As promised, here is the full text of the uncollected interview printed in the New York Herald Tribune Books section, page two, 17 June 1962. All ellipses are in the original.
BOOKS AND AUTHORS
By Maurice Dolbier
Vladimir Nabokov's "Pale Fire" (Putnam's) consists of a 999-line poem by a man named John Shade and a commentary on the poem by a man who calls himself Dr. Charles Kinbote. Some of its reviewers have expressed doubts as to whether the book could properly be called a novel at all, but, in an interview the other day, Mr. Nabokov said:
"I think it is a perfectly straightforward novel. The clearest revelation of personality is to be found in the creative work in which a given individual indulges. Here the poet is revealed by his poetry; the commentator by his commentary."
It is the book that he most enjoyed writing.
"It is jollier than the others," he said, "and it is full of plums that I keep hoping somebody will find. For instance, the nasty commentator is not an ex-King of Zembla nor is he Professor Kinbote. He is Professor Botkin, or Botkine, a Russian and a madman. His commentary has a number of notes dealing with entomology, ornithology, and botany. The reviewers have said that I worked my favorite subjects into this novel. What they have not discovered is that Botkin knows nothing about them, and all his notes are frightfully erroneous. . . . No one has noted that my commentator committed suicide before completing the index to the book. The last entry has no numbered reference. . . . And even Mary McCarthy, who has discovered more in the book than most of its critics, had some difficulty in locating the source of its title, and made the mistake of searching for it in 'The Tempest.' It is from 'Timon of Athens.' The moon's an arrant thief she snatches her pale fire from the su
n.' I hope that pointing out these things will perhaps help the reader to enjoy my novel better."
On Soviet Writing
Mr. Nabokov, a scion of old Russia's nobility, keeps au courant with new Russia's literature, and doesn't think much of it. Even of the young poet Evgeni Evtushenko, recently lionized on a visit to England, Nabokov says: "I've seen his work. Quite second-rate. He's a good Communist." As for Soviet fiction: "There are no good novels. Everything is either political or melodramatic, very tame and conservative in style, dealing in generalities, and with tired old characterizations that go back as far as Dickens. Even novels that supposedly represent tendencies that oppose the regime, and are smuggled out of Russia, are often smuggled with official connivance. Russian authorities today think they need a loyal opposition. People outside keep trying to find in the work of youngish Soviet writers something that would reveal a certain thawing of the political ice block. But the thaw is very slight, indeed, and always controlled by the State.
"How can there be any good or original writing in Russia when its writers can't know the West, can't know what freedom really means? Even the very few authors who do visit England and America see only what the tourist sees--the British Museum, Central Park, the Twist; nothing to change the picture they had already formed of us before they came. For some, their first whiff of freedom is when they see an American sprawled in a chair, feet outstretched, hands in pocket. But unfortunately they cannot recognize this as a form of liberty and democracy. They think it is not cultured. They say: 'Americans don't know any better.'"
Are Soviet intellectuals familiar with Mr. Nabokov's work? "Yes, they have read 'Lolita,' but in a French edition. Really smuggled in, and I assure you not by the publisher Gallimard with the sanction of De Gaulle."