Nabokov interview with Bernard Pivot (1975)

Submitted by Brian_Boyd on Thu, 11/07/2019 - 16:19

This interview with Bernard Pivot, on his extremely popular television booktalk show, Apostrophes, will appear in Nabokov's Think, Write, Speak: Uncollected Essays, Reviews, Interviews, and Letters to the Editor, forthcoming in the next two weeks from Knopf (New York) and Penguin (London), and co-edited by Anastasia Tolstoy and myself. The TLS allowed less than 24 hours to correct proofs and because of the time difference did not get my revisions until too late. I would have changed the introduction (edited by them from mine to the book version) to read:


When his novel Ada was about to appear in French translation, Vladimir Nabokov was interviewed in Paris by Bernard Pivot. Although Pivot’s book-talk show Apostrophes was one of the best loved programmes of its time on French television, Nabokov had to be cajoled into participating. All other Apostrophes interviews were live and impromptu, with a group of critics involved in freewheeling discussion. The Nabokov episode was also broadcast live (on May 30, 1975) and before a small audience, and there were other critics present, but Nabokov was allowed to have the questions -  from Pivot alone - sent in advance, and to prepare his answers in writing. During the programme he read them from cards roughly concealed behind a stack of his books.


I also wanted to change the absurd inserted explanation in the quotation from Pivot: "He received me in a large salon [at the Montreux Palace, Nabokov's residence]" to "[in the Montreux Palace Hotel, in which the Nabokovs lived]" (a Russian writeup once called Montreux "Nabokov's estate"; having his residence as a Palace is not much better].

And in their note to "Fischer" I wanted the change to: "American Bobby Fischer (1943-2008), often considered the greatest chess player ever, became World Chess Champion through winning “the chess match of the century,” in 1972, but refused to defend his title in 1975."

Here's the interview. Enjoy! And look out for the book! There will also be advance serializations in the New Yorker and Harper's

Brian Boyd


This is wonderful. Thank you, Brian! The reference to "suicide" chess problems chimed with some research I was doing yesterday, where I discovered what seemed to me an insignificant item: that a man named Walter Campbell was, as far as anyone knows, the inventor of a chess variant called "Take Me." This variant would later become known as Loser Chess or, sometimes, Suicide Chess. I don't suppose that this Walter Campbell was the inspiration for King Charles' Scottish tutor, but the constellation formed by these trifles gave me a little thrill nonetheless.

Matt Roth

In his reply to Bernard Pivot's question "You wrote this marvellous novel The Luzhin Defence: are you a very good chess player? And what do you think of Fischer’s attitude?" VN mentions enigmatic chess problems of which each one is the fruit of a thousand and one nights of insomnia:


Forty years ago I was a good enough player of chess, not a grandmaster, as the Germans say, but a club player sometimes able to set a trap for a heedless champion. What has always drawn me in chess is the trick move, the hidden combination, and that’s why I gave up live play to devote myself to composing chess problems. I don’t doubt that there exists an intimate link between certain mirages of my prose and the texture, at once brilliant and obscure, of enigmatic chess problems of which each one is the fruit of a thousand and one nights of insomnia. I especially like so-called suicide problems, where White forces Black to win.

Yes, Fischer is a strange being, but there’s nothing abnormal in the fact of a chess player’s not being normal. There was the case of the great player Rubinstein, at the start of the century: an ambulance would drive him each day from the insane asylum, his home, to the café room where the tournament was taking place, and then drive him back to his dark cell after the game. He didn’t like to see his opponent, but an empty chair across the chessboard also irritated him, so they put a mirror there, and he saw his own reflection.


