An Interview with Robert Roper, author of
Nabokov in America: On the Road to Lolita

by Rob Couteau.

Listen to this interview on youtube

Rob Couteau: Congratulations on all the great reviews you’ve received for the book! You must feel good about that.

Robert Roper: Yeah, I feel good. Writers being miserable specimens of humanity, I guess one could always imagine a more terrific review, a more influential … You know, Barack Obama spotted with one of my books in his hand, getting on an airplane. That kind of thing.

RC: We’re going to work on that today, don’t worry! [Laughs]

RR: Good. For me, when a book comes out, it’s always kind of an anxious time, as well as, you know, you feel happy, gratified, whatever. But I feel pretty good. And I’ve just been screwing off, really. I should be working on something new.

RC: You worked on this for about three years. It must be a great relief to just let it go and take a break, I would imagine.

RR: That’s absolutely true. And also, Nabokov is such a complicated figure, and my own responses to him are so mixed. There’s some stuff I love; some stuff I really could do without. I hate his snottiness; I love his this or that. At the end, it was exhausting intellectually. I’d written a big manuscript, and I was following different threads.

RC: It’s truly admirable how many different threads you have in the book; this did not go unnoticed. I want to try to follow some of them today. I thought we could begin with your portrait of Nabokov before he arrived in America: “The Nabokovs had been through the historical wringer. They were Zelig-like figures of twentieth-century catastrophe,” “‘little’ people with a monstrous evil breathing down their necks.” What was life like for them before they arrived in the States?

RR: I think the most important thing was how threadbare it was. They were really without much scratch. For years. And they got pretty adept at it. He was not prone to depression or worry particularly. I would say much less so than a lot of struggling artists. She was kind of a worrier; she was the worrywart.

So, it was a life lived without very much. At the same time, he was writing a lot. He was prolific. And she believed in him a hundred-and-fifty percent. There was all kinds of joy surrounding his writing achievements in Russian, and then when they started crossing over into English. But they were always living in scruffy digs. You know, kind of appropriate for a “want to be famous” writer.

RC: Of course, she had to worry more, because all throughout his biography she took care of the basic reality function that he tended to ignore, like any good intuitive writer.

RR: Yeah. And where the hell is that wife for me? Or for you? Really, you know?

RC: [Laughs] I think that wife doesn’t exist any more in 2015.

RR: Right.

RC: You say: “There is beauty and magic all over Nabokov’s body of work, but the claim to greatness rests most solidly on the American efforts.” And you note that Lolita didn’t just spring from a Mozartian well of inner genius. How did his American experience transform him as a man and as a writer?

RR: Gosh, that’s a very large question. Something that other biographers haven’t talked about very much, and that for me seemed really important, was that actually getting to America led to a tremendous burst of relief and hope. Just on the basic level.

RC: He even caught the last ship out of France before the Nazis ran wild.

RR: That’s right, yeah. And that same ship, the Champlain, after dropping them off in New York, returned to France and was sunk by a mine off the French coast.

RC: The skin of his teeth.

RR: Yeah, really the skin of his teeth. I found his first responses to seeing New York Harbor in some letter or letters. And you can see: he’s happy. Just like anybody who gets out of an impossible situation and can finally admit to himself how desperate it was, he was just really kind of overjoyed.

And then, this lifelong obsession with collecting butterflies meant that he was just rubbing his hands, hoping for the first opportunity to get out there, into that big-assed country that he’d been reading about for at least thirty years, since he was a little boy: reading about all these great places to hunt butterflies. He’s very unlike all these other émigrés who tended to huddle in little enclaves, mostly in New York. A lot of those people lived their whole lives continuing to speak German, or Russian, or Hungarian to each other. But he very quickly got out into the whole country. And so, that can, in itself, be, if you’re of the right temperament, a great accelerant to your hopefulness.

And if you find a way to write about it, it’s like, wow, that’s really, really great. Other very, very talented writers that came over more or less at the same time – Brecht and Thomas Mann – they couldn’t do it. They couldn’t get a handle on America. And they disdained America. So, they had many reasons not to write about it. Nabokov disdained it in some ways, but he also enjoyed the hell out of it, and he did find ways to write about it.

