I’m currently reading “Strong Opinions”, a compilation of every Nabokov interview he ever granted, edited by Nabokov himself. His answers are never spontaneous, which probably explains how well thought out his answers are. His method was to call for the questions beforehand, and type out his answers very neatly on a piece of paper.
Talent borrows, genius steals. If i’m ever caught i can always say Oscar Wilde told me so. I’ve extracted my favorite bits from his interviews, and present them to the world. Nabokov is a snob who doesn’t apologize for his snobbishness, “I pride myself on being a person with no public appeal. I have never been drunk in my life. I never use schoolboy words of four letters. I have never worked in an office or in a coal mine. I have never belonged to any club or group. No creed or school has had any influence on me whatsoever.”; humorous- “Girl in glasses comes up to my desk to ask: “Professor Kafka, do you want us to say that …? Or do you want us to answer only the first part of the question?” The great fraternity of C-minus, backbone of the nation, steadily scribbling on”; witty- “We must also remember—and this is very important—that the only people who flourish under all types of government are the Philistines”, “Satire is a lesson, parody is a game.”; and most importantly, apolitical, unapologetic, and always striving for an aesthetic ideal- “I am bored by writers who join the social-comment racket. I despise the corny Philistine fad of flaunting four-letter words. I also refuse to find merit in a novel just because it is by a brave Black in Africa or a brave White in Russia—or by any representative of any single group in America.”.
What’s not to like about a mad genius who writes stories about Ephebophilia, hunts butterflies in his pastime, and a healthy disregard for what Harold Bloom terms “The school of resentment”- that is of course all those who feel art should have a social or moral purpose.
Interviewers do not find you a particularly stimulating person. Why is that so?
“I pride myself on being a person with no public appeal. I have never been drunk in my life. I never use schoolboy words of four letters. I have never worked in an office or in 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 social intent.”
“My loathings are simple: stupidity, oppression, crime, cruelty, soft music.”
(BBC TV 1962)
“The fake move in a chess problem, the illusion of a solution or the conjuror’s magic”
You talk about games of deception, like chess and conjuring. Are you, in fact, fond of them yourself?
“I am fond of chess but deception in chess, as in art, is only part of the game; it’s part of the combination, part of the delightful possibilities, illusions, vistas of thought, which can be false vistas, perhaps. I think a good combination should always contain a certain element of deception.”
“As far as I can recall the first shiver of inspiration was somehow prompted in a rather mysterious way by a newspaper story, I think it was in Paris Soir, about an ape in the Paris Zoo, who after months of coaxing by scientists produced finally the first drawing ever charcoaled by an animal, and this sketch, reproduced in the paper, showed the bars of the poor creature’s cage.” (On initial inspiration for Lolita)
“Why did you write Lolita?
It was an interesting thing to do. Why did I write any of my books, after all? For the sake of the pleasure, for the sake of the difficulty. I have no social purpose, no moral message; I’ve no general ideas to exploit, I just like composing riddles with elegant solutions.”
“Girl in glasses comes up to my desk to ask: “Professor Kafka, do you want us to say that …? Or do you want us to answer only the first part of the question?” The great fraternity of C-minus, backbone of the nation, steadily scribbling on” (Ahhh language)
“But just as among those corny oils there might occur the work of a true artist with a richer play of light and shade, with some original streak of violence or tenderness, so among the corn of primitive and abstract art one may come across a flash of great talent. Only talent interests me in paintings and books. Not general ideas, but the individual contribution.”
“Freedom of speech, freedom of thought, freedom of art. The social or economic structure of the ideal state is of little concern to me.”
“Ladies and gentlemen, the tingle in the spine really tells you what the author felt and wished you to feel.”
“he does not realize that perhaps the reason he does not find general ideas in a particular writer is that the particular ideas of that writer have not yet become general.”
“I have never belonged to any political party but have always loathed and despised dictatorships and police states, as well as any sort of oppression. This goes for regimentation of thought, governmental censorship, racial or religious persecution, and all the rest of it. Whether or not my simple credo affects my writing does not interest me.”
