Nabokov's interview. Bayerischer Rundfunk [1971-72]In October, 1971, Kurt Hoffman visited me in Montreux to film an interview for the Bayeriscber Rundfunk. Of its many topics and themes I have selected a few for reproduction in this volume. The bit about my West European ancestors comes from a carefully executed and beautifully bound Ahnentafel, given me on my seventieth birthday by my German publisher Heinrich Maria Ledig-RowohIt.
We can imagine all kinds of time, such as for example "applied time"-- time applied to events, which we measure by means of clocks and calendars; but those types of time are inevitably tainted by our notion of space, spatial succession, stretches and sections of space. When we speak of the "passage of time," we visualize an abstract river flowing through a generalized landscape. Applied time, measurable illusions of time, are useful for the purposes of historians or physicists, they do not interest me, and they did not interest my creature Van Veen in Part Four of my Ada. He and I in that book attempt to examine the essence of Time, not its lapse. Van mentions the possibility of being "an amateur of Time, an epicure of duration," of being able to delight sensually in the texture of time, "in its stuff and spread, in the fall of its folds, in the very impalpability of its grayish gauze, in the coolness of its continuum." He also is aware that "Time is a fluid medium for the culture of metaphors." Time, though akin to rhythm, is not simply rhythm, which would imply motion-- and Time does not move. Van's greatest discovery is his perception of Time as the dim hollow between two rhythmic beats, the narrow and bottomless silence between the beats, not the beats themselves, which only embar Time. In this sense human life is not a pulsating heart but the missed heartbeat.
ON TIME AND ITS TEXTURE
Pure Time, Perceptual Time, Tangible Time, Time free of content and context, this, then, is the kind of Time described by my creature under my sympathetic direction. The Past is also part of the tissue, part of the present, but it looks somewhat out of focus. The Past is a constant accumulation of images, but our brain is not an ideal organ for constant retrospection and the best we can do is to pick out and try to retain those patches of rainbow light flitting through memory. The act of retention is the act of art, artistic selection, artistic blending, artistic re-combination of actual events. The bad memoirist re-touches his past, and the result is a blue-tinted or pink-shaded photograph taken by a stranger to console sentimental bereavement. The good memoirist, on the other hand, does his best! to preserve the utmost truth of the detail. One of the ways he achieves his intent is to find the right spot on his canvas for placing the right patch of remembered color.
It follows that the combination and juxtaposition of remembered details is a main factor in the artistic process of reconstructing one's past. And that means probing not only one's personal past but the past of one's family in search of affinities with oneself, previews of oneself, faint allusions to one's vivid and vigorous Now. This, of course, is a game for old people. Tracing an ancestor to his lair hardly differs from a boy's search for a bird's nest or for a ball lost in the grass. The Christmas tree of one's childhood is replaced by the Family Tree. As the author of several papers on Lepidoptera, such as the "Nearctic Members of the Genus Lycaeides," I experience a certain thrill on finding that my mother's maternal grandfather Nikolay Kozlov, who was born two centuries ago and was the first president of the Russian Imperial Academy of Medicine, wrote a paper entitled "On the Coarctation of the Jugular Foramen in the Insane" to which my "Nearctic Members et cetera," furnishes a perfect response. And no less perfect is the connection between Nabokov's Pug, a little American moth named after me, and Nabokov's River in Nova Zembla of all places, so named after my great-grandfather, who participated at the beginning of the nineteenth century in an arctic expedition. I learned about these things quite late in life. Talks about one's ancestors were frowned upon in my family; the interdiction came from my father who had a particular loathing for the least speck or shadow of snobbishness. When imagining the information that I could now have used in my memoir, I rather regret that no such talks took place. But it simply was not done in our home, sixty years ago, twelve hundred miles away.
