Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Interviewing Mr. Nabokov

I've long been a fan of the Paris Review interviews. This one with Vladimir Nabokov struck me as pretty funny. Here's the first few questions (and it goes on like this for thirty more).

INTERVIEWER

One critic (Pryce-Jones) has said about you that “his feelings are like no one else's.” Does this make sense to you? Or does it mean that you know your feelings better than others know theirs? Or that you have discovered yourself at other levels? Or simply that your history is unique?

NABOKOV

I do not recall that article; but if a critic makes such a statement, it must surely mean that he has explored the feelings of literally millions of people, in at least three countries, before reaching his conclusion. If so, I am a rare fowl indeed. If, on the other hand, he has merely limited himself to quizzing members of his family or club, his statement cannot be discussed seriously.

INTERVIEWER

Another critic has written that your “worlds are static. They may become tense with obsession, but they do not break apart like the worlds of everyday reality.” Do you agree? Is there a static quality in your view of things?

NABOKOV

Whose “reality”? “Everyday” where? Let me suggest that the very term “everyday reality” is utterly static since it presupposes a situation that is permanently observable, essentially objective, and universally known. I suspect you have invented that expert on “everyday reality.” Neither exists.

INTERVIEWER

He does [names him]. A third critic has said that you “diminish” your characters “to the point where they become ciphers in a cosmic farce.” I disagree; Humbert, while comic, retains a touching and insistent quality—that of the spoiled artist.

NABOKOV

I would put it differently: Humbert Humbert is a vain and cruel wretch who manages to appear “touching.” That epithet, in its true, tear-iridized sense, can only apply to my poor little girl. Besides, how can I “diminish” to the level of ciphers, et cetera, characters that I have invented myself? One can “diminish” a biographee, but not an eidolon.

INTERVIEWER

E. M. Forster speaks of his major characters sometimes taking over and dictating the course of his novels. Has this ever been a problem for you, or are you in complete command?

NABOKOV

My knowledge of Mr. Forster's works is limited to one novel, which I dislike; and anyway, it was not he who fathered that trite little whimsy about characters getting out of hand; it is as old as the quills, although of course one sympathizes with his people if they try to wriggle out of that trip to India or wherever he takes them. My characters are galley slaves.