In April, 1969, Alden Whitman sent me these questions and
came to Montreux for a merry interview shortly before my
seventieth birthday. His piece appeared in The New York
Times, April 19, 1969, with only two or three of my answers
retained. The rest are to be used, I suppose, as "Special to
The New York Times" at some later date by A. W., if he
survives, or by his successor. I transcribe some of our
You have called yourself "an American writer, born in
Russia and educated in England. " How does this make you an
An American writer means, in the present case, a writer
who has been an American citizen for a quarter of a century. It
means, moreover, that all my works appear first in America. It
also means that America is the only country where I feel
mentally and emotionally at home. Rightly or wrongly, I am not
one of those perfectionists who by dint of hypercriticizing
America find themselves wallowing in the same muddy camp with
indigenous rascals and envious foreign observers. My admiration
for this adopted country of mine can easily survive the jolts
and flaws that:, indeed, are nothing in comparison to the abyss
of evil in the history of Russia, not to speak of other, more
In the poem "To My Soul, "you wrote, possibly of
yourself, as "a provincial naturalist, an eccentric lost in
paradise. " This appears to link your interest in butterflies
to other aspects of your life, writing, for instance. Do you
feel that you are "an eccentric lost in paradise"?
An eccentric is a person whose mind and senses are excited
by things that the average citizen does not even notice. And,
per contra, the average eccentric-- for there are many of us,
of diff?rent waters and magnitudes-- is utterly baffled and
bored by the adjacent tourist who boasts of his business
connections. In that sense, I often feel lost; but then, other
people feel lost in my presence too. 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.
Dreams of flight or escape recur in many of your poems
and stories. Is this a reflection of your own years of
Yes, in part. The odd fact, however, is that in my early
childhood, long before the tremendously dull peripatetics of
Revolution and Civil War set in, I suffered from nightmares
full of wanderings and escapes, and desolate station platforms.
What did you enjoy (and disenjoy) in your Harvard
experience? And what induced you to leave Cambridge?
My Harvard experience consisted of seven blissful years
(1941-1948) of entomological research at the wonderful and
unforgettable Museum of Comparative Zoology and of one spring
term (1952) of lecturing on the European novel to an audieince
of some 600 young strangers in Memorial Hall. Apart from that
experience, I lectured at Wellesley for half-a-dozen years and
then, from 1948, was on the faculty of Corrnell, ending as full
professor of Russian Literature and author of American
Lolita, after which (in 1959) I decided to devote myself
entirely to writing. I greatly enjoyed Cornell.
In the United States you are probably more widely known
for Lolita than for any other single book or poem. If you had
your way, what book or poem or story would you like to be known
for in the U.S.?
I am immune to the convulsions of fame; yet, I think that
the harmful drudges who define today, in popular dictionaries,
the word "nymphet" as "a very young but sexually attractive
girl," without any additional comment or reference, should have
their knuckles rapped.
Has the sexual kick in literature reached a peak? Will
it not now decline?
I am completely indifferent to the social aspect of this
or any other group activity. Historically, the pornographic
record set by the ancients still remains unbroken.
Artistically, the dirtier typewriters try to get, the more
conventional and corny their products become, e.g. such novels
as Miller's Thumb and Tailor's Spasm.
What is your attitude toward modern violence?
I abhor the brutality of all brutes, white or black, brown
or red. I despise red knaves and pink fools.
Reflecting on your life, what have been its truly
Every moment, practically. Yesterday's letter from a
reader in Russia, the capture of an undescribed butterfly last
year, learning to ride a bicycle in 1909.
How do you rank yourself among writers (living) and of
the immediate past?
I often think there should exist a special typographical
sign for a smile-- some sort of concave mark, a supine round
bracket, which I would now like to trace in reply to your
If you were writing your own obituary, what would you
stress or emphasize as your contribution to literature, to the
climate of opinion (art and esthetics) of the last 50 years?
In my case the afterglow of a recent work (say,
Ada, finished last Christmas) mingles at once with the
hazy aurora of a new task. My next book, dawning as it does in
ideal tint and tone, seems for the moment better than anything
I wrote before. What I am trying to emphasize is a special
thrill of anticipation which by its very nature cannot be
What books have you enjoyed lately?
I seldom experience nowadays the spinal twinge which is
the only valid reaction to a new piece of great poetry-- such
as, for example, Richard Wilbur's "Complaint," a poem about his
marvelous duchess (Phoenix Bookshop edition, 1968).