

     This appearance is very deceptive. It  is  a  journalistic
illusion.  In  point  of  fact,  the greater one's science, the
deeper the sense of mystery. Moreover, I don't believe that any
science  today  has  pierced  any  mystery.  We,  as  newspaper
readers,  are  inclined  to call "science" the cleverness of an
electrician or a psychiatrist's mumbo jumbo. This, at best,  is
applied  science,  and  one  of  the characteristics of applied
science is that  yesterday's  neutron  or  today's  truth  dies
tomorrow.  But  even  in  a  better sense of "science"-- as the
study of visible and palpable nature, or  the  poetry  of  pure
mathematics  and  pure  philosophy--  the  situation remains as
hopeless as ever. We shall never know the origin  of  life,  or
the  meaning  of  life, or the nature of space and time, or the
nature of nature, or the nature of thought.

     Man's understanding of these mysteries is  embodied  in
his  concept  of  a  Divine  Being. As a final question, do you
believe in God? 

     To be quite candid-- and what I am going  to  say  now  is
something  I  never  said  before,  and  I  hope  it provokes a
salutary little chill-- I know  more  than  I  can  express  in
words,  and  the  little  I  can  express  would  not have been
expressed, had I not known more.

Last-modified: Fri, 26 Jul 2002 06:11:39 GmT