On February 17, 1968, Martin Esslin came to see me at
my hotel in Montreux with the object of conducting an
interview for The New York Times Book Review. The
following letter awaited him downstairs.

"Welcome! I have devoted a lot of pleasurable time to
answering in writing the questions sent to me by your London
office. I have done so in a concise, stylish, printable form.
Could I please ask you to have my answers appear in The New
York Times Book Review
the way they are prepared here?
(Except that you may want to interrupt the longer answers by
several inserted questions). That convenient method has been
used to mutual satisfaction in interviews with Playboy, The
Paris Review, Wisconsin Studies, Le Monde, La Tribune de
etc. Furthermore, I like to see the proofs for
checking last-minute misprints or possible little flaws of fact
(dates, places). Being an unusually muddled speaker (a poor
relative of the writer) I would like the stuff I prepared in
typescript to be presented as direct speech on my part, whilst
other statements which I may stammer out in the course of our
chats, and the gist of which you might want to incorporate in
The Profile, should be used, please, obliquely or
paraphrastically, without any quotes. Naturally, it is for you
to decide whether the background material should be kept
separate in its published form from the question-and-answer

I am leaving the attached material with the concierge
because I think you might want to peruse it before we meet. I
am very much looking forward to seeing you. Please give me a
ring when you are ready."

The text given below is that of the typescript. The
interview appeared in The New York Times Book Review on
May 12, 1968.

How does VN live and relax?

A very old Russian friend of ours, now dwelling in Paris,
remarked recently when she was here, that one night, forty
years ago, in the course of a little quiz at one of her
literary parties in Berlin, I, being asked where I would like
to live, answered, "In a large comfortable hotel." That is
exactly what my wife and I are doing now. About every other
year she and I fly (she) or sail (she and 1), back to our
country of adoption but I must confess that I am a very
sluggish traveler unless butterfly hunting is involved. For
that purpose we usually go to Italy where my son and translator
(from Russian into English) lives; the knowledge of Italian he
has acquired in the course of his main career (opera singing)
assists him, incidentally, In checking some of the Italian
translations of my stuff. My own Italian is limited to
"avanti" and "prego".

After waking up between six and seven in the morning, I
write till ten-thirty, generally at a lectern which faces a
bright corner of the room instead of the bright audiences of my
professorial days. The first half-hour of relaxation is
breakfast with my wife, around eight-thirty, and the creaming
of our mail. One kind of letter that goes into the wastepaper
basket at once, with its enclosed stamped envelope and my
picture, is the one from the person who tells me he has a large
collection of autographs (Somerset Maugham, Abu Abdul, Karen
Korona, Charles Dodgson, Jr., etc.) and would like to add my
name, which he misspells. Around eleven, I soak for twenty
minutes in a hot bath, with a sponge on my head and a
wordsman's worry in it, encroaching, alas, upon the nirvana. A
stroll with my wife along the lake is followed by a frugal
lunch and a two-hour nap after which I resume my work until
dinner at seven. An American friend gave us a Scrabble set in
Cyrillic alphabet, manufactured in Newtown, Conn.; so we play
Russian skrebl for an hour or two after dinner. Then I
read in bed-- periodicals or one of the novels that proud
publishers optimistically send me. Between eleven and midnight
begins my usual fight with insomnia. Such are my habits in the
cold season. Summers I spend in the pursuit of lepidoptera on
flowery slopes and mountain screes; and, of course, after my
daily hike of fifteen miles or more, I sleep even worse than in
winter. My last resort in this business of relaxation is the
composing of chess problems. The recent publication of two of
them (in The Sunday Times and The Evening News of
London) gave me more pleasure, I think, than the printing of my
first poems half a century ago in St. Petersburg.

VN's social circle?

The tufted ducks and crested grebes of Geneva Lake. Some
of the nice people in my new novel. My sister Elena in Geneva.
A few friends in Lausanne and Vevey. A steady stream of
brilliant American intellectuals visiting me in the riparian
solitude of a beautifully reflected sunset. A Mr. Van Veen who
travels down from his mountain chalet every other day to meet a
dark lady, whose name I cannot divulge, on a street corner that
I glimpse from my mammoth-tusk tower. Who else? A Mr. Vivian

VN's feelings about his work?

My feelings about my work are, on the whole, not
unfriendly. Boundless modesty and what people call "humility"
are virtues scarcely conducive to one's complacently dwelling
upon one's own work-- particularly when one lacks them. I see
it segmented into four stages. First comes meditation
(including the accumulation of seemingly haphazard notes, the
secret arrowheads of research); then the actual writing, and
rewriting, on special index cards that my stationer orders for
me: "special" because those you buy here come lined on both
sides, and if, in the process of writing, a blast of
inspiration sweeps a card onto the floor, and you pick it up
without looking, and go on writing, it may happen-- it has
happened-- that you fill in its underside, numbering it, say,
107, and then cannot find your 103 which hides on the side,
used before. When the fair copy on cards is ready, my wife
reads it, checking it for legibility and spelling, and has it
transferred onto pages by a typist who knows English; the
reading of galleys is a further part of that third stage. After
the book is out, foreign rights come into play. I am
trilingual, in the proper sense of writing, and not only
speaking, three languages (in that sense practically all the
writers I personally know or knew in America, including a babel
of paraphrasts, are strictly monolinguists). Lolita I
have translated myself in Russian (recently published in New
York by Phaedra, Inc.); but otherwise I am able to control and
correct only the French translations of my novels. That process
entails a good deal of wrestling with booboos and boners, but
on the other hand allows me to reach my fourth, and final,
stage-- that of rereading my own book a few months after the
original printing. What judgment do I then pronounce? Am I
still satisfied w4th my work? Does the afterglow of achievement
correspond to the foreglow of conception? It should and it

VN's opinions: on the modern world; on contemporary
politics; on contemporary writers; on drug addicts who might
Lolita "square"?

