By JOHN COLEMAN olita rolls slowly down its London slipway Li this week and the author and ;his wife are here with us to preside over what practically everyone except John Gordon hopes will be a serene launching. I talked to-Mr. Nabokov at his hotel a few days ago, a Mr. Nabokov disappoint- ingly free of the 'five bodyguards' accredited io him by one of our more inflamed dailies. Mrs.
Nabokov, a charming, elegant woman with a fine profile and white hair, assisted at the interview, but showed no signs of carrying a gun. It was an occasion without formality, rather like a super- vision with the unusually sympathetic don that Mr. Nabokov not surprisingly resembles: after all, no one really expected Humbert Humbert. The twenty-year-old Vladimir left Russia with his family in 1919 and has never been back. In his autobiographical volume Speak, Memory he writes of his beloved St. Petersburg and the sur- rounding countryside with longing (it is typical of their absolute rejection of 'that trite dens ex machina the Russian Revolution' that Leningrad exists for neither Mr. Nabokov nor his 'wife). `Sometimes I fancy myself revisiting them with a false passport, under an assumed name. It could be done.' But it never will be now. That Russia has gone: all he needs of it he has preserved in the lavishly furnished nostalgia of Speak, Memory, that magnificent succession of Proustian madeleines, and his eight Russian novels and many stories; 'my artificial but beautifully exact Russian world.' He was at Cambridge till 1922, reading Modern Languages; then in Berlin, where he taught English and tennis, translated Alice in Wonderland into Russian, helped to compile a Russian grammar for foreigners ('Madam, I am a doctor, here is a banana'), and produced a daily crossword puzzle for an emigre paper. He left Paris for America in 1940.
Why did he choose America? It seems America chose him. 'I came to Cambridge again in 1938, to give some lectures and readings, a disappoint- ing visit, in bad weather. I went to see my old tutor'—the story is in his memoirs—'whose tea things I had crushed underfoot at our first meeting sixteen years before, and, walking into a dark room, stepped on them again.' Recognition was, apparently, immediate. There was unful- filled talk of a post at Leeds and nothing doing at Oxford or Cambridge. 'Then I had the offer of some lecturing in America, in fact I went in place of a friend of mine, and in 1942 was taken on at Wellesley College. It's funny how that hap- pened. I'm certain it was because of that Alice translation, not the first in Russian, but the best.' You believe Mr. Nabokov. There is nothing im- modest about the delight he shows in some of his achievements. 'They have a unique collection of Aliceana of which they're very proud. So they wanted me in it, I suppose. I was very happy there, but it was an exhausting time: I was also curator of lepidoptera at Harvard!' From Wellesley he went to Cornell as Professor of Russian and European literature. They have a champion soccer team and he relived his goal- keeping days Cl had the Mediterranean, prima- donna style, out of place in England') on the touchline. Mr. Nabokov as Mr. Nabokov ob- viously feels warmly towards America: the slant- ing gibes of H.H. and Pnin are not to be taken out of context. 'It's such a receptive country. Lolita went to four publishers who turned it down in horror—there had been all that fuss over Edmund Wilson's Hecate County—then, of course, it came out in Paris in the Olympia Press edition. But it was able to 'be published in America finally, because critics of Trilling's calibre have helped to create the climate of opinion over there. You feel they really have some influence.' Mr. Nabokov politely refused to be drawn when I invited his. opinion of our greater squeamishness. 'Perhaps because you're so close to France.' The dubious reputation of Olympia Press hadn't helped. Yes, there should certainly be some forms of censorship, against commercial pornography.
We turned to language. 'My English is getting better.' Mr. Nabokov's English is impeccable, spoken with a gentle accent. 'I have no ear for dialogue, you know. Yes, I managed the Ameri- can rhythms in the end in Lolita, but it was exacting work. I'd be at sea if I had to do, oh, Dorsetshire farmers, or Londoners even, even harder—London is very difficult. He turned to his wife and chuckled. 'The hardest of all for me now, of course, would be two Soviet farmers. Yes, the language has changed a great deal. It is Basic Russian now; provincial.' I asked him which of his three languages (French is the other) he com- monly thought and spoke in these days; all of them, he decided. And, after all, a lot of thinking was done in images, not words. But he al ways spoke Russian when he was at home and, when he hurt himself, swore in Rusglan anywhere. Talk of debased speech currency led us to the Russian literary language today. Cduld Zhivago con- ceivably be called 'provincial'? Had he liked the book—and its translation? 'The English was
better.' It was a poor book. Mr. Nabokov invoked the word 'bourgeois,' lending it a solid Flauber-
tian emphasis while I caught my breath. 'All that about the Bolsheviks—so confused. And the symbolism—what is it supposed to be doing?'
(Mr. Nabokov, as I already knew, is a stout foe of symbols and allegory, 'partly due to my old feud with Freudian voodooism and partly to my loathing of generalisations devised by literary mythists and sociologists.' (In the margin, I might add that, when I taxed him later with his con- fessed admiration for Kafka, he refused to accept him as a wielder of symbols, darkly hinting it had been a put-up job by an early aficionado, after which the world had followed suit.) No, Zhivago's reputation astonished him. He sighed.
'All those artificial snowstorms!' We agreed there was certainly a lot of weather in Pasternak and passed on.
We may expect to read at least one of Mr. Nabokov's Russian novels soon. His son Dmitri —'he speaks beautiful English'—has just com- pleted a translation. 'It has really come out won- derfully. And my translation, into English, of Eugene Onegin is finished at last—in five volumes. One of poem, four of annotations!' Mr. Nabokov has erratic writing habits. 'Sometimes I'll do nothing for days or weeks, then, suddenly, all through the night. And always in longhand. I use these file cards.' He pulled some out of an inside pocket and began reading one. 'Yes, here's a note about the etiquette in giving your name or someone else's to a new, H sub-species of butter- fly. A delicate business.' e cheerfully acknow- ledged that there was more certainty of posterity for Nabokov's Wood Nymph, netted twenty years ago, than for Nabokov's nymphet, and read some wittily appropriate stanzas from a very slim volume of verse ('my fourteen collected English poems').
The conversation grew increasingly discursive. 'When I lecture my students, I make them examine even Madame Bovary's hairstyle—de- tails are important.' 1 don't believe at all in didactic art. There seem to be three levels of readership: at the bottom, those who go after "human interest"; in the middle, the people who want ideas, packaged thought about Life and Truth; at the top, the proper readers, who go for style. Tolstoy's books suffer from injections of ideas.' 'English writers who have moved my pen to the right or left? No one, really. I don't believe in movements. But, of course, I enormously admire Shakespeare, Keats—not Shelley, not Swinburne.' Little was said about contemporary English letters, but the feeling communicated itself somehow that our new comic novelists are not exactly Mr. Nabokov's idea of fun. 'The literary achievements that most satisfy me now are a paper I wrote on South American Blue Butterflies—and Lolita.' Inevitably, the 'event' of Lolita rounded off the questioning. 'It hasn't really changed our lives much. I was going to retire from Cornell, in any case. You can say, oh, two shirts instead of one—and lots of trouble with the tax-men.'