RC: It’s very interesting, what you just said, because you can see that burst of euphoria in between the lines of Lolita, particularly in the description of landscape, and the almost carnival-like atmosphere of the goofy things that he found: the roadside attractions and so on. You say he traveled about 200,000 miles by car as he zigzagged across the country. In one of your letters to me from a couple of years ago, you wrote: “There was an interesting concatenation of road-trip books published around the same moment: Kerouac’s, Lolita, America Day by Day by Simone de Beauvoir, Air-Conditioned Nightmare by Henry Miller, Clancy Sigal’s memoir Going Away, and Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley.” In your book, you say: “Other authors of the postwar moment mocked a sanitized America, prominent among them Miller and Kerouac. Ker-ouac’s work of the ’40s [and] ’50s would seem definingly un-Nabokovian, but The Dharma Bums […] stubbornly lays hold of Nabokovian materials and approaches.” How do these books resonate beside Lolita, and what are the specific correspondences with The Dharma Bums?

RR: That’s another good question. I’m not as big a fan of On the Road as you are, and as many millions of other people are, but The Dharma Bums is a great novel.

RC: I actually agree with you on that point. I think The Dharma Bums, and one of his last books, Vanity of Deluoz, are by far his greatest books. Far beyond On the Road.

RR: Yeah. And I found, well, reading them, obviously, they’re very, very different. The hero of The Dharma Bums, he’s on a journey of purification and self-simplification. He’s kind of becoming a bit of a saint himself. A saint who lives in this world. And obviously, Humbert Humbert [Laughs] is a more fictionalized character and a much darker, more evil person. But he was also transformed by his travels. Just in his attitude toward his little sex captive, his glee in having access to her body at the beginning turns into this kind of inexhaustible fascination with her. And he loves her; he falls in love with her. At the same time, there’s a birth of … You don’t want to say that the guy feels guilty, but he does have a consciousness of the enormity of what he’s doing to her, and so, there’s a tremendous spiritual evolution even in this very evil person.

The books are like each other in that way. And then there’s a great joy in the landscape. In The Dharma Bums, it’s all over it. And also, the hero keeps bursting out into little bits of poetry. And Lolita’s full of quotations of poetry, and lines of prose poetry. So, while those two books are written in very different registers, to me they’re terrifically relaxing to read. The voices are completely assured, and morally questing, brilliantly observatory, and – I don’t want to use fancy words, but – founded in sensoria that are exquisitely attuned to the reality that the characters are living through. You know, just the way we see the colors, and the shapes, and the characteristics of the country registered; there’s something very, very similar, to me as a reader, in both of those books.

RC: I found it fascinating that you approach Lolita as a road book, in the tradition of these other books that you mentioned.

RR: Yeah. That’s an older tradition. It starts with Captain John Smith, and then Bartrum, and Crèvecoeur, and Chateaubriand. They came over and traveled all through America, registering this vast continent as well as they could. So, Nabokov’s in that tradition, too. But I think, in the postwar moment, there was a renewed energy to get out into America and report on what it was like. I don’t know why, exactly. Maybe it had something to do with the war. And America had come out of the war whole and not destroyed. And in some ways heroic. And people wanted to take its measure.

RC: We can see how far ahead of its time Lolita was in capturing the idiom and attitude of America at mid-century if we compare it to certain other works of roughly the same period. Except for a couple of the erotic scenes, Edmund Wilson’s Memoirs of Hecate County, a very important book in the history of censorship and published only about ten years before, more resembles the work of Henry James in terms of overall style, diction, and sensibility. Whereas with Nabokov, as you say, “A darkly dissident cultural skepticism comes into play with Lolita. The extent of it will become clear over the next decade and a half, and tonal similarities abound – in the movies, in productions like Hitchcock’s Psycho (’61) and Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove (’64), and in literature and other cultural domains with the roiling intensity now associated with the term ‘The Sixties.’ Alert readers pick something up.”

RR: For me, all of the changes of the Sixties were almost not possible without Lolita. When I first read that – I read Lolita when I was still a teenager, a late teenager – I was just electrified. I mean, the whole moral dimension of the book went completely over my head. I knew that something bad was happening to a little girl. But the rest of the book was so shockingly true of what I had dimly started to feel, and an awful lot of people had dimly started to feel. And suddenly, these observations were being put into words. So, for me anyway, that awakening started with the way he looked at the country, and the way he talked without apology and made dark hysterical fun of it, while he was doing other things, many other things, too, with his prose.