According to Kinbote (in VN’s novel Pale Fire, 1962, Shade’s mad commentator who imagines that he is Charles the Beloved, the last self-exiled king of Zembla), as a boy of six he suffered from adult insomnia:


Many years ago--how many I would not care to say--I remember my Zemblan nurse telling me, a little man of six in the throes of adult insomnia: "Minnamin, Gut mag alkan, Pern dirstan" (my darling, God makes hungry, the Devil thirsty). Well, folks, I guess many in this fine hall are as hungry and thirsty as me, and I'd better stop, folks, right here.
Yes, better stop. My notes and self are petering out. Gentlemen, I have suffered very much, and more than any of you can imagine. I pray for the Lord's benediction to rest on my wretched countrymen. My work is finished. My poet is dead.

God will help me, I trust, to rid myself of any desire to follow the example of the other two characters in this work. I shall continue to exist. I may assume other disguises, other forms, but I shall try to exist. I may turn up yet, on another campus, as an old, happy, health heterosexual Russian, a writer in exile, sans fame, sans future, sans audience, sans anything but his art. I may join forces with Odon in a new motion picture: Escape from Zembla (ball in the palace, bomb in the palace square). I may pander to the simple tastes of theatrical critics and cook up a stage play, an old-fashioned melodrama with three principles: a lunatic who intends to kill an imaginary king, another lunatic who imagines himself to be that king, and a distinguished old poet who stumbles by chance into the line of fire, and perishes in the clash between the two figments. Oh, I may do many things! History permitting, I may sail back to my recovered kingdom, and with a great sob greet the gray coastline and the gleam of a roof in the rain. I may huddle and groan in a madhouse. But whatever happens, wherever the scene is laid, somebody, somewhere, will quietly set out--somebody has already set out, somebody still rather far away is buying a ticket, is boarding a bus, a ship, a plane, has landed, is walking toward a million photographers, and presently he will ring at my door--a bigger, more respectable, more competent Gradus. (note to Line 1000)


According to Smurov, the narrator and main character in VN’s story Soglyadatay (“The Eye,” 1930), Karl Marx's "Capital" is plod bessonnitsy i migreni (a fruit of insomnia and megrim):


К счастью, закона никакого нет, -- зубная боль проигрывает битву, дождливый денёк отменяет намеченный мятеж, -- всё зыбко, всё от случая, и напрасно старался тот расхлябанный и брюзгливый буржуа в клетчатых штанах времён Виктории, написавший тёмный труд "Капитал" -- плод бессонницы и мигрени.


There are no laws - toothache loses a battle, a rainy day cancels a proposed insurrection - everything is vacillating, everything is due to chance, and vain have been the efforts of that ramshackle and grumbling bourgeois in Victorian check trousers, who wrote the obscure work called 'Capital' ― a fruit of insomnia and megrim.” (chapter II)


In Canto Four of his poem Shade mentions Marx among the things that he loathes:


Now I shall speak of evil as none has

Spoken before. I loathe such things as jazz;

The white-hosed moron torturing a black

Bull, rayed with red; abstractist bric-a-brac;

Primitivist folk-masks; progressive schools;

Music in supermarkets; swimming pools;

Brutes, bores, class-conscious Philistines, Freud, Marx,

Fake thinkers, puffed-up poets, frauds and sharks. (ll. 923-930)


Describing Shade's last birthday, Kinbote mentions his migraine:


Namely, July 5, 1959, 6th Sunday after Trinity. Shade began writing Canto Two "early in the morning" (thus noted at the top of Card 14). He continued (down to line 208) on and off throughout the day. Most of the evening and a part of the night were devoted to what his favorite eighteenth-century writers have termed "the Bustle and Vanity of the World." After the last guest had gone (on a bicycle), and the ashtrays had been emptied, all the windows were dark for a couple of hours; but then, at about 3 A.M., I saw from my upstairs bedroom that the poet had gone back to his desk in the lilac light of his den, and this nocturnal session brought the canto to line 230 (card 18). On another trip to the bathroom an hour and a half later, at sunrise, I found the light transferred to my bedroom, and smiled indulgently, for, according to my deductions, only two nights had passed since the three-thousand-nine-hundred-ninety-ninth time--but no matter. A few minutes later all was solid darkness again, and I went back to bed.

