I’m not a dull speaker, I’m a bad speaker, I’m a wretched speaker. The tape of my unprepared speech differs from my written prose as much as the worm differs from the perfect insect — or, as I once put it, I think like a genius, I write like a distinguished author, and I speak like a child.
Old Nabokov hands will recognize in the reply the distinctive Nabokovian charm, that mingling of hauteur and feigned self-deprecation that drives some readers and critics mad, while the rest of us can’t get enough. In Conversations with Vladimir Nabokov, Robert Golla collects 28 interviews and profiles of the author written between 1958, when Lolita was first published in the United States, and 1977, the year of Nabokov’s death at age 78. Five of the interviews previously appeared in Nabokov’s own miscellany, Strong Opinions (1973). One longs for a similar set of conversations from Nabokov’s younger days in Germany, France, and, after 1940, his adopted home, the United States. It was “Hurricane Lolita,” as John Shade refers to his creator’s novel in Pale Fire, that turned the middle-aged, Russian-born academic, lepidopterist, husband, father, and novelist of genius into a media sensation. Early interviewers, most of them journalists, didn’t know what to make of Nabokov. The émigré aesthete was taken by some to be a pornographer or pedophile. In a 1958 television interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (available on YouTube), Nabokov makes it clear he inhabited none of the conventional pigeonholes: “First of all, I do not wish to touch hearts and I don’t want to affect minds very much. What I want to produce is really that little sob in the spine of the artist-reader.”
The best-written profile in Conversations dates from 1959 and was published in an unlikely venue, Sports Illustrated. “An Absence of Wood Nymphs” (available at the Sports Illustrated website) was written by Robert H. Boyle, and it stands on its own as a perfect little gem of an essay. Boyle, who died in May of this year at age 88, accompanied Nabokov and his wife on a butterfly collecting trip to Arizona. He prepared himself by reading his subject’s books and researching the butterflies of the Southwest, and then wove what he learned into a Nabokovian narrative for the readers of an American sports magazine. Boyle builds a nicely ironical sense of suspense into his story: will Nabokov capture Nabokov’s wood nymph, the species he discovered in the Grand Canyon in 1941 and to which he gave his name? At the conclusion of his story Boyle writes:
He walked up a dirt road alone. Mrs. Nabokov lent her net to their visitor. With a whoop of joy, the visitor snared a white-winged beauty. Cupping it in his hands, he showed it to Nabokov who dismissed it airily. “A winged cliché.” It had been a poor day for hunting. There would be other days to come, but the visitor wouldn’t be there. As the car swung out for the journey home, Nabokov spread his arms and said sadly, “What can I say? What is there to say? I am ashamed for the butterflies. I apologize for the butterflies.”
The apology was, of course, gracefully rejected.
Speaking of “winged clichés,” it’s amusing to watch as interviewers and writers over the decades ask identical questions and note identical scene-setting details in the narrative filler between scraps of conversation. Invariably, reference is made to the novelist’s Russian-by-way-of-Cambridge accent and to the whiteness of Véra Nabokov’s hair. Even Boyle, the best writer in the bunch, calls her “snow-haired.”
Conversations includes two pieces by the late Alfred J. Appel Jr., who for some of us in the ’60s and ’70s served as Nabokov’s St. Paul. He had been a student of the novelist at Cornell, co-edited a collection of essays about him, and published Nabokov’s Dark Cinema and The Annotated Lolita. In the latter, he rivals Charles Kinbote in feats of manic pedantry. (Joseph Epstein said of Appel: “He is the only person I know who it is possible to imagine might have begun a composition with a parenthesis.”) In his 1967 interview, Appel’s questions are consistently longer than Nabokov’s answers.
In contrast to Appel is the more laconic, less sycophantic approach of James Mossman. Here is the concluding exchange in his Listener interview from 1969:
JM: Which is the worst thing men do?
VN: To stink, to cheat, to torture.
JM: Which is the best?
VN: To be kind, to be proud, to be fearless.
Some readers, confusing writing with writer, will be surprised by Nabokov’s conservatism and traditional moral sense. He was a proud American, stalwart anticommunist, friend of William F. Buckley (who once gave a delighted Nabokov a button saying “Fuck Communism”), and dutiful husband and father who wrote a great book about a pedophile’s criminal passion for a little girl. Nabokov’s politics, or their absence, should not surprise us. Politics claimed his father, brother, and homeland. He jealously guarded the autonomy of his art from alien incursions, whether by Stalinists, Nazis, or other thugs and schemers. Nabokov told Alvin Toffler in his 1964 interview with Playboy:
Since my youth — I 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.
Almost uniquely, Nabokov mingles tenderness with a ferocious sense of comedy. At the chromosomal level, Nabokov eschews the vulgarity of naïve realism, the didactic, and engagé. He casually dismisses Freud, Dostoyevsky, Sartre, and other stalwarts of midcentury enlightened taste. With Alvin Toffler, he plays his familiar role as agent provocateur: “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.” And after one of Appel’s windy windups (focusing on the persistence of ideology among Russian writers), he gets Nabokov to say: “My aversion to groups is rather a matter of temperament than the fruit of information and thought. I was born that way and have despised ideological coercion instinctively all my life.”
Nabokov died 40 years ago. His work has spawned a thriving academic industry. More importantly, he still attracts uncommon common readers. Their likely reason for picking up his books, apart from whatever titillation may still adhere to 62-year-old Lolita, is the pleasure (literary, not salacious) he reliably supplies to the thoughtful and persistent. Nabokov called it “aesthetic bliss.” “Remarks are not literature,” remarked Gertrude Stein, a writer Nabokov no doubt detested. A collection of conversations, even those as playfully impudent as Nabokov’s, are no substitute for reading The Gift, “Signs and Symbols,” Pnin, Pale Fire, and Speak, Memory. I suspect Conversations will find its ideal “artist-readers” among two divergent groups. First, those like this writer who have been reading Nabokov’s prose for half a century and remain hungry for more. The other group, arguably, is more important: fledgling readers for whom Nabokov is a dirty rumor or, worse, required reading in an English Lit class. Nabokov expects much of his readers, and he rewards them. As he told The Spectator in 1959:
There seem to be three levels of readership: at the bottom, those who go after “human interest”; in the middle, the people who want ideas, packaged thought about Life and Truth; at the top, the proper readers, who go for style.