“I am ready to accept any regime, provided the mind and body are free” An unknown interview with Vladimir Nabokov

Meduza
12:55, 11 march 2015

Photo: Horst Tappe / Hulton Archive / Getty Images

In 1970, Vladimir Nabokov agreed to an interview with the Israeli newspaper Maariv. The journalist, Nurit Beretzky, sent her questions to Nabokov in a letter, written in poor English. The writer later invited her to Montreux, Switzerland, where he resided at the time, for a conversation that lasted about 2 hours. During this meeting, Nabokov handed Beretzky his reply to her questions, also in writing.

Maariv published the interview in Hebrew, but, for reasons that remain unknown, Vladimir Nabokov chose not to include it in his 1973 anthology, Strong Opinions. Nabokov's written answers, along with Nurit Beretzky's original letter, remained in his personal archives, which later became part of the New York Public Library's Berg Collection.

The interview was first published in English in February 2015 in the Nabokov Online Journal, followed by another interview by the journal's editor and renowned Nabokov scholar, Yuri Leving, who met with Nurit Beretzky in 2014 and asked her about her meeting with Nabokov. 

With Mr. Leving's kind permission, Meduza now publishes Nabokov's interview with Nurit Beretzky, in Russian and here in English.

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Why do you live in Switzerland?

I am comfortable here. I like mountains and hotels. I detest strikes and hooligans.

Do you still feel in exile?

Art is exile. I felt an exile when I was a child in Russia among other children. I kept goal on the soccer field, and all goalkeepers are exiles.

Can one adopt a foreign country for a homeland?

America, my adopted country, is the closest thing to my idea of home.

Is being a refugee means being rootless?

Rootlessness is less important than a confirmed refugee's capacity to branch and blossom in a complete – and very pleasant – void.

In which language do you think, count and dream?

I do not think in any language, I think in images, with some brief verbal surfacing of a utilitarian sort in any of the three tongues that I know, such as “damn those trucks” or “espèce de crétin”. I dream and count mostly in Russian.

What is the difference for you between writing in English and writing in Russian? Will you write in Russian again?

In my prose and poetry during more than half a century of work I have provided enough examples of that difference, whether implicit or creatively expressed, for scholars to analyze. I still use Russian in my translations (e.g. of Lolita) and in an occasional poem.

Why do you write? Is there joy or pain in writing?

Since in writing my books I am supremely indifferent to historical, humanistic, religious, social and educational matters, I cannot tell why I do it. As to the pain and the pleasure, I have nothing new to report after Flaubert wrote about that in his letters.

How far do you get involved with the characters while writing? Do you think of them after the book has been published?

I suspect that the Almighty's interest in Adam and Eve was neither very sincere nor very enduring, despite the success, on the whole, of a really marvelous job. I, too, am completely detached from my characters, while making them and after making them.

How do you want your books to be read? Do you think about your readers?

I cannot expect any reader to know any of my books as well as I do, but if his mind cannot retain at least a certain percentage of specific details then he is a bad reader, that’s all.

Do you re-read your old books?

I have to re-read them very closely at least a dozen times: when correcting galleys, when correcting page proofs, when proofreading paperback editions, and when checking and proofreading translations.

What do you think of the films that were based on your books?

The two pictures I have seen, Lolita and Laughter in the Dark, were made without my supervision of the filming; the results were good movies with splendid actors, but only very vague versions of my books.

Nurit Beretzky's questions for Vladimir Nabokov
Photo: Yuri Leving

What is boring for you? What is most amusing for you?

Let me tell you instead what I hate: Background music, canned music, piped-in music, portable music, next-room music, inflicted music of any kind.

Primitivism in art: “abstract” daubs, symbolic bleak little plays, junk sculpture, “avant-garde” verse, and other crude banalities. Clubs, unions, fraternities, etc. (In the course of these last twenty-five years I must have turned down some twenty offers of glamorous membership).

Oppression. I am ready to accept any regime – Socialistic, Royalistic, Janitorial, – provided mind and body are free.

The touch of satin.

Circuses – especially animal acts and robust ladies hanging by their teeth in the air. The four doctors: Dr. Freud. Dr. Schweitzer, Dr. Zhivago and Dr. Castro.

Causes, demonstrations, processions. “Concise” dictionaries, “abridged” manuals. Journalistic clichés: “The moment of truth,” for example, or the execrable “dialogue.”

Stupid, inimical things: the spectacles case that gets lost; the clothes-hanger that topples down in the closet; the wrong pocket. Folding an umbrella, not finding its secret button. Uncut pages, knots in shoelaces. The prickly aura of one's face after skipping one's morning shave. Babies in trains. The act of falling asleep.

What do you think of the situation in the Middle East?

There exist several subjects in which I have expert knowledge: certain groups of butterflies, Pushkin, the art of chess problems, translation from and into English, Russian and French, word-play, novels, insomnia, and immortality. But among those subjects, politics is not represented. I can only reply to your question about the Near East in a very amateur way: I fervently favor total friendship between America and Israel and am emotionally inclined to take Israel’s side in all political matters.