I wouldn’t quite agree with you that Memoirs of Hecate County belongs to Henry James. Not that Henry James is some lesser example, but …

RC: I should have made that clearer. I don’t mean in terms of content, necessarily, because he’s talking about the 1920s and Thirties. But I mean, if you look at the grammar, and the basic sentence structure, and the sort of tone. Even though Edmund Wilson wasn’t an aristocrat, it almost has an aristocratic type of tone; he even mentions his black servant. So, it resonated for me as being closer to a nineteenth-century type of prose than something like Lolita or the books that you mentioned that come after Lolita.

RR: Yeah, I would agree with that. And Wilson has this kind of grand cathedral organ of a writing style. It’s pretty simplified in Memoirs of Hecate County but, still, there are echoes of Jamesian paragraphs that are perfectly shaped. Yeah. Of course, Lolita’s got a tremendous literary culture in it and behind it.

RC: And the slang. As you point out, Nabokov really studied the slang of teenagers at that time. But you find none of that in Hecate County, which was published only ten years before, and which more reflects the way people spoke in the Twenties. I don’t mean to pick on that book; it’s a marvelous, wonderful novel, but it just struck me that we could take that book, or other novels from around this period and compare them to Lolita. You know, as E. M. Forester does in his classic, Aspects of the Novel: he’s got half a dozen novelists sitting around from different periods. And sometimes, two authors separated by a hundred-and-fifty years sound more alike than two from ten years apart.

RR: Right. I think it’s interesting, what you point out. And the idea that an immigrant could make that leap: that tonal leap. I don’t think I really can explain it. I have to fall back on just that Nabokov was good and very audacious.

That’s the other really big thing that he got from being in America. He got the sense of this vast country. He read very widely in the contemporary literature of the time. And he sensed, he knew the ice jam was breaking up around censorship. He was very afraid of it; he didn’t want to end up in jail, or lose whatever money he had. But he could sense there was a change coming. And somehow, being in America, and being kind of joyous about it, and seeing what his contemporaries were daring to do, made him much, much bolder than he’d ever been. When he was writing Russian novels, he would also burn the ears of some of his readers in the 1920s and Thirties, but it was nothing like the leap he felt he could take when he started writing Lolita, in the late Forties.

RC: He certainly had the boldness of a great artist.

RR: Yeah. I mean, what defines a great artist? At least, in his case, there was a boldness. Certainly. And he could just go the whole hog in America. Also, it was not lost on him that the hottest and most promising novelists of his time were writing sex books of one form or another. And also the tremendously successful commercial writers, like Grace Metalious, who wrote Peyton Place. So, he picked up on that, and this was the direction he wanted to go in, too. I mean, he’d always written sexy books. You know, not pornographic books. That was something that felt very comfortable for him.

RC: Rereading Lolita, I was struck by what a mysterious and enchanting story it is. And with each reading, the pedantic allusions seem less important while the emotion of the tale comes more to the fore. As you note, it's a parody of the Romantic confessional novel, and there are all these hermetic references, but it’s also much more than that. You quote Nabokov’s former student, Alfred Appel, who says: “Nabokov found ways to make parody play for pathos as well as for laughs […] The novel has it ‘both ways, involving the reader … in a deeply moving yet outrageously comic story.’” Would you agree that the emotional dimension increasingly resonates despite the author’s cynicism about all forms of sentiment?

RR: Yeah, absolutely. That’s why millions of people have read the book, and it still continues to sell in vast numbers. I mean, on one level, it’s a very simple heart-breaking story that ends in terrible tragedy. You know, he didn’t leave that out. In other of his books, you see him kind of working at cross-purposes to his own moral impulses. He can’t stop mocking them and undercutting them, and simple sentiment is held up to ridicule. That sort of ruins a lot of his books for me, when that happens. And because he falls in love with his own intentions …

RC: His florid prose?

RR: Well, his prose. But also, he’ll have what seems to him a brilliant idea for a novel, and then he executes it. That’s really what he’s about: showing that he can do that. Very impressive, sometimes. But here, this is the story of a completely believable little girl, and this completely believable pedophile who’s also strangely attractive and fascinating to follow.

RC: It makes it a lot different than many of his other books.

RR: Right.

RC: It’s pretty clear from biographical data that Nabokov never embarked upon the sort of sexual transgression that Lolita’s protagonist was known for. So, what I’m more interested in exploring with you is why his creative process was so focused on this theme and what it reflected for him: personally and psychologically. You say: “He would return to the theme of […] the bodies of young girls in other texts, so that, from one perspective […] his entire body of work can be said to be centrally about this matter.”