On July 5th, a noontime, in the other hemisphere, on the rain-swept tarmac of the Onhava airfield, Gradus, holding a French passport, walked towards a Russian commercial plane bound for Copenhagen, and this event synchronized with Shade's starting in the early morning (Atlantic seaboard time) to compose, or to set down after composing in bed, the opening lines of Canto Two. When almost twenty-four hours later he got to line 230, Gradus, after a refreshing night at the summer house of our consul in Copenhagen, an important Shadow, had entered, with the Shadow, a clothes store in order to conform to his description in later notes (to lines 286 and 408). Migraine again worse today. (note to Line 181)


July 5 is not only Shade’s, but also Kinbote’s and Gradus’s birthday (while Shade was born in 1898, Kinbote and Gradus were bron in 1915). Kinbote was six in 1921, the year of Blok's and Gumilyov's death. In his poem Pamyat' ("Memory," 1920) Gumilyov mentions muki goloda i zhazhdy (the torments of hunger and thirst). Menya bessonnitsa tomila... ("Insomnia was racking me," 1899) is a poem by Blok:


Меня бессонница томила, -

Недуг безумный и глухой, -

Блаженство ночи в сад манило,

Где пахло скошенной травой.


Insomnia was racking me,

a crazy and obscure ailment,

the bliss of night lured me into the garden

where there was a smell of mowed grass.


The poem's first line is an echo of Mozart's words in Pushkin's little tragedy "Mozart and Salieri" (1830):



      Что ты мне принёс?


Нет — так; безделицу. Намедни ночью
Бессонница моя меня томила,
И в голову пришли мне две, три мысли.
Сегодня их я набросал. Хотелось
Твоё мне слышать мненье; но теперь
Тебе не до меня.



     What did you bring me?


Oh, nothing. Just a trifle. The other night,
When my insomnia was racking me,
A few ideas came into my head.
Today I jotted them down. I wanted to
Hear your opinion, but I can see
You have no time for me.

(scene I)


In Pushkin's little tragedy Mozart mentions the power of harmony and uses the phrase nikto b (none would):



Когда бы все так чувствовали силу

Гармонии! но нет; тогда б не мог

И мир существовать; никто б не стал

Заботиться о нуждах низкой жизни;

Все предались бы вольному искусству.



If all could feel like you the power of harmony!
But no: the world could not go on then. None
Would bother with the needs of lowly life;
All would surrender to free art.

(scene II)


Nikto b is Botkin (Shade's, Kinbote's and Gradus's "real" name) in reverse. In his Pushkin speech, O naznachenii poeta ("On the Poet's Calling," 1921), Blok says that a poet is a son of harmony and quotes Mozart’s words (attributing them to Salieri):


Что такое поэт? Человек, который пишет стихами? Нет, конечно. Он называется поэтом не потому, что он пишет стихами; но он пишет стихами, то есть приводит в гармонию слова и звуки, потому что он - сын гармонии, поэт.

What is a poet? A man who writes in verse? Of course, not. He is called a poet not because he writes in verse; but he writes in verse, that is he brings into harmony words and sounds, because he is a son of harmony, a poet.


Нельзя сопротивляться могуществу гармонии, внесённой в мир поэтом; борьба с нею превышает и личные и соединённые человеческие силы. «Когда бы все так чувствовали силу гармонии!» — томится одинокий Сальери. Но её чувствуют все, только смертные — иначе, чем бог — Моцарт. От знака, которым поэзия отмечает на лету, от имени, которое она даёт, когда это нужно, — никто не может уклониться, так же как от смерти. Это имя даётся безошибочно.

According to Blok, everybody feels the power of harmony, but mortals feel it differently than god (Mozart) does.


