Penelope Gilliatt interview with Vladimir Nabokov, for American Vogue, 1966

by Penelope Gilliatt

Vladimir Nabokov (1899-1977), the American novelist, was born in St Petersburg in Russia. He came from an aristocratic family which left Russia after the Bolshevik Revolution in 1919, and studied Russian and French literature at Cambridge. Thereafter he lived in Berlin until the late 1930s, moved to Paris for a couple of years, and emigrated to the United States, taking out US citizenship in 1945. He published novels, written in Russian, in both Berlin and Pans. In the USA he became a university teacher and started writing novels in English, including Bend Sinister (1962) and Lolita (1959), the latter of which provoked an uproar because of its explicitly paedophiliac content. It also brought sufficient fame to enable Nabokov to devote himself to writing on a full time basis. After 1959 he lived in Montreux, Switzerland.
Penelope Ann Douglass Gilliatt (1932-93) was educated at Queen’s College, London, and Bennington College, Vermont. She was a staff writer for Vogue, then for Queen, as well as film critic of The Observer, and from 1967 to 1979 she shared the film critic’s job on The New Yorker with Pauline Kacl. She also contributed short stories to The New Yorker and interview-profiles of such people as Woody Mien, Jacques Tati, Jean-Luc Godard, Diane Keaton and Graham Greene. She received an Oscar nomination for her screenplay of Sunday, Bloody Sunday in 1971. She was married twice, to Professor Roger Gilliatt, a neurologist, and to the playwright John Osborne, by whom she had a daughter. Both marriages were dissolved.

* * *

‘Is the Queen pregnant?’ said Vladimir Nabokov.
‘I don’t believe so,’ I said.
‘When I saw her on television at the World Cup watching football she kept making this gesture.’ He did a mime of smoothing a dress.
‘She always does that.’
‘Oh, I see. A queenly movement. Permanently with child. With heir.’ He chuckled and looked interested.
We met in a distant part of Switzerland. I had said to him on the hotel telephone, sounding to myself ludicrously like a character in Sherlock Holmes but assuming that he wouldn’t know it, that he could identify me downstairs in the lobby because I had red hair.
’I shall be carrying a copy of Speak, Memory,’ he had said back. (Speak, Memory is his autobiography.)
His ear for the idiom was instant and exact. It turned out that his father had known Sherlock Holmes’s creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. (‘Though Conan Doyle was much more proud of his intolerably boring books on South Africa.’) Nabokov has a writer’s passion for the physical details and likes Holmes’s habit of passing half-a-crown through a chink in the cab to the cabdriver. He also has an intentness on the nuances of speech – Holmes’s, mine, anyone’s who uses English – that is made much more urgent by his exile from his own language.
Twenty-nine years ago he abandoned his ‘untrammelled, rich, and infinitely docile Russian tongue’, which he had already used to write novels unpublishable in the Soviet Union and so not published at all, for an English that he learned first from his governesses. Perhaps his command of it now is partly due to the obstacle, as a man will often think more swiftly who speaks with an impediment. Nabokov now writes a dulcet and raffish English that has found more of the secret springs of our language than most writers born to it can ever get under their fingers. For instance, he knows precisely the mechanism of an Anglo-Saxon use of bathos and rudeness, which will plant an anti-climactic word or vernacular insult in a suave context where it goes off with a peculiar mixture of self-mockery and shabby bombast. For all that, his distress about losing Russian is obviously gnawing and will never be appeased. In the preface to lutli/a he writes briefly about it as if he were an illusionist robbed of his luggage, performing on a stage where his plundered trickery has to be practiced without any of the apparatus of association.
It occurs to me that perhaps this is exactly what makes him write better about love than any other novelist in modern English. The afflictions of exile carry a taste of theft that is the pang of intimacy itself. The tricked focus in the experience of loving, the one that hideously connects rapture with mortality and causes lovers to hoard the present as though it were already gone, bestows a psychic foretaste of loss that is close to the one that gave the privileged Russian children of Nabokov’s age a genius for recollection. They lived their Russian youth with the intensity of the grown-up in love, mysteriously already knowing too much about losing it. The ache that clings to good fortune or great accord is one of time’s ugly gags, like the grasping housewife already secreted in the rapturous frame of little Lolita.