RR: It’s maybe useful to keep in mind that this period when he’s writing – let’s say, the Thirties through the Sixties – is a period of great sexual awakening. Of bringing sexual material into the scope, the unashamed scope of serious writing. So, he was with that; he was with that enterprise. And, at the time that he started to write about a pedophile, he and some other writers convinced themselves that they were being daring to write about that. Sort of like: If sex had been said to consist of kissing, and fondling, and writing love letters, and suddenly somebody said, “No, it’s that, and it’s also fucking.” He felt he was bringing a new species of forbidden sexuality into play, and that was part of the bold enterprise.

Nowadays, a lot of people who hate the novel and still want to ban it say that this kind of thing should never be written about. But back when he was starting to write about it in the late Forties, there was nothing like that agreement: that this was somehow beyond the pale. So, he was, in a way, doing what he thought was noble work, to write about that. But it was also tremendously promising to him.

A friend of mine is currently reading Lolita, and he said he’s really digging it, but that it’s making him look at little girls differently. [Laughs] You know, it’s making him relax his normal way of: “Uh oh, that’s a pretty little girl, but we just don’t look at her that way, because that’s wrong.” Well, reading Nabokov on it, he’s looking at little girls differently. And for whatever reason, I guess Nabokov found them to be fascinating personally, as a man. That doesn’t mean that he ever interfered with them; I don’t think he ever did. He had various flirtations when he was a college teacher, and a beautiful co-ed who got very close to him at Wellesley was interviewed years later, and she said he definitely liked girls; he just didn’t like little ones. So, I don’t think he ever had a personal involvement. OK. But he did look at them and see them. He was sensitive to how they were sexy. And a turn on. And fascinating. And beautiful.


RC: As you and I have spoken about before, art is a mystery; great writing is a mystery. I don’t mean to imply that there’s a direct causal connection, or just one explanation, for any of this. But there were a couple of other angles I wanted to bring up with you on this theme. In Speak, Memory, Nabokov reports that, when he was ten years old, he met a girl named Colette on a beach at Biarritz. For the next two months, he “thought of her constantly.” In a phrase reminiscent of Lolita, he says: one night, he “lay awake … planning our flight.” I thought that was an interesting turn of phrase.

Humbert traces his later impulse for pedophilia back to a similar childhood encounter with a girl on a beach. And there are two girls in Nabokov’s memoir who elicit his early passion, just as there are two key “nymphets” who precede Humbert’s encounter with Lolita. How do you interpret all that, and are we to take Nabokov at his word here?

RR: Certain very good writers use their autobiographical material. Most of us writers feel that there’s nothing else left to us. If we can’t use our autobiographical material somehow – transmogrified quite often – then what do we have? He was definitely close to his own memories and his own … You know, he could recall the intensity of that prepubertal fascination with a little girl, with a girl his age. I had romances when I was eleven that were really intense, too. I can’t recall them the way he can recall his. But I think, definitely, he’s quite obviously drawing on his own material, sure.

RC: In his dream journal, he writes: “I am thinking rather smugly that nobody had ever rendered the name of nostalgia better than I.” As you know, and you’re touching on this now, nostalgia is often constellated as a result of something not being lived to its fullest: often, something of great emotional import. A scene from our past returns to haunt us, because it contains an emotional complex in need of further development. I’m reminded of one of the final images in Citizen Kane, with the close-up of the sleigh named “Rosebud”: perhaps, a symbol of lost childhood innocence. Is it possible that the nymphet in Nabokovian literature symbolized a Rosebud complex for Nabokov? That is, a sensibility untainted by his hyperintellectualism and his abundant cerebral cynicism. A counterpoint to his consciousness.

RR: Yeah, that says it very carefully. And I find, throughout his writing, especially with the stuff that I like, he’s quick to make himself an object of humor, or to do so with the heroes that are very clearly stand-ins for him. I think it’s because, just as you describe, this is a very intellectual, deeply learned guy, a powerful mind, but he’s always kind of reminding himself that he’s that mug he sees in the mirror. And he’s a little fat, and he’s bald now, and he’s got false teeth. And, you know, something funny happened at the cocktail party last night, where he spilled everything on his lap. He’s not ashamed to bring himself in as an object of fun, and to humanize himself. I think that’s part of the appeal of Humbert Humbert, too. Humbert is a monster, but he’s also making delicious fun of himself.

