Talking about Nabokov

Vladimir Nabokov writing on paper in the garden. Source: Getty Images

Vladimir Nabokov writing on paper in the garden. Source: Getty Images

Here’s a confession about last year’s publication of Vladimir Nabokov’s The Original of Laura (Dying is Fun), that unexpected literary event

While tempting friends who have better taste than mine, it left me stuck with less appetising ambivalence about its supremely idiosyncratic author. More than that: even if Nabokov’s unfinished last novel, whose existence became known in 2008, doesn’t add to his reputation, it’s towering enough to shame me for not being among his passionate fans.

But might that admission be tolerated as a timid tread in the giant’s footsteps? I mean not as a writer but as a champion disparager of other writers. That’s not to request equal time for myself, which would suggest comparing God’s gift to scrambled eggs, as I think Russians still say. Still, his piercing disdain for much-praised rivals, as he saw them, gives me the courage to come clean here about my failure to adore much of his brilliant but precious oeuvre.

Vladimir Vladimirovich had scant compassion for authors he judged less talented than himself. To say, for example, that he panned Aleksandr Isayevich when we discussed the latter doesn’t convey how his lips pursed at what he considered Solzhenitsyn’s historically important but otherwise inferior writing. Actually, good words about others rarely left those aristocratic lips. He was even less kind to Andrei Sinyavsky and other splendid contemporaries, and he dismissed the likes of Pasternak and Akhmatova with near contempt. Nor did a few great 19th-century writers – Turgenev, Dostoyevsky, Nekrasov, sometimes even Tolstoy – escape his scorn. A fine young scholar I consulted before meeting him in 1976 summed it up so: “Nabokov rarely spoke well of anyone.” (He excoriated the scholar too, after having chosen him to be his biographer.)

Some of the mighty scorn was expressed to me in the two years after Solzhenitsyn’s expulsion from the Soviet Union, when I had a talk with Nabokov, who remained quick-witted and penetrating of gaze and opinion even at 77. The venue was the posh Palace Hotel overlooking Lake Geneva, where Nabokov, no longer teaching at Cornell University, liked to spend months in a cottage on its grounds. If his choice of his second residence wasn’t at all Russian, as the pampering in the hotel kept reminding me, he himself seemed even less so. A note in my box when I checked in at reception suggested we meet in one of its bars at three o’clock or so and talk for about two hours. He timed his entry into the elegant room to the moment the appointed hour began and would leave, almost in mid-sentence, when the minute hand of my watch ticked to 5pm. The host wished me a courteous goodbye and disappeared.

Not a minute of our 120 together so much as hinted at spontaneity. If I had to sum up the words and behaviour of the writer, teacher, critic, celebrity and celebrated collector of butterflies, it would be fastidious. Distant with perfect, not to say formal, politeness, he seemed to place as much importance on precision in his person as on structure and style in his writing. The fastidiousness extended to telling editors, soon to include mine, that interviewers twisted one or another of his statements, phrases or words, getting him exasperatingly, inexcusably wrong. What compelled him to protest so much about so little? No doubt the same instinct that animated the exquisite care he took with his words, spoken as well as written.

All interviews with him had to begin with submission of written questions. If he approved them, he’d see the interviewers only after answering in writing too. The answers – published exactly as written, their copyrights resting with him – would constitute the bulk of the given articles, leaving the give and take of any later chat with him to no more than fill-in with colour and explanations. Why, then, did he take the time to see journalists? Why did he bother with interviews at all? Because, he replied, he always had things on his mind that should be made available to readers – which he did, whatever questions were asked. As for accepting only written ones and replying the same way, he made the best case I’ve heard for that precise procedure as opposed to conversational free association. If the dream he told his wife in the morning was but a first draft, he explained – I’m not quoting directly from my interview with him in case his estate retains the rights to what he said and is as demanding as he was – why should he subject himself to the vagueness and possible misinterpretation of unrehearsed exchange?

Nothing unrehearsed. Nothing revealing of anything but professional feelings. Although the Soviet officials I interviewed during that time would have seemed to have had much more reason to stay buttoned up, they, compared to him, fairly spilled over with emotion. However, his detestation of the USSR that showed at its every mention surely came less from what he saw as the inability of Soviets to keep their lies or their banalities to themselves than from family history. His father, a liberal lawyer and journalist, became a secretary in the provisional government that governed, sort of, between the February and October revolutions of 1917. Two years later, the wealthy, distinguished Nabokovs had to flee their St Petersburg mansion and grand estate nearby.

Thirty-four years after our meeting, what do I think of Nabokov now, when I’m almost the same age as he was then? Somehow, I remember more of his work that I did enjoy as well as admire, especially Pnin, The Luzhin Defence and the Lolita that mixed comedy with the angst of loss: novels that stirred emotion as well as prompting appreciation of their writer’s scintillating gifts. In extended retrospect, I also now enjoy his playfulness in person that made that writing, with its double entendres, skilfully obscure references, literary trompe l’oeils and winks to the erudite, too clever for my liking then.

The photographer with whom I did my story insisted that our subject, mistaking me for English because I was writing for the Sunday Telegraph Magazine, wore tweeds for our interview. I still don’t know about that, but on my train returning to Geneva, I wised up to a few of the verbal tricks he’d played on me and realised I’d never get them all. Was he teasing me when he put returning to tennis and travelling to London to have some suits made high in his plans for the coming years? One of my questions was about a statement of his that biography can produce no closer likeness to its subjects than macabre dolls. Was his answer a warning to my editor and me? “The biographer is apt to become a macabre doll himself if he does not accept, meekly and gratefully, to comply with all the desires and indications of his still robust subject – or those of wise lawyers and hawk-eyed heirs.”

The master wanted to remain elusive, except to himself. Good for him!

George Feifer wrote Message from Moscow in 1968. His latest book is Breaking Open Japan.

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