In VN’s novel Ada (1969) Van Veen (the narrator and main character) says that on Desdemonia (as Van calls Demonia, aka Antiterra, Earth’s twin planet on which Ada is set) artists are the only gods:


That meeting, and the nine that followed, constituted the highest ridge of their twenty-one-year-old love: its complicated, dangerous, ineffably radiant coming of age. The somewhat Italianate style of the apartment, its elaborate wall lamps with ornaments of pale caramel glass, its white knobbles that produced indiscriminately light or maids, the slat-eyes, veiled, heavily curtained windows which made the morning as difficult to disrobe as a crinolined prude, the convex sliding doors of the huge white 'Nuremberg Virgin'-like closet in the hallway of their suite, and even the tinted engraving by Randon of a rather stark three-mast ship on the zigzag green waves of Marseilles Harbor – in a word, the alberghian atmosphere of those new trysts added a novelistic touch (Aleksey and Anna may have asterisked here!) which Ada welcomed as a frame, as a form, something supporting and guarding life, otherwise unprovidenced on Desdemonia, where artists are the only gods. (3.8)


Desdemonia hints at Desdemona, Othello’s wife in Shakespeare’s Othello. In his essay Taynyi smysl tragedii “Otello” (“The Secret Meaning of the Tragedy Othello,” 1919) Blok says that Desdemona is a harmony, Desdemona is a soul, and the soul can not but saves from the chaos:


Дездемона - это гармония, Дездемона - это душа, а душа не может не спасать от хаоса.


Duchess of Payn, of Great Payn and Mone, Queen Disa (the wife of Charles the Beloved) seems to blend Leonardo’s Mona Lisa with Shakespeare’s Desdemona. The "real" name of both Sybil Shade (the poet's wife) and Queen Disa seems to be Sofia Botkin (born Lastochkin).


The last day of Shade's life has passed in a sustained low hum of harmony:


Gently the day has passed in a sustained

Low hum of harmony. The brain is drained

And a brown ament, and the noun I meant

To use but did not, dry on the cement.

Maybe my sensual love for the consonne

D'appui, Echo's fey child, is based upon

A feeling of fantastically planned,

Richly rhymed life. I feel I understand

Existence, or at least a minute part

Of my existence, only through my art,

In terms of combinational delight;

And if my private universe scans right,

So does the verse of galaxies divine

Which I suspect is an iambic line. (ll. 963-976)


Describing the reign of Charles the Beloved, Kinbote says that its password was harmony:


That King's reign (1936-1958) will be remembered by at least a few discerning historians as a peaceful and elegant one. Owing to a fluid system of judicious alliances, Mars in his time never marred the record. Internally, until corruption, betrayal, and Extremism penetrated it, the People's Place (parliament) worked in perfect harmony with the Royal Council. Harmony, indeed, was the reign's password. The polite arts and pure sciences flourished. Technicology, applied physics, industrial chemistry and so forth were suffered to thrive. A small skyscraper of ultramarine glass was steadily rising in Onhava. The climate seemed to be improving. Taxation had become a thing of beauty. The poor were a little richer, and the rich a little poorer (in accordance what may be known some day as Kinbote's Law). Medical care was spreading to the confines of the state; less and less often, on his tour of the country, every autumn, when the rowans hung coral-heavy and the puddles tinkled with Muscovy glass, the friendly and eloquent monarch would be interrupted by a pertussal "backdraucht" in a crowd of schoolchildren. Parachuting had become a popular sport. Everybody, in a word, was content--even the political mischiefmakers who were contentedly making mischief paid by a contented Sosed (Zembla's gigantic neighbor). But let us not pursue this tiresome subject. (note to Line 12)


In Chapter Two (XII: 1-5) of Eugene Onegin Pushkin (the author of "Verses Composed at Night during the Insomnia," 1830) calls Lenski polurusskiy sosed (the half-Russian neighbor):


Богат, хорош собою, Ленской
Везде был принят как жених;
Таков обычай деревенской;
Все дочек прочили своих
За полурусского соседа


Wealthy, good-looking, Lenski

was as a suitor everywhere received:

such is the country custom;

all for their daughters planned a match

with the half-Russian neighbor.