Humbert Humbert is in love with a booby trap. His whole situation hoaxes him. Lolita is an account of the passionate involvement of a man constantly ambushed by dépaysement and consigned to the plastic exile of motels. Dépaysé: de-countried: we need a word for it now in English far more than we need ‘deflowered’. It isn’t at all fully expressed by ‘alienation’, or ‘rootlessness’, for like the comic agony of love in Lolita, it is a concept of loss that includes the knowledge of what it can be to possess. Before I met Nabokov I had wondered sometimes how it was possible for a writer to live permanently in hotels, as he has done since I960, mostly in Switzerland; but it was a stupid speculation about a great novelist of dépaysement who carries his country in his skull. His landscape isn’t Russia, but Russian literature.
His permanent address now is a hotel in Montreux that he described as ‘a lovely Edwardian heap’. We met in the Engadine, where he and his wife had come for the butterflies, in another Edwardian heap with spa baths in the basement. He is a tall, loping man whose gait and way of peering reminded me faintly of Jacques Tati’s.
“I am six foot,” he said. “I have very thin bones. The rest is flesh.” He picked at his arm as if it were a jacket.
In his autobiography he describes himself as having the Korff nose, passed on from his paternal grandmother’s side: “A handsome Germanic organ with a boldly boned bridge and a slightly tilted, distinctly grooved, fleshy end.” He wears spectacles, but switches to pince-nez after six to alter the ache in his nose. His accent is neither Russian nor American: I think it originates in the upper-class English undergraduate speech of immediately after the First World War, when he went to Cambridge. (“Cambridge, Cambridge, not Cambridge, Massachusetts,” he said.) His French is delicate and pure. He hears it as dated: “The slang goes back to Maupassant.” His Russian is the authentic sound of pre-Revolutionary St. Petersburg. He did a mischievously expressive example of the boneless accent of standard Pravda speech now. I don’t suppose that either he or his wife can detect that their birth in itself is a distinct and commanding fact about them both; but then the upper-class people of Europe never do. It is only the rest who can see the difference, and the well-born truly believe themselves to be indistinguishable.
The Nabokovs think of going back to America to live, perhaps in California. They are looking for—what? A climate; and far more than that, a language. “We were in Italy, but we don’t want to live there. I don’t speak Italian. And the scioperi (strikes)… Vera found a chateau in France, but it would have cost a lot of money to convert it. It had drawbridges. It had its drawbridges and drawbacks.” He has a habit of going back over what he has said and correcting it that is rather like the way he immediately uses an eraser on his notes. “I don’t much care for de Gaulle. I fear things will happen there when he dies. I would go to Spain but I hate bullfights. Switzerland: lakes, charming people, stability. All my publishers pass through from one festival to another.”
He had been up since six, as usual, and had a bath in the curative basement. “I discovered the secret of levitation,” he said. “One puts the feet flat-braced against the end of the bath and rises, covered with bubbles like a fur. I felt like a bear. A memory of a former state.”
We had a drink rather early in the morning. The whiskies looked small and he asked for soda. “Make the glass grow,” he said, and then muttered: “The grass glow.”
His books are written on index cards so that it is possible to start in the middle and insert scenes as he wants. He writes in 3B pencils that he says he sharpens compulsively. They have India rubbers on the ends which he uses to exorcise mistakes instead of simply crossing them out. My own error in writing with a pen struck him as technically cardinal. His pocket notebooks are made of paper squared like an arithmetic book. The formal pattern that might distract most people obviously stimulates him. I could understand this: it must be a little like seeing figments in the black and white tiles in public lavatories.
“Some of my best poems and chess problems have been composed in bathrooms looking at the floor,” he said.
At some stage we started to play anagrams. I gave him “cart horse” (the solution is “orchestra”). He took the problem away on what was meant to be a nap, and came bounding into the bar two hours later with an expression that was a very Russian mixture of buoyancy and sheepishness. The tartanned paper of his little notepad was covered with methodically wrong steps. “Her actors,” he said, in try-on triumph, eying me, and knowing perfectly well that the answer had to be one word. Then he started to laugh at his picture of the creature whose property the actors would be. Bossy women strike him as irresistibly comic: they trudge through his books, absurd, cruel, creatures of inane placidity who see everything in the world as a mirror of their womanliness and who will speak sharply about something like Bolshevism as though it were an obvious minor nuisance, like mosquitoes or the common cold. I believe his woman producer also amused him because he finds the theatre inherently funny when it is earnest: something to do with its thickness, I think, compared with the fine mesh of the novels he likes.