RC: Oh, he’s completely self-effacing in that sense.

RR: Yeah. He’s also quite aware of how ridiculous he must seem: a guy with a funny foreign accent in suburban America. But he plays his role: This is who I am. So, somehow, Nabokov, through a lot of work, and great gifts, but mainly through a lot of work, found ways of combining his intellectual power, his pure conceptual power, and a deep learning, and all these different languages, with that simple “in touchness” with his ordinary human feelings of embarrassment, excitement, and self-mockery. Somehow, he put those things together.

RC: I want to see if you can identify the following quote. Tell me who this sounds like to you: “Finally, what I decided I’d do, I decided I’d go away…. I’d start hitchhiking my way out West. What I’d do, I figured, I’d go down to the Holland Tunnel and bum a ride, and then I’d bum another one, and another one, and another one, and in a few days I’d be somewhere out West where it was very pretty and sunny and where nobody’d know me and I’d get a job. I figured I could get a job at a filling station somewhere, putting gas and oil in people’s cars.”

RR: That sounds like an awful lot of writers. It sounds like James Salter; it sounds like Kerouac; it could be a line from a Norman Mailer novel …

RC: You mentioned Kerouac. I thought, in terms of tone, diction, and style, it was very reminiscent of Kerouac and On the Road. But it’s from the final pages of The Catcher in the Rye


RR: Ah!

RC: Just before Holden Caulfield cracks up. And I thought, from this, one might conclude that Catcher strangely anticipates Kerouac’s road book.

RR: Yeah.

RC: Maybe you could talk about the parallels that you found between Lolita and The Catcher in the Rye.

RR: I would say, more generally, there’s a parallel between Salinger and Nabokov. As I talk about in the book, how they emerged as writers at the exact same moment. And they were, inevitably, very aware of each other. We know, because Nabokov actually went out of his way and said some praising things about this guy, Salinger. He almost never said anything nice about a contemporary writer. Then there’s that beautiful vulnerable little girl who is this radiant source of meaning in both of their most famous works. Phoebe is Holden’s little sister. The catcher in the rye is a teenage boy, so he doesn’t have anything like Humbert’s awareness of his own sexuality. But there’s this fascination.

For some reason, postwar, little girls, in their beauty, in their fun, in their goodness, were, I think, very meaningful symbols. Maybe after the war and all the death, and the impossible horrors, to look at a child and see her as this radiant and human reminder of perfection … And both these writers picked up on that.

RC: Throughout the history of symbolism, the child has always been a symbol of rebirth, hasn’t it? Especially the female child: it’s the rebirth of the soul.

RR: Yeah, sure, absolutely, in American literature. Think of Pearl in The Scarlet Letter. And Daisy Miller, a slightly older girl. Yeah, definitely. So, both of them are obsessed with beautiful little girls. The focus of my book was not to try to explain – whether it can ever be explained – why certain tropes appear at a given historical moment, but …

RC: I thought it was fascinating, the way you brought up the fact that they’re both writing contemporaneously, and yet the treatment is so completely different: “Both find a fertile subject in postwar teenagerhood […] Both invoke an America in which to write about magical young girls is somehow a necessary thing – a key to what is.” And yet, as you discuss, there are also vast differences. “Humbert soon does to Dolly something that Holden, in his fragile emotional state, might have found unbearable to hear or even think about.”

RR: Right, yeah.

RC: Holden is sexually naïve, at times almost presexual in attitude, whereas Humbert is eclipsed and devoured by his narcissistic fetishism. Holden wants to preserve untainted childhood; he even tries to efface the obscene graffiti scrawled on the wall. Whereas Humbert only cares about his own solipsistic world of self-gratification.

RR: Right. They’re sort of like different poles around this. That, to me, is kind of suggestive; I like that pairing for that reason. Yet, when I reread Catcher in the Rye, I felt, you know, Holden is just so straightforward, and talks to us on such an intimate level, that we assume he is very sophisticated. But I kept feeling this sexual terror in him. You know, he’s going to have a hard time growing up.

RC: That’s such a good point. It’s something only a really good writer can do, especially with a first-person narrative: to let the reader know, indeed, there’s so much else going on that’s not being said here. He sort of dramatizes it in that scene where he’s in New York, and he tries to get a prostitute to come to his room, but then he doesn’t want to do anything with her.