I doubt if we can postulate the objective existence of a
"modern world" on which an artist should have any definite and
important opinion. It has been tried, of course, and even
carried to extravagant lengths. A hundred years ago, in Russia,
the most eloquent and influential reviewers were left-wing,
radical, utilitarian, political critics, who demanded that
Russian novelists and poets portray and sift the modern scene.
In those distant times, in that remote country, a typical
critic would insist that a literary artist be a "reporter on
the topics of the day," a social commentator, a class-war
correspondent. That was half a century before the Bolshevist
police not only revived the dismal so-called progressive
(really, regressive) trend characteristic of the eighteen
sixties and seventies, but, as we all know, enforced it. In the
old days, to be sure, great lyrical poets or the incomparable
prose artist who composed Anna Karenin (which should be
transliterated without the closing "a"-- she was not a
ballerina) could cheerfully ignore the left-wing progressive
Philistines who requested Tyutchev or Tolstoy to mirror
politico-social soapbox gesticulations instead of dwelling on
an aristocratic love affair or the beauties of nature. The
dreary principles once voiced in the reign of Alexander the
Second and their subsequent sinister transmutation into the
decrees of gloomy police states (Kosygin's dour face expresses
that gloom far better than Stalin's dashing mustache) come to
my mind whenever I hear today rétro-progressive book
reviewers in America and England plead for a little more social
comment, a little less artistic whimsy. The accepted notion of
a "modern world" continuously flowing around us belongs to the
same type of abstraction as say, the "quaternary period" of
paleontolo-gy. What I feel to be the real modern world is the
world the artist creates, his own mirage, which becomes a new
mir ("world" in Russian) by the very act of his
shedding, as it were, the age he lives in. My mirage is
produced in my private desert, an arid but ardent place, with
the sign No Caravans Allowed on the trunk of a lone palm. Of
course, good minds do exist whose caravans of general ideas
lead somewhere-- to curious bazaars, to photogenic temples; but
an independent novelist cannot derive much true benefit from
tagging along.

I would also want to establish first a specific definition
of the term politics, and that might mean dipping again in the
remote past. Let me simplify matters by saying that in my
parlor politics as well as in open-air statements (when
subduing, for instance, a glib foreigner who is always glad to
join our domestic demonstrators in attacking America), I
content myself with remarking that what is bad for the Reds is
good for me. I will abstain from details (they might lead to a
veritable slalom of qualificatory parentheses), adding merely
that I do not have any neatly limited political views or rather
that such views as I have shade off into a vague old-fashioned
liberalism. Much less vaguely-- quite adamantically, or even
adamantinely-- 1 am aware of a central core of spirit in me
that flashes and jeers at the brutal farce of totalitarian
states, such as Russia, and her embarrassing tumors, such as
China. A feature of my inner prospect is the absolute abyss
yawning between the barbed-wire tangle of police states and the
spacious freedom of thought we enjoy in America and Western

I am bored by writers who join the social-comment racket.
I despise the corny Philistine fad of flaunting four-letter
words. I also refuse to find merit in a novel just because it
is by a brave Black in Africa or a brave White in Russia-- or
by any representative of any single group in America. Frankly,
a national, folklore, class, masonic, religious, or any other
communal aura involuntarily prejudices me against a novel,
making It harder for me to peel the offered fruit so as to get
at the nectar of possible talent. I could name, but will not, a
number of modern artists whom I read purely for pleasure, and
not for edification. I find comic the amalgamation of certain
writers under a common label of, say, "Cape Codpiece Peace
Resistance" or "Welsh Working-Upperclass Rehabilitation" or
"New Hairwave School." Incidentally, I frequently hear the
distant whining of people who complain in print that I dislike
the writers whom they venerate such as Faulkner, Mann,
Camus, Dreiser, and of course Dostoevski. But I can assure them
that because I detest certain writers I am not impairing the
well-being of the plaintiffs in whom the images of my victims
happen to form organic galaxies of esteem. I can prove, indeed,
that the works of those authors really exist independently and
separately from the organs of affection throbbing in the
systems of irate strangers.

Drug addicts, especially young ones, are conformists
flocking together in sticky groups, and I do not write for
groups, nor approve of group therapy (the big scene in the
Freudian Farce); as I have said often enough, I write for
myself in multiplicate, a not unfamiliar phenomenon on the
horizons of shimmering deserts. Young dunces who turn to drugs
cannot read Lolita, or any of my books; some in fact
cannot read at all. Let me also observe that the term "square"
already dates as a slang word, for nothing dates quicker than
radical youth, nor is there anything more Philistine, more
bourgeois, more ovine than this business of drug duncery. Half
a century ago, a similar fashion among the smart set of St.
Petersburg was cocaine sniffing combined with phony
orientalities. The better and brighter minds of my young
American readers are far removed from those juvenile fads and
faddists. I also used to know in the past a Communist agent who
got so involved in trying to wreck anti-Bolshevist groups by
distributing drugs among them that he became an addict himself
and lapsed into a dreamy state of commendable metempsychic
sloth. He must be grazing today on some grassy slope in Tibet
if he has not yet lined the coat of the fortunate shepherd.