When he taught in America he lectured on Anna Karenina, Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyitch, Ulysses, Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, and Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, which was suggested by Edmund Wilson. The precise butterfly-pinner discovered that Tolstoy made the two families in Anna Karenina age on a different timescale, so that more years have passed for one than for another. He also says that Joyce left out any reference to Bloom’s coming back from the cemetery. “I know Dublin exactly. I could draw a map of it. I know the Liffey like the Moskva. I have never been to Dublin but I know it as well as Moscow. Also, I have never been to Moscow.”
He and his wife both lived in St. Petersburg, but they met first in Berlin in exile. They could have met many times when they were children; at dancing class, perhaps; it bothers them and they go over it.
“Vera’s coming down in a moment,” he said. “She’s lost something. A jacket, I think. When she loses things, it is always something very big.” He started to shake again. His sense of humor is very Russian, and the sight of its taking him over is hugely pleasurable. There is a lot of the buffoon in it. He is one of the few people I have seen who literally does sometimes nearly fall off his chair with laughing.
“Vera has been doing ‘cart horse’ as well,” he said. “Eventually she suggested ‘horse-cart.’ She hadn’t much hope.”
In the lounge there was an Edwardian mural of naked lovers, except that they were not naked and seemed to have nothing much to do with loving. The woman was vulgarly draped and the man wore, as well as a tulle scarf across his groin, a vapourish example of early Maidenform around his chest. After days of looking at the picture Nabokov still found it mildly interesting. It happened to be a rather obvious demonstration of the intimacy in art between silliness and prudery. The high-flying philistinism of protected art tastes strikes him often as richly foolish. Long ago the Empress of Russia gave him pleasure by being an eager admirer of Ella Wheeler Wilcox. Invitation to a Beheading, one of his early Russian-language novels, has a sulphurous passage about an imaginary book considered to be “the acme of modern thought” in which world history is seen from the point of view of an elderly and apparently sagacious oak tree. Nabokov detests literature that has sweeping social pretentions. He also loathes prurience. The bad art of the past that has lost its power to bamboozle will often reveal that a large share of its badness consists in failing to go too far, which is the only course that is ever far enough in aesthetics. The streak of blue nerve in Nabokov’s work is part of its quality. It has an effect that is close to the exhilaration of flair and courage in real conduct.
In the actual world, the vice for which Nabokov seems to have most loathing is brutality. He finds it in tank-shaped political bullies, “swinetoned radio music,” the enjoyment of trained animals, the truisms of Freudianism, the abhorrence of Germany between the wars. (There is a German in one of his books who believes that “electrocution” is the root of “cute.”) In the world of art his equivalent loathing is for mediocrity, which is perhaps only the aesthetic form of the same brutality. There are celebrated writers in whom he detects a naivete that he obviously finds almost thuggish. He detests Zola, Stendhal, Balzac, Thomas Mann.
Nabokov spoke eagerly about the descriptions of the fish in Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea and about the jungle passages and close physical descriptions in Graham Greene’s A Burnt-Out Case. “The avant-garde French novels that I’ve read don’t stir my artistic appetite. Only here and there. Even Shaw can do that.” I asked him about Genet: “An interesting fairyland with good measurements.” Ostrovsky, the Russian playwright, he described as having “a streak of poetry that he unfortunately put down because he was so intent on writing about the merchant class.” Tin-eared translators torment him. “Vive le pedant” he writes defiantly in one of his prefaces, “and down with the simpletons who think that all is well if the spirit is rendered (while the words go away by themselves on a naive and vulgar spree—in the suburbs of Moscow for instance—and Shakespeare is again reduced to play the king’s ghost).”
The English translations of his Russian novels have been done by Nabokov himself, generally with his son, Dmitri, who is a racing driver and a singer. Nabokov has just finished doing a Russian translation of Lolita, typeset in New York. “To be smuggled in, dropped by parachute, floating down on the blurb.” His attachment to words is urgent and moving. A copy of the unabridged Webster’s Dictionary is carried about in the back of Nabokov’s Lancia; in his hotel room on holiday it was opened among the M’s, halfway through, which is the way he leaves it so as to save the spine. In his autobiography he speaks of turning even now to the last page of any new grammar to find “that promised land where, at last, words are meant to mean what they mean.”