RR: Yeah, right. You know, I’ve always been puzzled and saddened by how little came of Salinger as a writer after his great period. As we do know, he was kind of caught up in romances with younger women. He didn’t have the fully mature wife and saintly amanuensis that Nabokov did. Somehow I felt that, under other circumstances, he would have gone much farther, and written a whole lot of other stuff.


RC: In Moby-Dick, the old Manxman, in comparing Pip and Ahab, says: “One daft with strength, the other daft with weakness.” By befriending Pip, whom you call an “enchanting child,” Ahab is indirectly acknowledging the value of vulnerability. Charles Olson says, “from this moment” Ahab’s tone “is richer, quieter, less angry and strident. He even questions his former blasphemies, for a bottomed sadness grows in him.” “What Pip wrought in Ahab throws over the end of Moby-Dick a veil of grief.”* This is reminiscent of Humbert’s character-shift at the end of Lolita. Perhaps you could talk about your comparison between the two books.

RR: I know Nabokov read Moby-Dick and had a period of discussing it intensely with a lab assistant he had at Harvard when he was working in the museum, organizing the butterflies. He was very taken up with the book for a while. And Melville is an unusual figure in the American pantheon in that Nabokov never said anything snotty about him. He praised him. And there are signs of his admiration in Lolita. For me, Lolita’s a very sad, dark story. We can’t believe, and don’t want to believe, that we see the trajectory, but we do sense it well before the end. Humbert’s growing love for Lolita, for the little girl who’s now growing up, and finally for the young woman who’s pregnant by another man, whom he sees at the end of the book, doesn’t take away what he’s done, and the horror of it and so forth. But it makes it much more bearable, and much more moving.

And I think it’s the same thing with Captain Ahab. That’s even more of a preordained catastrophe; we sense that very, very early. I don’t think Melville developed that humanizing of Ahab the way that Nabokov developed Humbert’s change. I mean, that wasn’t what Melville was principally after. But he had these great instincts, Melville, so he knew he had to do something. He had to put in some other colors. I find all that business with Pip very moving. Those are the parts of Moby-Dick that I most remember. Nobody else does, but, for me, they were really important.

RC: Would you agree that Nabokov’s sympathetic portrayal of this ghastly figure, Humbert Humbert, is the real genius of the book?

RR: Yeah, sure; it’s a great accomplishment. Again, it’s something he’d been working on through a lot of other books. He has many other kinds of monstrous, cracked heroes or protagonists or antiheroes. So, he’d been working at that for a long time.

The genius of the book – I’m always nervous about using that word, “genius.” [Laughs] But the greatness of the book – I feel fine with that – is in its encounter with America, too. Just the fact that he found America enticing, and very beautiful, and he was able to respond to the great open door that America shows to people, you know? “Come on, look at all of me. Come down and explore.” He could respond to that but also sense mystery and doom in the landscape. I mean, that was an act of extraordinary receptivity or creativity; I don’t know exactly what.

RC: And also, the goofiness of the landscape, as well.

RR: Yeah, right, completely: in all the wonderful vulgar touches. So, I wouldn’t just say it’s Humbert. I mean, Humbert’s voice is inseparable from what’s great about the novel. It’s superb. But it’s not just that. And I would say the moral evolution is also unexpected – and unexpectedly moving.

RC: In another one of your letters written to me while you were working on Nabokov in America, you say: “Still haven’t figured out how to interrogate Nabokov over his finicky self-adoring ‘I am a genius’ body of work, nor over his savage attacks on all signs of honest creativity in other writers of his time, Henry Miller certainly among the targets of his loathing (and also Faulkner and Mann and Malraux and Pasternak and Hemingway and all the women authors and just about everybody except that equally finicky young New Yorker writer, Updike, who kissed the master’s ass and therefore won words of praise). The reading about him has led me down some interesting byroads. He is a ‘large’ writer I discover, all the issues of modernism present in him, not to mention all of twentieth-century political history, and some issues of science relating to his butterflies. But while ‘large,’ many of his books seem small to me. That’s not bad necessarily. But maybe it explains some of his viciousness toward other writers, who, in their non-Mandarin prose, touched regions of the soul he intuited but couldn’t visit.” And in your book, you add: Knut Hamsun “joins Dostoyevsky, Turgenev, Leskov, and dozens of other writers of authentic power on Nabokov’s list of little or no respect.” Did Nabokov suffer from an unconscious doubt about his own value? Or was he just blind to the emotional power of these writers because of his own emotional shortcomings?

