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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.'”

In the fall of 1969, British broadcaster and journalist James Mossman submitted 58 questions on literature and life for celebrated author Vladimir Nabokovbutterfly-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.


David Byrne’s Hand-Drawn Pencil Diagrams of the Human Condition

“Science’s job is to map our ignorance.”

David Byrne may have authored both one of last year’s best albums and best music books, but he is also one of the sharpest thinkers of our time and a kind of visual philosopher. About a decade ago, Byrne began making “mental maps of imaginary territory” in a little notebook based on self-directed instructions to draw anything from a Venn diagram about relationships to an evolutionary tree of pleasure — part Wendy MacNaughton, part Julian Hibbard, yet wholly unlike anything else. In 2006, Byrne released Arboretum (UK; public library), a collection of these thoughtful, funny, cynical, poetic, and altogether brilliant pencil sketches — some very abstract, some very concrete — drawn in the style of evolutionary diagrams and mapping everything from the roots of philosophy to the tangles of romantic destiny to the ecosystem of the performing arts.

Möbius Structure of Relationships

Writing in the introductory essay simply titled “Why?,” Byrne considers our remarkable capacity for rationalization and the role of the non-rational in science:

Maybe it was a sort of self-therapy that worked by allowing the hand to ‘say’ what the voice could not.

Irrational logic — I’ve heard it called that. The application of logical scientific rigor and form to basically irrational premises. To proceed, carefully and deliberately, from nonsense with a a straight face, often arriving at a new kind of sense.

But how can nonsense ever emerge as sense? No matter how convoluted or folded, it will still always be nonsense, won’t it?

I happen to believe that a lot of scientific and rational premises are irrational to begin with — that the work of much science and academic inquiry is, deep down, merely the elaborate justification of desire, bias, whim, and glory. I sense that to some extent the rational ‘thinking’ areas of our brains are superrationalization engines. They provide us with means and justifications for our more animal impulses. They allow us to justify them both to ourselves and then, when that has been accomplished, to others.

Social Information Flow
Human Content
Hidden Roots

More than half a century after Vannevar Bush’s timeless meditation on the value of connections in the knowledge economy, Byrne echoes Stanford’s Robert Sapolsky and contributes a beautiful addition to history’s finest definitions of science:

If you can draw a relationship, it can exist. The world keeps opening up, unfolding, and just when we expect it to be closed — to be a sealed sensible box — it shows us something completely surprising. In fact, the result and possibly unacknowledged aim of science may be to know how much it is that we don’t know, rather than what we do think we know. What we think we know we probably aren’t really sure of anyway. At least if can get a sense of what we don’t know, we don’t be guilty of the hubris of thinking we know any of it. Science’s job is to map our ignorance.

The Legacy of Good Habits
Morally Repugnant
Gustatory Rainbow
Imaginary Social Relationships
Christian Subcultures
Yes Means No
Psychological History

One of the diagrams from Arboretum, Roots of War in Popular Song (forest of no return), appears in the Art Pickings pop-up gallery and is available from 20×200. (In fact, it graces the wall I wake up to every morning.)

Thanks, Wendy


Bob Dylan’s 1974 Classic “Forever Young,” Illustrated

“May you grow up to be righteous, may you grow up to be true… May you stay forever young.”

On January 18, 1974, the world welcomed Bob Dylan’s Planet Waves album. On it was “Forever Young” — one of Dylan’s most beloved songs, inspired by his four-year-old son Jakob.

In 2008, Dylan asked award-winning illustrator Paul Rogers, whose stunning covers for Hemingway classics you may have encountered and admired, to apply his signature mid-century aesthetic in reimagining the lyrics of the iconic anthem as a series of illustrated vignettes for young readers. Forever Young (public library) was born — a charming children’s book about a little boy who embodies the heart of the Dylan classic: adventurousness, doing the right thing, and the eternal spirit of youth.

Rogers writes in the Illustrator’s Notes, before offering a page-by-page breakdown of some of the hidden stories in the drawings:

Listening to nearly every Dylan album while creating the illustrations for this book gave me time to think about the people who inspired him and how his music has inspired so many. These drawings include images from Dylan’s life and lyrics from his songs. Some are obvious and others are meant to be a bit of a mystery.

Forever Young is at once refreshingly unexpected and somehow completely natural — the lyrics, after all, are the perfect life-advice to youngsters:

May you grow up to be righteous
May you grow up to be true
May you always know the truth
And see the lights surrounding you
May you always be courageous
Stand upright and be strong
May you stay forever young
Forever young, forever young
May you stay forever young

Complement with Dylan on sacrifice, the unconscious mind, and how to cultivate the perfect environment for creative work.

Open Culture


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