“In Massachusetts once I was ill with food poisoning,” he said. “I was being wheeled along a corridor. They left the trolley by a bookcase and I drew out a big medical dictionary and in the ward I drew the curtains around myself and read. It wasn’t allowed because it looked as if I were dying. They took the book away. In hospitals there is still something of the eighteenth century madhouse.”
“Pasternak?” I asked. At once he talked very fast. “Doctor Zhivago is false, melodramatic, badly written. It is false to history and false to art. The people are dummies. That awful girl is absurd. It reminds me very much of novels written by Russians of, I am ashamed to say, the gentler sex. Pasternak is not a bad poet. But in Zhivago he is vulgar. Simple. If you take his beautiful metaphors, there is nothing behind them. Even in his poems: What is that line, Vera? ‘To be a woman is a big step.’ It is ridiculous.” He laughed and looked stricken.
“This kind of thing recurs. Very typical of poems written in the Soviet era. A person of Zhivago’s class and his set, he wouldn’t stand in the snow and read about the Bolshevist regime and feel a tremendous glow. There was the liberal revolution at that time. Kerensky. If Kerensky had had more luck—but he was a liberal, you see, and he couldn’t just clap the Bolsheviks into jail. It was not done. He was a very average man, I should say. The kind of person you might find in the Cabinet of any democratic country. He spoke very well, with his hand in his bosom like Napoleon because it had almost been broken by handshakes.
“Yet people like Edmund Wilson and Isaiah Berlin, they have to love Zhivago to prove that good writing can come out of Soviet Russia. They ignore that it is really a bad book. There are some absolutely ridiculous scenes. Scenes of eavesdropping, for instance. You know about eavesdropping. If it is not brought in as parody it is almost philistine. It is the mark of the amateur in literature. And that marvelous scene where he had to get rid of the little girl to let the characters make love, and he sends her out skating. In Siberia. To keep warm they gave her her mother’s scarf. And then she sleeps deeply in a hut while there is all this going on. Obviously, Pasternak just didn’t know what to do with her. He’s like Galsworthy. Galsworthy, in one of his novels, gave a character a cane and a dog and simply didn’t know how to get rid of them.
“And the metaphors. Unattached comparisons. Suppose I were to say ‘as passionately adored and insulted as a barometer in a mountain hotel,”’ he said, looking out at the rain. “It would be a beautiful metaphor. But who is it about? The image is top-heavy. There is nothing to attach it to. And there is a pseudo-religious strain in the book which almost shocks me. Zhivago is so feminine that I sometimes wonder if it might have been partly written by Pasternak’s mistress.
“As a translator of Shakespeare he is very poor. He is considered great only by people who don’t know Russian. An example.” His wife helped him to remember a line of a Pasternak translation. “What he has turned it into in Russian is this: ‘All covered with grease and keeps wiping the pig-iron.’ You see. It is ridiculous. What would be the original?”
“Greasy Joan doth keel the pot?”
“Yes. ‘Keeps wiping the pig-iron!’” He expostulated and looked genuinely angry. “Pasternak himself has been very much helped by translation. Sometimes when you translate a cliche—you know, a cloud has a silver lining—it can sound like Milton because it is in another language.”
“Isn’t that what happened to Pushkin?” said Vera.
“He had translated the French writers of his day. The small coin of drawingroom poets and the slightly larger coin of Racine. In Russian it became breathtaking.” I remarked that someone had once said to me that the first man who compared a woman to a flower was a genius and the second, a fool. “And the third, a knave,” said Nabokov.
We went for a drive in the new Lancia through the mountains. Mrs. Nabokov drove, rather fast, mostly in third gear on a tricky road, in the face of jibes from her husband about the sheer drops that she had chosen on other days as suitable places to turn.
“Sometimes my son wishes I wouldn’t joke so much,” he said with melancholy.
I sat on the backseat, which was still insulated in cellophane, and took off my shoes to keep the cover intact. A hat for butterfly-hunting and walks was on the back shelf.