RR: Gosh, that’s a good question. I think, yes, there was some great doubt in him. I mean, otherwise, why do you keep insisting that the world acknowledge you as a genius? I mean, even in your last decade, your last years of life, you know, he’s still insisting that people recognize that he’s a genius at creating chess problems of the solus rex type; that he’s a genius of Russian poetry; the list goes on and on. And the accomplishments were fully acknowledged by the world by the time he was sixty-five. And yet, he still needed it. There must be some kind of … I don’t know.


To be a great and gifted writer at the time of modernism is a very big problem, because basically the modernist task was to write hateful and disturbing and disruptive novels that would give avid normal novel readers a terrible headache. So, it doesn’t begin with Ulysses, but Ulysses is a great example. I mean, you really need to read it in a college class with an inspiring professor who can tell you: “Don’t be bored by this chapter, it’s really wonderful!” [Laughs] I think somebody once said of it: “It’s a demonstration of how not to write a novel.” So anyway, Nabokov’s fully sensitive to his times, and he’s not going to write straightforward, middlebrow novels. Not him, by God! And so, he accepts the modernist task. But, at the same time, he’s a guy who loves to be in intimate contact with his readers. He loves to move them. He loves to fascinate and enchant them. And so, somehow, by an almost impossible contortion, he arrives, eventually, when he’s in America, at an opportunity to write in a way that almost anybody can read that isn’t a giving up of his modernist task. So, that was a tremendous struggle.

I see a lot of his unhappiness, and the vicious things he said about other writers, as a reflection of just how impossible it felt to him. Through most of his career. You know, it’s amazing that he was as productive, as continually productive, as he was. And you only have to compare a really boring, failed novel like Bend Sinister, which he finished in 1946, to Lolita, which he started writing in ’47, which was phenomenally readable, and moving, and deeply complex but openhearted. Whereas the other one is none of those things. You see what a tremendous load he was carrying, and he had to find a way to put it off his back, and yet not disrespect it and move on. And I think, at least to me, a lot of his strange behavior reflects that.

RC: Fascinating. You also document the tragic loss of friendship between Nabokov and Edmund Wilson. You call it “a savage, ultra-public bloodletting.” Although intellectual disagreements were the supposed cause of the rupture, there’s also the fact that Wilson went out of his way to help and support so many other writers, while Nabokov went out of his way to disparage them. How did Wilson feel about Nabokov’s loathing of past and present literary figures, some of whom Wilson was promulgating in his critical essays?

RR: I think that was really the straw that broke the camel’s back for Wilson. He was never comfortable with that, and they had arguments about that. And finally, when various other wounds to the ego on both sides had mounted up to a certain level – which happens with a deep friendship, where people are perhaps obsessively frank with each other – when Nabokov went off like a madman against Pasternak, you could see Wilson saying to himself: “I just cannot fucking understand this guy.”

RC: He even called him sadistic at one point.

RR: Yeah, that’s right. You know, there’s a level of saying nasty things about other writers that goes along with the literary life; it’s not unknown, of course. But this was way over the top, and I think Wilson finally couldn’t explain it away himself. And so, that was very important to their breaking up.

To me, it seemed very, very sad, because they had a truly wonderful friendship and deeply enjoyed each other’s company. Their letters are maybe the most fun literary correspondence of the twentieth century. I mean, I haven’t read all the famous correspondences, but I’ve read a lot of them. They’re tremendously witty, and you can see how inspired they are by each other’s letters. And then, when they got together, they would swap dirty books. Wilson gives Nabokov a copy of the Story of O, and they get together quickly, so they can talk about it. And Vera’s nose is out of joint, because she knows they’re talking about some dirty subject and snickering. You know, they’re just having a good time. And to see that all sacrificed, that’s kind of sad.

RC: You call Pale Fire “esoteric and spiritualistic.” “It makes a case for a higher realm. The existence of such a dimension is implied by anomalies of this world we inhabit; the Great Mind that decrees a world of doubles, riddling coincidences, and secret correspondences is, by a curious coincidence, the very model of the mind that can understand it. This spiritual project is an old one in American letters. Emerson, Hawthorne, Whitman, and Dickinson, along with many lesser-known authors, make up one cohort of spirit-seekers.” But “by the end of the nineteenth century metaphysical speculation had fallen somewhat out of favor.”