“We must also remember—and this is very important—that the only people who flourish under all types of government are the Philistines.”
(TV 13- NY 1965)
“My greatest masterpieces of twentieth century prose are, in this order: Joyce’s Ulysses; Kafka’s Transformation; Biely’s Petersburg; and the first half of Proust’s fairy tale In Search of Lost Time.”
(Wisconsin Studies 1967)
“My feelings towards James are rather complicated. I really dislike him intensely but now and then the figure in the phrase, the turn of the epithet, the screw of an absurd adverb, cause me a kind of electric tingle, as if some current of his was also passing through my own blood.”
“Do you make a clear distinction between satire and parody? I ask this because you have so often said you do not wish to be taken as a “moral satirist,” and yet parody is so central to your vision.
-Satire is a lesson, parody is a game.”
“Flaubert speaks in one of his letters, in relation to a certain scene in Madame Bovary, about the difficulty of painting couleur sur couleur.” (Pay attention to “Flaubert speaks in..” when you want to allude to what someone said or did. )
“Science means to me above all natural science. Not the ability to repair a radio set; quite stubby fingers can do that.”
(Paris Review 1967)
“Poshlost speaks in such concepts as “America is no better than Russia” or “We all share in Germany’s guilt.”
“Listing in one breath Auschwitz, Hiroshima, and Vietnam is seditious poshlost.”
(NY Times Book Review 1968)
“but an independent novelist cannot derive much true benefit from tagging along.”
“I am bored by writers who join the social-comment racket. I despise the corny Philistine fad of flaunting four-letter words. I also refuse to find merit in a novel just because it is by a brave Black in Africa or a brave White in Russia—or by any representative of any single group in America.” (Lots in common with Harold Bloom and Gore Vidal, but mostly Bloom. Did they ever meet?)
“I’ve no intention to dream the drab middle-class dreams of an Austrian crank with a shabby umbrella. I also suggest that the Freudian faith leads to dangerous ethical consequences, such as when a filthy murderer with the brain of a tapeworm is given a lighter sentence because his mother spanked him too much or too little—it works both ways. The Freudian racket looks to me as much of a farce as the jumbo thingum of polished wood with a polished hole in the middle which doesn’t represent anything except the gaping face of the Philistine who is told it is a great sculpture produced by the greatest living caveman.”
“While not having much physics, I reject Einstein’s slick formulae; but then one need not know theology to be an atheist.”
“All my books, ever since I wrote my first one 43 years ago on the moth-eaten couch of a German boardinghouse, are suppressed in the country of my birth. It’s Russia’s loss, not mine.”
“A pretty thought but not mine.”
“Looking at it objectively, I have never seen a more lucid, more lonely, better balanced mad mind than mine.”
“Why do you so dislike dialogue in fiction?
Dialogue can be delightful if dramatically or comically stylized or artistically blended with descriptive prose; in other words, if it is a feature of style and structure in a given work. If not, then it is nothing but automatic typewriting, formless speeches filling page after page, over which the eye skims like a flying saucer over the Dust Bowl.”
“An eccentric is a person whose mind and senses are excited by things that the average citizen does not even notice.”
“And I also know, as a good eccentric should, that the dreary old fellow who has been telling me all about the rise of mortgage interest rates may suddenly turn out to be the greatest living authority on springtails or tumblebugs.”
(The Sunday Times 1969)
“Clichés and conventions breed remarkably fast.”
“We should define, should we not, what we mean by “history.” If “history” means a “written account of events” (and that is about all Clio can claim), then let us inquire who actually—what scribes, what secretaries—took it down and how qualified they were for the job.”
“As a private person I am good-natured, warm, cheerful, straightforward, plainspoken, and intolerant of bogus art. I do not mind my own writings being criticized or ignored and therefore think it funny that people not even concerned with literature should be upset by my finding D. H. Lawrence execrable or my seeing in H. G. Wells a far greater artist than Conrad.”
“Rowdies are never revolutionary, they are always reactionary. It is among the young that the greatest conformists and Philistines are found, e.g., the hippies with their group beards and group protests.”
(BBC 2 1969)