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the Complete Review
the complete review - interviews

Conversations with
Vladimir Nabokov

edited by
Robert Golla

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To purchase Conversations with Vladimir Nabokov

Title: Conversations with Vladimir Nabokov
Editor: Robert Golla
Genre: Interviews
Written: (2017)
Length: 227 pages
Availability: Conversations with Vladimir Nabokov - US
Conversations with Vladimir Nabokov - UK
Conversations with Vladimir Nabokov - Canada
  • Edited and with an Introduction by Robert Golla
  • Collects twenty-eight interviews and profiles first published between 1958 and 1977
  • Includes a Chronology

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Our Assessment:

B+ : decent and quite interesting variety

See our review for fuller assessment.


Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Conversations with Vladimir Nabokov collects twenty-eight interviews with Vladimir Nabokov, the earliest from 1958; regrettably, it seems to have taken the publication of Lolita to have roused much media interest in the master; it would have been interesting to see what he had to say before then, too. Rather disappointingly, a significant number of these pieces are not simply Q & As, but rather 'profiles', sprinkling in some of Nabokov's comments but far from actual, simple conversations. Nevertheless, while perhaps not what one hopes for in a volume promising 'Conversations with', some of these portrait-piece's are very good, notably the one by Alfred Appel Jr., 'Nabokov: A Portrait', published in Esquire in 1971 -- though the direct immediacy of an earlier pure Q & A by Appel (originally published in Wisconsin Studies in Contemporary Literature in 1967) still seems preferable. (As Alan Levy reports, Nabokov described Appel Jr. as: "my pedant [...] Every writer should have such a pedant".)
       (The drawback of the profile-approach with its artificial observational color become painfully apparent in a collection like this, when we learn far too often -- it's surprising there isn't a separate entry for it in the index -- the least interesting and utterly irrelevant fact that wife Véra's hair is very white. Really. White. Snow-white. It's even referred to as her: "crowning glory, her snow-white hair" at one point.)
       Some of the material is likely also already familiar to anyone with any Nabokov-interest, including Herbert Gold's 'The Art of Fiction' interview with Nabokov for The Paris Review, as well as as Alvin Toffler's lengthy Playboy-interview from 1964 (though these two -- among the most far-reaching of the conversations -- are certainly welcome inclusions), but as editor Golla also notes:

     Many of the interviews in this collection have not appeared since their first publication. Several have been transcribed here for the first time.
       The collection is very much of the English-speaking world: while there are contributions from Canadian and British sources, all the conversations were in English and none are from foreign-language sources (such as, for example, one of the most famous of all of Nabokov's interviews, when he appeared on Bernard Pivot's Apostrophes in 1975). At least some continental European perspectives on Nabokov would have certainly been of interest.
       Since the pieces begin with Nabokov's success with Lolita, many of the conversations, especially the earlier ones, focus heavily on that. Aside from the familiar topics about it, it's interesting to see the obvious rivalry between this book and the other big by-a-Russian novel of the day (which also had an unusual publishing history abroad), Dr.Zhivago, a book Nabokov repeatedly bashes. He calls it: "false, melodramatic, badly written" -- even" "vilely written" -- and while he allows: "Pasternak is not a bad poet. But in Zhivago he is vulgar".
       (For all the drawbacks of the not-entirely-conversational pieces, John Coleman's 1959 Nabokov in The Spectator has a nice bit on the subject:
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.
       Culminating in the Nobel-crowning of Pasternak -- which was to always elude Nabokov --, Dr.Zhivago is one of several of Nabokov's bêtes noires that get a lot of play here; Freud and the Soviet regime are among the others. Nabokov was a man who liked to pronounce (and repeat) his strong opinions, and it does make for good fun, and while most of his likes and dislikes are familiar -- his great admiration for Joyce's Ulysses, while: "I detest Punnigans Wake" -- it's interesting to be reminded of some of the his opinions (such as his admiration for (the fiction) of Alain Robbe-Grillet).
       Among the most interesting things that stand out in this volume is his fawning over the United States, a genuine love of country that nevertheless can seem incongruous, or even downright bizarre ("I feel intellectually at home in America"). Yet even as he professes to feel happiest there, it becomes increasingly hard to overlook that he's not actually there -- having moved to Switzerland in 1961 or so -- and while he claims to want to get back -- "I hope to return very soon to America", he's already saying in 1964, and in 1977 (the year he died) claims what by now has long been an obvious falsehood: "I will certainly return to the United States at the first opportunity" -- somehow, he never manages. (The excuses he offers also become increasingly thin, beyond the fact that after a point it becomes clear that he's an old man, set in his Swiss hotel ways; it's odd, however, how he keeps harping on it, after having so clearly left the US behind him..)
       As editor Golla notes, Nabokov insisted on interview-questions being provided beforehand, so that he would be able to prepare his written answers; as Robert Robinson puts it in his 1977 interview: "You grant interviews on the understanding that they shall not be spontaneous". Golla notes that Nabokov followed this ritual: "with very few exceptions"; unfortunately, it's not clear in the collection which the exceptional pieces might be, with surprisingly few of the interviewers making their readers aware of the Nabokovian-constraint they're operating under; presumably one reason for the 'profile'-approach in some was to allow for a few unscripted moments and asides to be slipped in.
       If this prepared interview technique lacks spontaneity, it does make for polished answers, and there's something to be said for that too. While it also means that Nabokov returns to the same well repeatedly -- there is considerable repetition, of particular opinions and events -- the same might well have been the case in more 'spontaneous' exchanges. And Nabokov clearly had good fun in formulating some of his responses:
Of course, I'm aware of my unnatural excellence. I am aware of it, however, only in certain domains (too obvious to be mentioned); but I also am aware of my hopeless ineptitude in other matters such as technology, finance, music and go-getting, to name a few.
       The variety on offer here does offer a good introductory overview to the man, covering biography reasonably well, as well as the important things in his life beyond writing -- butterflies; his close relationship with his wife and son. Some of the exchanges do go into quite good depth on certain subjects, but the drawback of separate interviews is that most cover similar surface-topics, with few having the time or space to really dig into any but the most obvious topics.
       Nabokov was a fine interview-subject -- and it's hard not to appreciate a man willing to use the opportunity in one interview to: "correct the following misprints in the Putnam edition 1962, second impression" (proceeding then to list the mistakes, and the pages they appear on).

- M.A.Orthofer, 10 July 2017

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