Nabokov on Nabokov

Regular readers will probably be aware that Vladimir Nabokov is one of my favourite authors, and Ada is one of his best books, in my opinion. In 1975, the French translation of Ada was about to be published in France, and Nabokov agreed to give an interview with Apostrophes, a TV literary talk show.  The transcript has now been made available at the TLS.

Nabokov was famously opposed to TV and only agreed to be interviewed if the questions were sent to him in advance.  In addition, he needed a tea pot full of whiskey to boost his courage before the lights:

“To boost his courage [during the live broadcast], he wanted to drink whisky. But he naturally didn’t want to set a bad example for French viewers. We had poured a bottle of whisky into a teapot. Every quarter of an hour, I would ask him: ‘A little more tea, Monsieur Nabokov?’ And he would drink with a broad smile. He was a great comedian, incredible for his joking, his warmth, his humour, his artful dodges, his impudence, and of course his intelligence. In my memory Nabokov is an icon. He spoke for more than an hour. I have an almost religious feeling for that programme”.

I agree with the interviewer Bernard Pivot. Any lover of Nabokov’s work — or indeed the work of many 20th century greats — will find something to admire in Nabokov’s responses.

“[A]t twenty-five, at thirty, energy, caprice, inspiration, all that kept me writing until 4:00 a.m. I would rarely get up before midday and wrote all day long, stretched out on a divan. The pen and the horizontal position have given way now to pencil and austere verticality. No more fits and starts, that’s over. But how I would adore the birds’ wake-up, the fluted and sonorous song of the blackbirds, who seemed to applaud the last sentences of the chapter I’d just finished composing …”

“What’s your preferred language: Russian, English, or French?

“The language of my ancestors is still the one in which I feel perfectly at home, but I will never regret my American metamorphosis. French – or, rather, my French – doesn’t yield so readily to the twists and turns of my imagination; its syntax forbids me certain liberties that I take perfectly naturally with the other two languages. It goes without saying that I adore Russian, but English surpasses it as a work tool, it surpasses it in richness of nuance, in frenzied prose, in poetic precision …”

“The story of my life resembles less a biography than a bibliography. [In moving to America] I discovered a total incapacity to speak in public. So I decided to write in advance my hundred lectures a year on Russian literature. That makes two thousand typed pages of which, three times a week, I would recite twenty, having arranged them in a position not too obvious on my desk before the amphitheatre of my students. Thanks to this procedure I never got muddled and the auditorium received the pure product of my knowledge. I repeated the same course each year, introducing new notes, new details…

Nabokov is Lolita: aren’t you ultimately annoyed by the success of Lolita – which has been so emphatic that people have the impression that you are the father of this unique, slightly perverse daughter?

“Lolita isn’t a perverse young girl. She’s a poor child who has been debauched and whose senses never stir under the caresses of the foul Humbert Humbert, whom she asks once, “how long did [he] think we were going to live in stuffy cabins, doing filthy things together…?” But to reply to your question: no, its success doesn’t annoy me, I am not like Conan Doyle, who out of snobbery or simple stupidity preferred to be known as the author of The Great Boer War, which he thought superior to his Sherlock Holmes.”

It is a marvelous view into the mind of a true genius.

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