Sunday, December 25, 2011
The Nabokov Interviews
Nabokov was very conscious of his speech, which is evident from the opening line. He says in an interview: "I have always been a wretched speaker. My vocabulary dwells deep in my mind and needs paper to wriggle out into the physical zone. Spontaneous eloquence seems to me a miracle. I have rewritten -- often several times -- every word I have ever published. My pencils outlast their erasures."
Beautiful, isn't it? When I first read these statements, my spine tingled with joy.
Whether it was delivering a lecture, or having a telephonic conversation ("my hemmings or hawings") or chit-chatting with people in a party, Nabokov was never off guard or casual about anything. "At parties, if I attempt to entertain people with a good story," he explains, "I have to go back to every other sentence for oral erasures and inserts. Even the dream I describe to my wife across the breakfast table is only a first draft."
To interview such a man was never a straightforward affair (Imagine Nabokov's discomfort in today's world of letters -- hopping from studio to television studio to promote one of his books, or to speak in a literary festival! Actually, he did once appear in a TV interview in London but that too was rehearsed and Nabokov had his notes in front of him, so he could neither stare at the camera nor leer at the questioner--thus appearing squirming and avoiding the camera). Instead, Nabokov insisted on receiving questions in advance and always carefully composed his responses. Anyone who wanted to interview him had to agree to three conditions: The questions had to be sent in writing, answered by him in writing, and reproduced verbatim.
Come to think of this process in our age of email interviews. It works perfectly well, saving each party the disgrace and heartburn of suffering a misquote, or mixing authentic responses with the artificial colour of human interest.
It was not that Nabokov did not enjoy giving interviews. He rather did. "My fiction allows me so seldom the occasion to air my private views that I rather welcome, now and then, the questions put to me in sudden spates by charming, courteous, intelligent visitors," he says. Or see what he says on another occasion: "The luxury of speaking on one theme--oneself--is a sensation not to be despised. But the result is sometimes puzzling."
In his first interview, given at the time of Lolita's film premiere, Nabokov describes himself as a person without public appeal (that is, he was boring as a celebrity): "I have never been drunk in my life. I never use school boy words of four letters. I have never worked in an office or a coal mine. I have never belonged to any club or group. No creed or school has had any influence on me whatsoever. Nothing bores me more than political novels and the literature of the social intent."
Nabokov was never interested in literary fashions, movements or schools. He was interested only in the individual artist. So, while Robbe-Grillet was a great French writer to him, he considered the "anti-novel" a banal and phony commercial label.
To him, a work of art was for an individual, and was of no social importance at all. "What makes a work of fiction safe from larvae and rust is not social importance but its art, only its art," he says.
Nabokov could not type and wrote everything in longhand, on index cards. He refused to show an interviewer a sample of his rough drafts. "Only ambitious nonentities and hearty mediocrities exhibit their rough drafts," was his reply. "It is like passing around samples of one's sputum."
Nabokov, who lived in Europe as a Russian immigre and then moved over to America and spent his last days in Europe again, maintained that the nationality of a worthwhile writer is of secondary importance. "The writer's art is his real passport," he says.
"A creative writer must study carefully the works of his rivals, including the Almighty," he says. "Imagination without knowledge leads no farther than the backyard of primitive art, the child's scrawl on the fence, and the crank's message in the marketplace. Art is never simple. Art at its greatest is fantastically deceitful and complex."
Many of us suffer from the disease of forgetability. So did Nabokov. His other failings as a writer included, in his own words, "lack of spontaneity; the nuisance of parallel thoughts, second thoughts; inability to express myself properly in any language unless I compose every damned sentence in my bath, in my mind, at my desk."
Nabokov had a bleak and "changeless as an old gray oak" political creed, classical to the point of triteness: "Freedom of speech, freedom of thought, freedom of art. The social or economic structure of the ideal state is of little concern to me. My desires are modest. Portraits of the head of the government should not exceed a postage stamp in size. No torture and no executions. No music, except coming through earphones or played in theatres." By the way, Nabokov had no ear for music, a shortcoming he deplored bitterly.
To Nabokov, a good reading involved not the heart, but the mind and the spine--yours, not the book's. The heart is a stupid reader, he says. "Ladies and gentlemen, the tingle in the spine really tells you what the author felt and wished you to feel," he used to tell his students.
