A second exchange with Alden Whitman took place in
mid-April, 1971, and was reproduced, with misprints and other
flaws, in The New York Times, April 23.
You, sir, will be seventy-two in a few days, having
exceeded the Biblical three score and ten. How does this feat,
if it is a feat, impress you?
"Three score and ten" sounded, no doubt, very venerable in
the days when life expectancy hardly reached one half of that
length. Anyway, Petersburgan pediatricians never thought I
might perform the feat you mention: a feat of lucky endurance,
of paradoxically detached will power, of good work and good
wine, of healthy concentration on a rare bug or a rhythmic
phrase. Another thing that might have been of some help is the
fact that I am subject to the embarrassing qualms of
superstition: a number, a dream, a coincidence can affect roe
obsessively-- though not in the sense of absurd fears but
as fabulous (and on the whole rather bracing) scientific
enigmas incapable of being stated, let alone solved.
Has your life thus far come up to expectations you bad
for yourself as a young man?
My life thus far has surpassed splendidly the ambitions of
boyhood and youth. In the first decade of our dwindling
century, during trips with my family to Western Europe, I
imagined, in bedtime reveries, what it would be like to become
an exile who longed for a remote, sad, and (right epithet
coming) unquenchable Russia, under the eucalipti of exotic
resorts. Lenin and his police nicely arranged the realization
of that fantasy. At the age of twelve my fondest dream
was a visit to the Karakorum range in search of butterflies.
Twenty-five years later I successfully sent myself, in the part
of my hero's father (see my novel The Gift) to explore,
net in hand, the mountains of Central Asia. At fifteen I
visualized myself as a world-famous author of seventy with a
mane of wavy white hair. Today I am practically bald.
If birthday wishes were horses, what would yours be for
Pegasus, only Pegasus.
You are, I am told, at work on a new novel. Do you have
a working title? And could you give me a precis of what it is
The working title of the novel I am composing now is
Transparent Things, but a precis would be an opaque
shadow. The façade of our hotel in Montreux is being
repainted, and I have reached the ultimate south of Portugal in
an effort to find a quiet spot (pace the booming surf
and rattling wind) where to write. This I do on scrambled index
cards (my text existing already there in invisible lead) which
I gradually fill in and sort out, using up in the process more
pencil sharpeners than pencils; but I have spoken of this in
several earlier questionnaires-- a word whose spelling I have
to look up every time; my traveling companion, Webster's
Collegiate Dictionary, 1970, defines, by the way, "Quassia" as
derived from "Quassi," a Surinam Negro slave of the 18th centu!
ry, who discovered a remedy for worms in white children. On the
other hand, none of my own coinages or reapplications appears
in this lexicon-- neither "iridule" (a mother-of-pearl cloudlet
in Pale Fire), nor "racemosa" (a kind of bird cherry),
nor several prosodie terms such as "scud" and "tilt" (see my
Commentary to Eugene Onegin).
There has been a variety of critical reaction to Ada.
Which critics, in your views, have been especially
perceptive, and why?
Except for a number of helpless little hacks who were
unable to jog beyond the first chapters, American reviewers
have been remarkably perceptive in regard to my most
cosmopolitan and poetic novel. As to the British press, the
observations of a few discerning critics were also most
welcome; the buffoons turned out to be less clever than usual,
whilst my regular spiritual guide, Mr. Philip Toyn-bee, seemed
even more distressed by Ada than he had been by Pale
Fire. I am bad at remembering reviews in detail, and for
the moment several mountain chains separate me from my files,
but generally speaking my wife and I have long stopped stuffing
clippings into forgettable boxes, instead of which an efficient
secretary pastes them in huge comfortable albums, with the
result that I am informed better than before of current gloss
and ! gossip. In direct answer to your question I would say
that the main favor I ask of the serious critic is sufficient
perceptiveness to understand that whatever term or trope I use,
my purpose is not to be facetiously flashy or grotesquely
obscure but to express what I feel and think with the utmost
truthfulness and perception.
Your novel Mary is having a success in the
United States. What have been your feelings about seeing in
print a novel of so long ago in an English version?
In my preface to the English translation of my first
Russian novel, written forty-eight years ago, I point out the
nature of the similarities between the author's first love
affair in 1915 and that of Ganin who recalls it as his own in
the stylized world of my Mashenka. Owing perhaps to my
having gone back to that young romance in my autobiography
begun in the nineteen forties (that is, at the centerpoint of
the span separating Mashenka from Mary), the
strangeness of the present resurrection cannot help losing
something of its thrill. Yet I do feel another, more abstract
though no! less grateful, tingle when I tell myself that
destiny not only preserved a fragile find from decay and
oblivion, but allowed me to last long enough to supervise the
unwrapping of the mummy.
If you were writing the "book" for Lolita as a
musical comedy, what would you select as the main comic point?
The main comic point would have been my trying to do