In his Prefatory Piece (addressed to Pyotr Plentyov) Pushkin calls Eugene Onegin "the careless fruit of my amusements, insomnias, light inspirations, unripe and withered years, the intellect's cold observations, and the heart's sorrowful remarks:"


Не мысля гордый свет забавить,

Вниманье дружбы возлюбя,
Хотел бы я тебе представить
Залог достойнее тебя,
Достойнее души прекрасной,
Святой исполненной мечты,
Поэзии живой и ясной,
Высоких дум и простоты;
Но так и быть — рукой пристрастной
Прими собранье пестрых глав,
Полусмешных, полупечальных,
Простонародных, идеальных,
Небрежный плод моих забав,
Бессониц, лёгких вдохновений,
Незрелых и увядших лет,
Ума холодных наблюдений
И сердца горестных замет.


Not thinking to amuse the haughty world,

having grown fond of friendship's heed,

I wish I could present you with a gage

that would be worthier of you —

be worthier of a fine soul

full of a holy dream,

of live and limpid poetry,

of high thoughts and simplicity.

But so be it. With partial hand

take this collection of pied chapters:

half droll, half sad,

plain-folk, ideal,

the careless fruit of my amusements,

insomnias, light inspirations,

unripe and withered years,

the intellect's cold observations,

and the heart's sorrowful remarks.


In a letter of April 11, 1831, to Pletnyov Pushkin calls Pletnyov ten’ vozlyublennaya (the beloved shade) and asks him, if he is already dead, to bow to Derzhavin and to embrace Delvig (who died at the beginning of 1831):


Воля твоя, ты несносен: ни строчки от тебя не дождёшься. Умер ты, что ли? Если тебя уже нет на свете, то, тень возлюбленная, кланяйся от меня Державину и обними моего Дельвига.


In a letter of Sept. 9, 1830, to Pletnyov Pushkin quotes the last words of his uncle Vasiliy Lvovich, kak skuchny statyi Katenina! ("how boring are the articles of Katenin!"), and says that his uncle died as a honest soldier, na shchite (on shield, Lat., in scuto):


Бедный дядя Василий! знаешь ли его последние слова? приезжаю к нему, нахожу его в забытьи, очнувшись, он узнал меня, погоревал, потом, помолчав: как скучны статьи Катенина! и более ни слова. Каково? вот что значит умереть честным воином, на щите, le cri de guerre a la bouche!


Kinbote is Shade’s dangerous neighbor. Vasiliy Lvovich Pushkin is the author of Opasnyi sosed (“The Dangerous Neighbor,” 1811). In Chapter Five of EO Pushkin calls Buyanov (the main character in “The Dangerous Neighbor”), one of the guests at Tatiana’s name-day party, “my first cousin.” I suggest that Professor Vsevolod Botkin (an American scholar of Russian descent who went mad and became Shade, Kinbote and Gradus after the tragic death of his daughter Nadezhda) is VN’s first cousin. In his poem On Translating “Eugene Onegin” (1955) written after the meter and rhyme scheme of the EO stanza VN says that his honest roadside prose is “all thorn, but cousin to your [Pushkin’s] rose.”


In a letter of Jan. 4, 1835, to Pushkin Katenin says that he began the New Year with a sonnet:


Sonnet... c'est un sonnet. Да, любезнейший Александр Сергеевич, я обновил 1835-й год сонетом, не милым, как Оронтов, не во вкусе петраркистов, a разве несколько в роде Казы; и как étrenne посылаю к тебе с просьбою: коли ты найдёшь его хорошим, напечатать в "Библиотеке для чтения"; а поелику мне, бедняку, дарить богатого Смирдина грех, то продай ему NB как можно дороже.


Katenin's sonnet ends in the line:


И чем прискорбней жизнь, тем радостней могила.

And the more lamentable life is, the more joyful is the grave.


