Private: Quotes from various interviews with Vladimir Nabokov

From Philip Oakes’ interview of Nabokov, published in 1969:

What was the most amusing item you recently found in the papers?

That bit about Mr. E. Pound, a venerable fraud, making a “sentimental visit” to his aima mater in Clinton, New York, and being given a standing ovation by the commencement audience — consisting, apparently, of morons and madmen….

What are your working methods?

Quite banal. Thirty years ago I used to write in bed, dipping my pen into a bedside inkwell, or else I would compose mentally at any time of the day or night. I would fall asleep when the sparrows woke up. Nowadays I write my stuff on index cards, in pencil, at a lectern, in the forenoon; but I still tend to do a lot of work in my head during long walks in the country on dull days when butterflies do not interfere. Here is a disappointed lepidopterist’s ditty:

It’s a long climb
Up the rock face
At the wrong time
To the right place.


From an interview with the author that appeared in The Paris Review in 1967:

E.M. Forster speaks of his major characters sometimes taking over and dictating the course of his novels. Has this ever been a problem for you, or are you in complete command?

My knowledge of Mr. Forster’s works is limited to one novel which I dislike; and anyway it was not he who fathered that trite little whimsy about characters getting out of hand; it is as old as the quills, although of course one sympathizes with his people if they try to wriggle out of that trip to India or whereever he takes them. My characters are galley slaves.


From an 1970 interview that appeared in Novel:

Did you know Samuel Beckett in Paris?

No, I did not. Beckett is the author of lovely novellas and wretched plays in the Maeterlinck tradition. The trilogy is my favorite, expecially Molloy. There is an extraordinary scene in which he is crawling through a forest by dragging himself, ‘by catching the crook of his walking stick, his crutch, in the vegetation before him, and pulling himself up, wearing three overcoats and newspaper underneath them. Then there are those pebbles, which he is busily transferring from pocket to pocket. Everything is so gray, so uncomfortable, you feel that he is in constant bladder discomfort, as old people sometimes are in their dreams. In this abject condition there is no doubt some likeness with Kafka’s physically uncomfortable and dingy men. It is that limpness that is so interesting in Beckett’s work….

I know that you admire Robbe-Grillet. What about some of the others loosely grouped under the “New Novel” tag: Claude Simon? Michel Butor? and Raymond Queneau, a wonderful writer, who, while not a member [of the nouveau roman], anticipates it in several ways?

Queneau’s Exercices de style is a thrilling masterpiece and, in fact, one of the greatest stories in French literature. I am also very fond of Queneau’s Zazie, and I remember some excellent essays he published…. We met once at a party and talked about another famous fillette. I do not care for Butor. But Robbe-Grillet is so unlike the others. One cannot, one should not lump them together. By the way, when we visited Robbe-Grillet, his petite, pretty wife, a young actress, had dressed herself a la gamine in my honor, pretending to be Lolita, and she continued the performance the next day, when we met again at a publisher’s luncheon in a restaurant. After pouring wine for everyone but her, the waiter asked, “Voulez-vous un Coca-Cola, Mademoiselle?” It was very funny, and Robbe-Grillet, who looks so solemn in his photographs, roared with laughter.


From a 1967 interview that appeared in Wisconsin Studies in Contemporary Literature:

Who are the great American writers you most admire?

When I was young I liked Poe, and I still love Melville, whom I did not read as a boy. My feelings towards James are rather complicated. I really dislike him intensely but now and then the figure in the phrase, the turn of the epithet, the screw of an absurd adverb, cause me a kind of electric tingle, as if some current of his was also passing through my own blood. Hawthorne is a splendid writer. Emerson’s poetry is delightful….

Your first book was a translation of Lewis Carroll into Russian. Do you see any affinities between Carroll’s idea of “nonsense” and your bogus or “mongrel” languages in Bend Sinister and Pale Fire?

In common with many other English children (I was an English child) I have been always very fond of Carroll. No, I do not think that his ‘invented language shares any roots with mine. He has a pathetic affinity with H. H. but some odd scruple prevented me from alluding in Lolita to his perversion and to those ambiguous photographs he took in dim rooms. He got away with it, as so many other Victorians got away with pederasty and nympholepsy. His were sad scrawny little nymphets, bedraggled and half-undressed, or rather semi-undraped, as if participating in some dusty and dreadful charade.


From a Playboy interview published in 1964:

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.

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