“You could cover your toes with my hat,” said Mr. Nabokov.
He looked for good meadows for butterfly-hunting and memorized promising paths off the road. His feeling about nature is communicable even to people who don’t share it. He is the only man I have ever heard who responds to mention of Los Angeles not with abuse of the city but with glory in the vegetation. He wrote once that when he hunted butterflies it was his highest experience of timelessness, a way “to picket nature” and “to rebel against the void fore and aft.” I think it is also an expression of the great writer’s passion to define.
We had lemon tea and cream cakes in another hotel looking out across the mountains. He was charming to a waitress who had seemed not to have heard the order and said peacefully after a long wait: “I can tell by the nape of her neck that the cakes are coming.” He has a comic affection for girls’ bodies that is rather like his tenderness for gaffes, as though the naked toes or napes of girls absorbed by other things fall unknowingly into a category of farcical and touching blunders.
I asked him whether Lolita would have turned into a boy if his own real child had been a girl.
“Oh, yes,” he said at once. “If I had had a daughter, Humbert Humbert would have been a pederast.”
I thought perhaps that he might cherish a little hatred for Lolita now, as writers often do for books that have had more attention than anything else they have written, but his feelings seem not to have swerved. The book remains his favorite, though he says that Pale Fire was more difficult to write.
“I had written a short story with the same idea as Lolita. The man’s name there is Arthur. They travel through France. I never published it. The little girl wasn’t alive. She hardly spoke. Little by little I managed to give her some semblance of reality. I was on my way to the incinerator one day with half the manuscript to burn it, and Vera said wait a minute. And I came back meekly.”
“I don’t remember that. Did I?” said Mrs. Nabokov.
“What was most difficult was putting myself … I am a normal man, you see. 1 traveled in school buses to listen to the talk of schoolgirls. I went to school on the pretext of placing our daughter. We have no daughter. For Lolita, I took one arm of a little girl who used to come to see Dmitri, one kneecap of another.
He says in the preface that the book originated in a story in Paris-Soir of an ape that had been taught to draw: Its first drawing was of the bars of its cage. The brawl around Lolita and the fierce humor that stylizes all of his work often seems to obscure the extreme tenderness that impels it. His sensitivity to suffering and the exploited makes the attention paid to the plot facts of Lolita seem even more brutishly literal-minded than usual. When he was in Hollywood to do the script, the producers asked him to make Lolita and Humbert Humbert get married: Apparently, this would have pulled some knot of embarrassment for them. The idea of the book being classified as obscene—as it still is in Burma, for instance— is much more gross than anything in most pornography, for it is a book that extends exceptional gentleness to the yearning and the out of step. Elsewhere, in his Laughter in the Dark, a murderer thinks “impossible to kill while she was taking off her shoe”; it is a modem equivalent of the moment in Hamlet when a man cannot be murdered at prayer. In Nabokov’s work sexuality stands for tenderness, and tenderness is the remaining sanctity.
In the car again, I asked him about something he had once written about the author of Alice in Wonderland.
“I always call him Lewis Carroll Carroll,” he said, “because he was the first Humbert Humbert. Have you seen those photographs of him with little girls? He would make arrangements with aunts and mothers to take the children out. He was never caught, except by one girl who wrote about him when she was much older.
He started to answer something I was saying, and turned it into an imitation of Edmund Wilson saying, “Yes, yes.” Nabokov and Edmund Wilson are old friends, but they have recently conducted a waspish public fight about Mr. Wilson’s knowledge of Russian, involving claims that seem fairly foolish in the face of a Russian-speaker. Nabokov’s private feelings seem affectionately caustic. The imitated “Yes” involved a head movement like a man trying to get down a pill when he is gagging on it. “Apparently, consent with him is so difficult he must make a convulsive effort,” said Nabokov warmly enough, and came back to Lolita.
“It was a great pleasure to write, but it was also very painful. I had to read so many case histories. Most of it was written in a car to have complete quiet.” He says in Speak, Memory that “in a first-rate work of fiction the real clash is not between the characters but between the author and world.” This is the force of Lolita. The most unsparing love novel of our literature of glib and easy sex is about an obsession that is locally criminal, written by an alien attacking the numbness of a culture from the inside of the machine that best represents its numbness.

From Vogue, December, 1966.


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