My father Vladimir Nabokov was a liberal statesman, member of the first Russian parliament, champion of justice and law in a difficult empire. He was born in 1870, went into exile in 1919, and three years later, in Berlin, was assassinated by two Fascist thugs while he was trying to shield his friend Professor Milyukov. The Nabokov family's estate was adjacent to that of the Rukavishnikovs in the Government of St. Petersburg. My mother Helen (1876-1939) was the daughter of Ivan Rukavishnikov, country gentleman and philanthropist. My paternal grandfather Dmitri Nabokov (1827-1904) was State Minister of Justice for eight years (1878-1885) under two tsars. My grandmother's paternal ancestors, the von Korffs, are traceable to the fourteenth century, while on their distaff side there is a long line of von Tiesenhausens, one of whose ancestors was Engelbrecht von Tiesenhausen of Liviand who took part, around 1200, in the Third and Fourth Crusades. Another direct ancestor of mine was Can Grande della Scala, Prince of Verona, w-ho sheltered the exiled Dante Alighieri, and whose blazon (two big dogs holding a ladder) adorns Boccaccio's Decameron (1353). Della Scala's granddaughter Beatrice married, in 1370, Wilhelm Count Oettingen, grandson of fat Bolko the Third, Duke of Silesia. Their daughter married a von Waldburg, and three Waldburgs, one Kittlitz, two Polenzes and ten Osten-Sackens later, Wilhelm Carl von Korff and Eleonor von der Osten-Sacken engendered my paternal grandmother's grandfather, Nicolaus, killed in battle on June 12, 1812. His wife, my grandmother's grandmother Anto inette Graun, was the granddaughter of the composer Carl Heinrich Graun (1701-1759).
My first Russian novel was written in Berlin in 1924-- this was Mary, in Russian Mashenka, and the first translation of any of my books was Masbenka in German under the title Sie kommt-- kommt Sie?, published by Ullstein in 1928. My next seven novels were also written in Berlin and all of them had, entirely or in part, a Berlin background. This is the German contribution to the atmosphere and production of all my eight Russian novels written in Berlin. When I moved there from England in 1921,1 had only a smattering of German picked up in Berlin during an earlier stay in the winter of 1910 when by brother and I went there with a Russian tutor to have ! our teeth fixed by an American dentist. In the course of my Cambridge University years I kept my Russian alive by reading Russian literature, my imain subject, and by composing an appalling quantity of poems in Russian. Upon moving to Berlin I was beset by a panicky fear of somehow flawing my precious layer of Russian by learning to speak German fluently. The task of linguistic occlusion was made easier by the fact that I lived in a closed emigre circle of Russian friends and read exclusively Russian newspapers, magazines, and books. My only forays into the local language were the civilities exchanged with my successive landlords or landladies and the routine necessities of shopping: Ich mochte etwas Schinken. I now regret that I did so poorly; I regret it from a ! cultural point of view. The little I ever did in that respect was to translate in my youth the Heine songs for a Russian contralto-- who, incidentally, wanted the musically significant vowels to coincide in fullness of sound, and therefore I turned Ich grolle nicbt into Net, zloby net, instead of the unsingable old v-ersion Ya ne serzhus'. Later I read Goethe and Kafka en regard's I also did Homer and Horace. And of course since my early boyhood I have been tackling a multitude of German butterfly books with the aid of a dictionary.
In America, where I wrote all my fiction in English, the situation was different. I had spoken English with the same ease as Russian, since my earliest infancy. I had already written one English novel in Europe besides translating in the thirties two of my Russian books. Linguistically, though perhaps not emotionally, the transition was endurable. And in reward of whatever wrench I experienced, I composed in America a few Russian poems which are incomparably better than those of my European period.
My actual work on lepidoptera is comprised within the span of only seven or eight years in the nineteen forties, mainly at Harvard, where I was Research Fellow in Entomology at the Museum of Comparative Zoology. This entailed some amount of curatorship but most of my work was devoted to the classification of certain small blue butterflies on the basis of their male genitalic structure. These studies required the constant use of a microscope, and since I devoted up to six hours daily to this kind of research my eyesight was impaired for ever; but on the other hand, the years at the Harvard Museum remain the most delightful and thrilling in all my adult life. Summers were spent by my wife and me in hunting butterflies, mostly in the Rocky Mountains. In the last fifteen years I have collected h! ere and there, in North America and Europe, but have not published any scientific papers on butterflies, because the writing of new novels and the translating of my old ones encroached too much on my life: the miniature hooks of a male butterfly are nothing in comparison to the eagle claws of literature which tear at me day and night. My entomological library in Montreux is smaller, in fact, than the heaps of butterfly books I had as a child. I am the author or the reviser of a number of species and subspecies mainly in the New World. The author's name, in such cases, is appended in Roman letters to the italicized name he gives to the creature. Several butterflies and one moth have been named for me, and in such cases my name is incorporated in that of the described insect, becoming "nabokovi,"' followed by the describer's name. There is also a genus Nabokovia Hemming, in South America. All my American collections are in museums, in New York, Boston, and lthaca. The butterflies I have been collecting during the last decade, mainly in Switzerland and Italy, are not yet spread. They are still papered, that is kept in little glazed envelopes which are stored in tin boxes. Eventually they will be relaxed in damp towels, then pinned, then spread, and dried again on setting boards, and finally, labeled and placed in the glassed drawers of a cabinet to be preserved, I hope, in the splendid entomological museum in Lausanne.
