Vladimir Nabokov on Literature and Life: A Rare 1969 BBC Interview
“The arrows of adverse criticism cannot scratch, let alone pierce, the shield of what disappointed archers call my ‘self-assurance.'”
By Maria Popova
In the fall of 1969, British broadcaster and journalist James Mossman submitted 58 questions on literature and life for celebrated author Vladimir Nabokov — butterfly-lover, master of melancholy, frequenter of ideal bookshelves — for an episode of BBC-2’s Review. Nabokov ended up answering 40 of them in what is best described as part interview, part performance art, eventually published in Strong Opinions (UK; public library) — a 1973 collection of Nabokov’s finest interviews, articles and editorials. Some of the conversation is preserved in this rare original audio, with highlights transcribed below:
JM: Is writing your novels pleasure or drudgery?
VN: Pleasure and agony while composing the book in my mind; harrowing irritation when struggling with my tools and viscera — the pencil that needs resharpening, the card that has to be rewritten, the bladder that has to be drained, the word that I always misspell and always have to look up. Then the labor of reading the typescript prepared by a secretary, the correction of my major mistakes and her minor ones, transferring corrections to other copies, misplacing pages, trying to remember something that had to be crossed out or inserted. Repeating the process when proofreading. Unpacking the radiant, beautiful, plump advance copy, opening it — and discovering a stupid oversight committed by me, allowed by me to survive. After a month or so, I get used to the book’s final stage, to its having been weaned from my brain. I now regard it with a kind of amused tenderness as a man regards not his son, but the young wife of his son.
JM: Does the aristocrat in you despise the fictionist, or is it only English aristocrats who feel queasy about men of letters?
VN: Pushkin, professional poet and Russian nobleman, used to shock the beau monde by declaring that he wrote for his own pleasure but published for the sake of money. I do likewise, but have never shocked anybody — except, perhaps, a former publisher of mine, who used to counter my indignant requests by saying that I’m much too good a writer to need extravagant advances.
JM: You say you are not interested in what critics say, yet you got very angry with Edmund Wilson once for commenting on you, and let off some heavy field guns at him, not to say multiple rockets. You must have cared.
VN: I never retaliate when my works of art are concerned. There the arrows of adverse criticism cannot scratch, let alone pierce, the shield of what disappointed archers call my “self-assurance.” But I do reach for my heaviest dictionary when my scholarship is questioned, as was the case with my old friend Edmund Wilson, and I do get annoyed when people I never met impinge on my privacy with false and vulgar assumptions — as for example Mr. Updike, who in an otherwise clever article absurdly suggests that my fictional character, bitchy and lewd Ada, is, I quote, “in a dimension or two, Nabokov’s wife.” I might add that I collect clippings — for information and entertainment.
JM: Have you ever experienced hallucinations or heard voices or had visions, and if so, have they been illuminating?
VN: When about to fall asleep after a good deal of writing or reading, I often enjoy, if that is the right word, what some drug addicts experience — a continuous series of extraordinary bright, fluidly changing pictures. Their type is different nightly, but on a given night it remains the same: one night it may be a banal kaleidoscope of endlessly recombined and reshaped stained-window designs; next time comes a subhuman or superhuman face with a formidably growing blue eye; or — and this is the most striking type — I see in realistic detail a long-dead friend turning toward me and melting into another remembered figure against the black velvet of my eyelids’ inner side. As to voices, I have described in Speak, Memory the snatches of telephone talk which now and then vibrate in my pillowed ear. Reports on those enigmatic phenomena can be found in the case histories collected by psychiatrists but no satisfying interpretation has come my way. Freudians, keep out, please!
On October 23 the same year, The Listener adapted the interview in an article titled “To Be Kind, To Be Proud, To be Fearless: Vladimir Nabokov in conversation with James Mossman,” the version that appears in Strong Opinions. The title is based on Mossman’s final questions for Nabokov, not included in the audio above:
JM: Which is the worst thing men do?
VN: To stink, to cheat, to torture.
JM: Which is the best?
To be kind, to be proud, to be fearless.
Strong Opinions is sublime in its entirety — highly recommended.
Published January 18, 2013