Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0000293, Sun, 10 Jul 1994 15:02:23 -0700

Re: Meeting VN (fwd)
David Slavitt, writer of the following memoir, is the author
of circa twenty novels, a dozen-odd volumes of poetry, and a series of
translations and editions of Latin literature. His fiftieth book will come
out in October--THE CLIFF, a novel, from LSU which published a new
collection of his poetry early this year. His METAMORPHOSES OF OVID
came out a few months ago from Johns Hopkins.

---------- Forwarded message ----------
From: "David R. Slavitt" <slavitt@pobox.upenn.edu>

I was at Newsweek as a trainee, or on trial, really, in 1958, and I had
written one or two pieces for the magazine that I don't at all remember.
What I do recall was that an editor there handed me a novel and told me to
read it and either write a review or a memo about why we should ignore the
book. I took it home, read it, and, in the light of what I'd learned in
university classes about the art of fiction, explained in my memorandum why
Exodus was not worth space in our book review section.
I was . . . twenty-three. What did I know?
The editor gave me another chance a few months later. In
November, it must have been. He had figured out an interesting feature
story I might try. The assignment: "Go on up to Ithaca, talk to the people
in the town, and to the people at Cornell, and see what they think of that
Nabokov fellow. Do they admire him? Do they think he's a dirty old man
who plays with himself in the shower? There could be a piece there. Give
it a shot."
Inelegant, I thought, but not altogether hopeless. I'd be dealing,
however roughly, with a writer I admired. From Leon Uris, it was surely a
step up. I also had the impression that this was it, my make-or-break
chance. If I performed satisfactorily, I'd be hired. And if not, not.
I had never been to Ithaca before. I flew up from New York on one
of those old DC-3s, wandered around the bookstores, talked to customers and
clerks, and then, on campus, to a few people I could grab on their way to
the library or some academic appointment. I found, unsurprisingly, that
this was not some small town in the Bible belt but, rather, an ivy-league
bastion off in the lake country -- like Princeton, say, but farther away.
Nobody was shocked or distressed by VN's dirty book, or no one I could
By mid- afternoon, I'd begun to worry. What would I have to write?
Ithacans unshocked by professor's racy novel . . . wasn't a grabby angle.
I got Nabokov's telephone number from the university administration,
called, explained who I was and, more or less what I was doing in town, and
got invited to tea. I was, on the one hand, a bit nervous. But I
reassured myself that if he taught at Cornell, he would be accustomed to
making some allowances. I was a Yalie and was therefore unlikely to be
the dumbest kid he'd seen all year. Besides, publicity is publicity, and
it sells books. He'd be smart enough to be helpful.
(In the course of seven years at the magazine, I later learned that
while this cooperative spirit is reasonable to suppose, one can't always
rely on reasonableness. Some people, even some smart people and excellent
writers, are nuts.)
Nabokov wasn't nuts. He was most cordial, made me feel welcome at
once. The house they were living in was an informal ranch house, somewhat
messy as I remember. Nabokov explained that the house was borrowed. (I now
know that this was the home of Lauriston Sharp whose cat the Nabokovs were
looking after.) Vera fetched tea and joined us. I sat in a kind of day
room, or sun room with a large picture window, near the corner chair with
an ottoman in front of it that was clearly VN's preferred place.
I don't remember the details, of course. In later years, I'd have
had a tape recorder, but in '58, one used a pencil and pad and one's
memory. I do recall being tested, in the kind of transaction Brian Boyd
describes with VN and Herb Gold. VN would make an allusion and then wait
to see if there was a reaction. I'd read Pnin, and at least some of
Lolita, and my reactions were evidently good enough to let him suppose he
had a willing and therefore perhaps useful audience. He talked books --
Pasternak, of course, because Dr. Zhivago was on the best seller list and
its author had been awarded the Nobel Prize only a couple of weeks before.
VN said that it was better in the French translation, that he suspected
Pasternak's wife had written much of it, and that it was "poshlost!" He
asked me, I think, if I knew what that word meant, and I suggested,
"kitsch," which was acceptable.
He told me that Lolita had been a great trial for him, that his
dealings with Girodias had been distressing, but that American publishers
had been far worse. I think I my memory is accurate about his comment, off
the record, that Simon and Schuster had expressed a willingness to publish
the book if he would only change Lolita to a young boy! (I assumed, and
still assume, that this was a joke, but what makes it funnier and sadder is
that it isn't altogether impossible. His trusting me with a confidence
seemed very flattering -- but then, I was just starting out and had no way
of realizing that experienced interviewees often use such tactics -- if,
indeed, it was a tactic.) It was during this conversation that he referred
to Hemingway's Old Man And the Fish.
Finally, knowing that my job was on the line, I told him in
slightly less inelegant terms, what my editor's assignment had been. He
thought for a moment, and then told me that, the week before, when the
American children come around begging for candy, he had opened the door . .
. "And you must remember," he pointed out, "that we are borrowing this
place. Very few people know I live here. But at the door, I saw a young
girl, eleven or so, in a tennis dress and a tennis racket and with a sign
around her neck that said 'LOLITA.' I was shocked!"
I thanked him. I recognized what at Newsweek they called a kicker,
or the way to get out of a story. Nabokov had supplied it for me, and all
I had to do was copy out the words. I flew back to New York, did that,
and got hired on as an assistant editor.
David R. Slavitt
TEL:(215) 382-3994