And he hated yarns spliced with social comments. "The middlebrow or the upper Philistine cannot get rid of the furtive feeling that a book, to be great, must deal in great ideas."
He detested the so-called "powerful novels"--full of commonplace obscenities and torrents of dialogue. When a publisher sent him a book to read, he would first check for the amount of dialogue in it. "If it looks too abundant or too sustained, I shut the book with a bang, and ban it from my bed."
Nabokov's favourite writers, he once told an interviewer, were Robbe-Grillet and Borges: "How freely and gratefully one breathes in their marvelous labyrinths!I love their lucidity of thought, the purity and poetry, the mirage in the mirror."
He once described Dostoevski as a cheap sensationalist, clumsy and vulgar. He said that Russians who loved Dostoevski venerate him as a mystic and not as an artist. He disliked intensely The Karamazov Brothers and the ghastly Crime and Punishment. "He was a prophet, a claptrap journalist and a slapdash comedian," he says. "...His sensitive murderers and soulful prostitutes are not to be endured for one moment --by this reader anyway."
This more or less mirrors my own attitude to Dostoevski whom I admire but find some of his books too dense to get through. I want a powerful story but it has to be well told, distilled and condensed. Where is the mot juste in his writing?
He considered Anna Karenin the supreme masterpiece of nineteenth-century literature, closely followed by The Death of Ivan Illyich. War and Peace, he says, was written for that amorphic and limp creature known as 'the general reader,' and more specifically for the young.
He considered Hemingway and Conrad 'writers of books for boys'. "Hemingway certainly is the better of the two," he says. He loved his "The Killers" and found the famous fish story superb. While I personally love Hemingway, I could never connect with Conrad's prose. "I cannot abide Conrad's souvenir-shop style, bottled ships and shell necklaces of romanticist cliches," says Nabokov. "In mentality and emotion, both (Hem and Conrad) are hopelessly juvenile."
What he read between the ages of 10-15: Wells, Poe, Browning, Keats, Falubert, Verlaine, Rimbaud, Chekhov, Tolstoy, and Alexander Blok. "By the age of 14 or 15, I had read or re-read all Tolstoy in Russian, all Shakespeare in English and all Flubert in French --besides hundreds of other books," he writes. But at another level, his heroes were Scarlet Pimpernel, Phileas Fogg, and Sherlock Holmes.
What he read between the ages of 20-40: Houseman, Rupert Brooke, Norman Douglas, Bergson, Joyce, Proust, and Pushkin. Of these top favs, several - Poe, Jules Verne, Orczy, Conan Doylem and Rupert Brooke - lost the glamour and thrill for him in later age.
He read some of his coevals such as "the not quite first rate Eliot" and "definitely second rate Pound" late in life--and remained completely indifferent to them. He could not understand why anybody should bother about them. He hated Freud and called him a charlatan. "Let the credulous and vulgar continue to believe that all mental woes can be cured by a daily application of old Greek myths to their private parts," he says. "I really do not care."
Late in his life, he still loved Melville, and liked Hawthorne and Emerson. His feelings towards James were rather complicated.
However, many accepted authors simply did not exist for him: "Their names are engraved on empty graves, their books are dummies, they are complete nonentities insofar as my taste in reading is concerned. Brecht, Faulkner, Camus, many others mean absolutely nothing to me." Same dislike goes for Mann, Dreiser and D H Lawrence.
Nabokov complained against the general attitude in English to pass the word 'genius' around rather generously. In Russian, genius is applied to a very small number of writers such as Shakespeare, Milton, Pushkin and Tolstoy. Turgenev and Chekhov were mere talents. He felt appalled at seeing genius applied to any important storyteller, such as Maupassant or Maugham. "Genius still means to me ... a unique, dazzling gift, the genius of James Joyce, not the talent of Henry James," he says.
Writing for Nabokov was a blend of dejection and high spirits, a torture and a pastime--but he never expected it to be a source of income. Rather he dreamt of a career in lepidoptera.
"If I am told I am a bad poet, I smile; but if told I am a poor scholar, I reach for my heaviest dictionary," he says in an essay, Reply to my Critics. In these interviews, Nabokov is much more interesting than he claims he is not, and as the book's blurb says, in these interviews, letters and articles, Nabokov is as engaging, challenging and caustic as anything he ever wrote.