At the beginning of his memoir essay Vospominaniya o F. M. Dostoevskom (“Reminiscences of F. M. Dostoevski,” 1881) Vsevolod Solovyov (a son of the celebrated historian and brother of the celebrated philosopher) mentions mogila (the grave):


Человек только что опущен в могилу.

The man was just lowered into the grave.


In a letter of Oct. 31, 1838 (Dostoevski’s seventeenth birthday), to his brother Dostoevski (the author of The Double, etc.) twice uses the word gradus (degree):


Философию не надо полагать простой математической задачей, где неизвестное - природа... Заметь, что поэт в порыве вдохновенья разгадывает бога, следовательно, исполняет назначенье философии. Следовательно, поэтический восторг есть восторг философии... Следовательно, философия есть та же поэзия, только высший градус её!..

Philosophy should not be regarded as a mere equation where nature is the unknown quantity… Remark that the poet, in the moment of inspiration, comprehends God, and consequently does the philosopher’s work. Consequently poetic inspiration is nothing less than philosophical inspiration. Consequently philosophy is nothing but poetry, a higher degree of poetry!..


Друг мой! Ты философствуешь как поэт. И как не ровно выдерживает душа градус вдохновенья, так не ровна, не верна и твоя философия. Чтоб больше знать, надо меньше чувствовать, и обратно, правило опрометчивое, бред сердца.

My friend, you philosophize like a poet. And just because the soul cannot be forever in a state of exaltation, your philosophy is not true and not just. To know more one must feel less, and vice versa. Your judgment is featherheaded – it is a delirium of the heart.


Shade’s poem is almost finished, when the author is killed by Gradus (a half-man who, according to Kinbote, is also half-mad). Kinbote believes that, to be completed, Shade’s poem needs but one line (Line 1000, identical to Line 1: “I was the shadow of the waxwing slain”). But it seems that, like some sonnets, Shade's poem also needs a coda (Line 1001: “By its own double in the windowpane”). Dvoynik ("The Double," 1909) is also a poem by Blok (who said, when asked "does the sonnet need a coda," that he did not know what a coda is).


After completing his work on Shade's poem (on Oct. 19, 1959, the anniversary of Pushkin's Lyceum), Kinbote (who seems to write his Commentary, Index and Foreword - in that order - in a madhouse) commits suicide. There is a hope (nadezhda) that, after Kinbote's death, Botkin, like Count Vorontsov (a target of Pushkin’s epigrams, “half-milord, half-merchant, etc.”), will be full again.

I wouldn't dismiss Walter Campbell, the inventor of Suicide Chess, so easily. In "The Luzhin Defense" the hero's aunt (who teaches her little nephew to play chess) suggests that she teaches him to play poddavki (the giveaway, a checkers variant analogous to Loser Chess) instead. But little Luzhin perseveres and chess becomes his fatal obsession. On the other hand, Walter Campbell (King Charles' Scottish tutor) brings to mind Valentinov, Luzhin's tutor and impressario. As to Luzhin's pretty aunt, she finds a counterpart in dear bizarre Aunt Maud who raised Shade. Luzhin's suicide at the end of the novel reminds one of the death of Baron Bland, the Keeper of the Treasure who jumped or fell from the North Tower of the Onhava Palace. Turati (Luzhin's opponent) hints at tura (obs., rook). Tura and "tower" are related words.

I somehow missed this post, but I am very happy to have come across it today.


The following quote, I believe, gives substantive credence to Brian's "Hazel"  hors-texte interpretation of Pale Fire, and also, happily, to my theory of a Jungian archetypal substrate creating a "new story" on the "antithetic" level of themes,tropes, allegory, metaphor, etc.:


But isn’t a good novel above all an excellent story?

An excellent story, I perfectly agree. I would add, all the same, that my best novels don’t have one, but several stories which interlace in a certain way. My Pale Fire has this counterpoint, and Ada, too. I like not only to see the main theme radiate through the whole novel but also to develop little secondary themes. Sometimes it’s a digression that turns into a drama in a corner of the narrative, or the metaphors of an extended essay that join up to form a new story.