'Often outrageous . . . always a delight' ATLANTIC Nabokov begins his Strong Opinions 'I think like a genius, I write like a distinguished author, and I speak like a child.' In the interviews collected here - covering everything from his own burgeoning literary celebrity to Kubrick's Lolita to lepidoptery - he is never casual or off-guard. Instead he insisted on receiving questions in advance and always carefully composed his responses. Keen to dismiss those who fail to understand his work and happy to butcher those sacred cows of the literary canon he dislikes, Nabokov is much too entertaining to be infuriating, and these interviews, letters and articles are as engaging, challenging and caustic as anything he ever wrote.
His distinctive aristocratic tone is easily heard - he speaks nostalgically of his life in White Russia, his facile musical comprehension of English-French-Russian, and he sneers down upon an astonishing array of writers, from Dostoyevsky to Hemingway to Pasternak to Pound. When he is asked on his opinions on the literary word, he remarks, without a hint of irony, "It's a wonderful view from up here."
Yet despite, or because of, these bull-dog snarls, there is still much to like about him. His fierce devotion to his twin crafts, writing and butterflies, and what little writing he does praise. He admires Borges, Anna Karenina, and some of Gogol, and adored Kubrick's adaptation of Lolita.
If you don't like Nabokov to begin with, this will make you despise him. If you're already a fan, you might have a change of heart anyway, but there is also the chance that you will recognize his faults, cherish them, and venture forwards anyway. V.N., of course, has to have the last word: "I can quite understand people wanting to know my writings, but I cannot sympathise with anybody wanting to know me."
As I said, the most important part of this will be, for most people, the interviews. While the themes of the interviews tend to become a little repetitive, I found them important in thinking about Nabokov’s fiction. He hates the classical “novel of ideas” with a passion. He thinks many of his Russian novelist confreres have been guilty of the moralism that so often accompanies these ideas, especially in the cases of Gogol and Dostoyevsky. (He abhors Gogol’s fascination with religion, and Dostoyevsky’s clunky, bumbling characters.) He thinks that Hemingway and Conrad are “writers of books for boys,” and he thinks that Faulkner is horrible – and this is only the tip of the iceberg regarding authors on whom he has rather unusual opinions. He thinks that “Anna Karenina” can’t be understood apart from a thorough knowledge of the shape of a particular kind of trolley car, and “Ulysses” is meaningless if you don’t have a detailed mental map of Joyce’s Dublin at the ready. Ideas and history are for the birds as far as fiction is concerned; heightened, unadulterated aesthetic enjoy is what really fascinates him. His politics, if you’re interested in them at all, he describes as “liberal,” yet seems to be a rather ardent defender of intervention in Vietnam and American interests broadly speaking. He thinks Freud is a joke, and constantly makes him of him in his fiction. (Okay, perhaps at least a few people can agree on that last point.)
What’s most surprising about this collection is that the pieces were chosen by Nabokov himself, and he obviously couldn’t care less about coming off as a caviling, bitchy curmudgeon, or advertising that he didn’t mind ending a decades-long friend over differences in translating a nineteenth-century Russian poem. If you don’t share his opinions, he has no problem calling you a philistine. But why should he care? “What’s your position in the world of letters, Mr. Nabokov?” “The view is pretty good from up here,” he replies. It’s good to be the king.