Nabokov on Nabokov

November 15, 2019

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.

Image: The Gardens

November 15, 2019

Love & Marriage 2019

November 14, 2019

A major new study by the Pew folks has been looking at changes in marriage and cohabitation in the US.  The major findings:

“The share of U.S. adults who are currently married has declined modestly in recent decades, from 58% in 1995 to 53% today. Over the same period, the share of adults who are living with an unmarried partner has risen from 3% to 7%. While the share who are currently cohabiting remains far smaller than the share who are married, the share of adults ages 18 to 44 who have ever lived with an unmarried partner (59%) has surpassed the share who has ever been married (50%)”

These attitudes have shifted immensely, even just in my lifetime.  By the time my first wife and I were getting seriously involved in the late 1960s in London, it was — with more or less reluctance — generally accepted in our social circle that those engaged would probably have sex with each other before marriage. That was something, I guess, that could be managed between families.  However, the notion that my girlfriend and I would actually take up residence and live together publicly before we married was still subject to enormous pressure from the wider society and neither we, nor most of our friends, took that step.

In England, at least, that would have put us right on the cusp of that attitudinal change because I recall there was far less pressure NOT to cohabit by the early-mid 1970s when I was divorced and dating again.

The Art Market Thrives

November 14, 2019

We are currently going through the late fall sales of Modern and Impressionists, and the market seems to be as brisk as ever.  Last night’s Christie’s sale of Post-war paintings, for example, raised more than $325 million.


The star of the show was this piece — Hurting The Word Radio #2 — by an artist that would be obscure to most people on the street, I suspect.  Ed Ruscha‘s 1964 work sold for a remarkable $52.5 million, almost double the best price a work by this artist has seen before.

Image: Streamers

November 13, 2019


When “Fuck” Actually Meant Something

November 13, 2019

It is hard to imagine that hearing the word “fuck” used in a casual conversation would shock many people these days. We hear it so much — on TV, in films, on the bus, in the playground — that is has become little more than an annoyance of constant repetition.   However there was a time, in my remembrance, when the word carried real freight.

Fifty-four years ago today, on 13 November 1965, I was part of the audience for a BBC late-night satirical show called BBC-3. On the show was the renowned theatre critic and public intellectual Kenneth Tynan. In an answer to a question about sex in plays, he said: “I doubt if there are any rational people to whom the word ‘fuck’ would be particularly diabolical, revolting or totally forbidden.”

This was quickly recognized as the first deliberate use of the word on the BBC and the event became a weekend sensation for the more lurid media.  In 1988, Paul Johnson called the moment, Tynans’s “masterpiece of calculated self-publicity.”

Times have changed.

When Vending Machines Ruled

November 12, 2019

You probably have to be my age to recall the excitement caused by the spread of vending machines in the early 1960s.  This 4-minute Pathe newsreel from 1964 is evocative of the times.


It was hard to argue against the convenience such devices would bring us.  Harold Wilson’s 1963 speech about how the “white heat” of “scientific revolution” was to be Britain’s route to the future fed into the delusion — shared by almost everyone — that technology and automation were invincible.  I am concerned that many in my generation (and, worse, some much younger) are still enmeshed in the myths spun by Branson, Musk, and many other profiteers that technology is the key to the world’s problems.

I know I am not the only one who believes that mutual aid and cooperation will always outweigh technology; I hope that the eco-crisis movement will not be suckerewd into following mega-projects once again.