Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0016113, Tue, 25 Mar 2008 11:01:08 -0400

TEXT: 17 June 1962 NYHT Books Interview
As promised, here is the full text of the uncollected interview printed in
the New York Herald Tribune Books section, page two, 17 June 1962. All
ellipses are in the original.

By Maurice Dolbier

Nabokov's Plums

Vladimir Nabokov's "Pale Fire" (Putnam's) consists of a 999-line poem by a
man named John Shade and a commentary on the poem by a man who calls himself
Dr. Charles Kinbote. Some of its reviewers have expressed doubts as to
whether the book could properly be called a novel at all, but, in an
interview the other day, Mr. Nabokov said:

"I think it is a perfectly straightforward novel. The clearest revelation
of personality is to be found in the creative work in which a given
individual indulges. Here the poet is revealed by his poetry; the
commentator by his commentary."

It is the book that he most enjoyed writing.

"It is jollier than the others," he said, "and it is full of plums that I
keep hoping somebody will find. For instance, the nasty commentator is not
an ex-King of Zembla nor is he Professor Kinbote. He is Professor Botkin, or
Botkine, a Russian and a madman. His commentary has a number of notes
dealing with entomology, ornithology, and botany. The reviewers have said
that I worked my favorite subjects into this novel. What they have not
discovered is that Botkin knows nothing about them, and all his notes are
frightfully erroneous. . . . No one has noted that my commentator committed
suicide before completing the index to the book. The last entry has no
numbered reference. . . . And even Mary McCarthy, who has discovered more in
the book than most of its critics, had some difficulty in locating the
source of its title, and made the mistake of searching for it in 'The
Tempest.' It is from 'Timon of Athens.' The moon's an arrant thief she
snatches her pale fire from the sun.' I hope that pointing out these things
will perhaps help the reader to enjoy my novel better."

On Soviet Writing

Mr. Nabokov, a scion of old Russia's nobility, keeps au courant with new
Russia's literature, and doesn't think much of it. Even of the young poet
Evgeni Evtushenko, recently lionized on a visit to England, Nabokov says:
"I've seen his work. Quite second-rate. He's a good Communist." As for
Soviet fiction: "There are no good novels. Everything is either political or
melodramatic, very tame and conservative in style, dealing in generalities,
and with tired old characterizations that go back as far as Dickens. Even
novels that supposedly represent tendencies that oppose the regime, and are
smuggled out of Russia, are often smuggled with official connivance. Russian
authorities today think they need a loyal opposition. People outside keep
trying to find in the work of youngish Soviet writers something that would
reveal a certain thawing of the political ice block. But the thaw is very
slight, indeed, and always controlled by the State.

"How can there be any good or original writing in Russia when its writers
can't know the West, can't know what freedom really means? Even the very few
authors who do visit England and America see only what the tourist sees--the
British Museum, Central Park, the Twist; nothing to change the picture they
had already formed of us before they came. For some, their first whiff of
freedom is when they see an American sprawled in a chair, feet outstretched,
hands in pocket. But unfortunately they cannot recognize this as a form of
liberty and democracy. They think it is not cultured. They say: 'Americans
don't know any better.'"

Are Soviet intellectuals familiar with Mr. Nabokov's work? "Yes, they have
read 'Lolita,' but in a French edition. Really smuggled in, and I assure you
not by the publisher Gallimard with the sanction of De Gaulle."


Matt Roth

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