I have always been an omnivorous consumer of books, and now, as in my boyhood, a vision of the night's lamplight on a bedside tome is a promised treat and a guiding star throughout the day. Other keen pleasures are soccer matches on the TV, an occasional cup of wine or a triangular gulp of canned beer, sunbaths on the lawn, and composing chess problems. Less ordinary, perhaps, is the unruffled flow of a family life which during its long course-- almost half a century-- has made absolute fools of the bogeys of environment and the bores of circumstance at all stages of our expatriation. Most of my works have been dedicated to my wife and her picture has often been reproduced by some mysterious means of reflec! ted color in the inner mirrors of my books. It was in Berlin that we married, in April, 1925, in the midst of my writing my first Russian novel. We were ridiculously poor, her father was ruined, my widowed mother subsisted on an insufficient pension, my wife and I lived in gloomy rooms which we rented in Berlin West, in the lean bosoms of German military families; I taught tennis and English, and nine years later, in 1934, at the dawn of a new era, our only son was born. In the late thirties we migrated to France. My stuff was beginning to be translated, my readings in Paris and elsewhere were well attended; but then came the end of my European stage: in May, 1940, we moved to America.
Soviet politicians have a rather comic provincial way of applauding the audience that applauds them. I hope I won't be accused of facetious sufficiency if I say in response to your compliments that I have the greatest readers any author has ever had. I see myself as an American writer raised in Russia, educated in England, imbued with the culture of Western Europe; I am aware of the blend, but even the most lucid plum pudding cannot sort out its own ingredients, especially whilst the pale fire still flickers around it. Field, Appel, Proffer, and many others in the USA, Zimmer in Germany, Vivian Darkbioom (a shy violet in Cambridge), have all added their erudition to my inspiration, with brilliant results. I would like to say a tot about my heroic readers in Russia but am prevented from doing so-- by many emotions besides a sense of responsibility with which I still cannot cope in any rational way.
Exquisite postal service. No bothersome demonstrations, no spiteful strikes. Alpine butterflies. Fabulous sunsets-- just west of my window, spangling the lake, splitting the crimson sun! Also, the pleasant surprise of a metaphorical sunset in charming surroundings. The phrase is a sophism because, if true, it is itself mere "vanity," and if not then the "all" is wrong. You say that it seems to be my main motto. I wonder if there is really so much doom and "frustration" in my fiction? Humbert is frustrated, that's obvious; some of my other villains are frustrated; police states are horribly frustrated in my novels and stories; but my favorite creatures, my resplendent characters-- in The Gift, in Invitation to a Beheading, in Ada, in Glory, et cetera-- are victors in the long run. In fact I believe that one day a reappraiser will come and declare that, far from having been a frivolous firebird, I was a rigid moralist kicking sin, cuffing stupidity, ridiculing the vulgar and cruel-- and assigning sovereign power to tenderness, talent, and pride.
The phrase is a sophism because, if true, it is itself mere "vanity," and if not then the "all" is wrong. You say that it seems to be my main motto. I wonder if there is really so much doom and "frustration" in my fiction? Humbert is frustrated, that's obvious; some of my other villains are frustrated; police states are horribly frustrated in my novels and stories; but my favorite creatures, my resplendent characters-- in The Gift, in Invitation to a Beheading, in Ada, in Glory, et cetera-- are victors in the long run. In fact I believe that one day a reappraiser will come and declare that, far from having been a frivolous firebird, I was a rigid moralist kicking sin, cuffing stupidity, ridiculing the vulgar and cruel-- and assigning sovereign power to tenderness, talent, and pride
ALL IS VANITY