I’m intrigued by how, unlike these other spirit-seekers, with most of his work, Nabokov approaches this realm more through an archly cerebral mind-game rather than through a feeling-toned intuition. With him, it’s more of an intellectualized intuition, such as you’d find in a Sherlock Holmes story. Would you agree?

RR: I would say that he started with the same intimations that maybe a lot of us have, you know: materialism doesn’t explain the whole kit and caboodle, that there are unexplained coincidences that are so suggestive. And things happen in every life, if you’re paying attention, that are just eerie. I think he had all of those usual sensations and experiences. And, in Speak, Memory, he talks about them, and elsewhere too. And then, being himself, of course he had to try to get rigorous about it. I mean, he was always very careful, because he didn’t want people to mock him. He didn’t want to be seen as a new Arthur Conan Doyle, who spent many years around Ouija boards. But he had, I think, the ordinary sensations of sensitivity to … spirits. I don’t know how else to talk about it.


RC: To the whole nonrational world.

RR: Yeah, right. And, at the same time, he’s this hyperintellectual writer and also this serious scientist, a lepidopterist. I mean, in that area too, you see him just barely restraining himself, because he doesn’t really believe in Darwinism. He’s like a creationist a lot of times: This world is too fabulous, too full of strange suggestions and eerie, magnificent complexities, to have evolved through something as corny and stolid as evolution. He doesn’t really believe it.

A number of modern Nabokov scholars are quickly trying to brush all that under the rug and say: “Well, we misunderstood how brilliant are his insights into evolution. It’s not that he rejects it; it’s that he’s talking about it on a whole higher realm than we are.” But no, I think he was like an “intelligent design” believer.

RC: You just mentioned Nabokov scholars. In your book, you write: “The scholars of Nabokov […] rejoice in discovering what is complexly hidden.” “Nuggets of hidden reference are everywhere,” but “There is an esoteric and ever-narrowing quality to the hunt, and an undistinguished reader such as myself feels at times a quiet dismay: when will the picking over be complete, can we not get back to saying more obvious, possibly more urgent, things about the curious author?” How did you attempt to “borrow Nabokov back from the experts”?

RR: I’m sure that the experts don’t think that I’ve done it adequately, but I did read all of what they wrote. I think I mention in the book that I sat around for a couple of years reading nothing but Nabokov criticism. And it was really a lot of fun, basically. I mean, some of the stuff is head-bangingly boring, but a lot of it’s really good. So, I at least had to be familiar with their lines of analysis.

I think part of the scholarly enterprise is to be, in some ways, very modest. To look for unfound little factoids or allusions in texts, and to bring them forth, and to talk about them in a rigorous way, and make as much as you can out of them. And, in this book, anyway, I tried to be very specific about the few texts that I talk about – you know, in these American texts – but I’m talking about the guy’s whole life. So I couldn’t – and I didn’t want to – talk about an allusion to Dos Passos that’s hidden on page 129 of Lolita that nobody’s ever seen before. That’s not the kind of writing I want to do.

RC: As I mentioned before, I reread it twice in the last couple of years, preparing for our talk today, and I happened to have The Annotated Lolita. It’s got all the allusions you could possibly want, and it was apparently crafted with Nabokov’s approval. But in the rereading of it, all those things seemed so much less important to me than the pure, raw feeling and emotion of the characters.

RR: Yeah, me too. And yet, there are moments when it’s great fun to crawl up with Appel’s Annotated Lolita. He was a smart guy who did a lot of hard work, and he brings in things that I never would have thought of. By the same token, Brian Boyd, who wrote the big, double volume of Nabokov has just completed an annotated Ada – you know, Nabokov’s supposed masterwork – and I have zero interest in reading that, because the book itself doesn’t move me and kind of bores me. No doubt, every text of Nabokov’s can give employment to a number of smart scholars. But that’s not, finally, the most important thing about it, about his books.

RC: To be perfectly honest, I find him very, very difficult to read. I’ve picked up so many of his books and put them right down again, because of this intellectual approach he has, and for the other reasons that you’ve mentioned.

RR: Yeah.

RC: Whereas Lolita isn’t like that; there’s a completely different dimension in Lolita. By the way, I enjoyed your inclusion of the famous Groucho Marx quote: “I’ve put off reading Lolita for six years, till she’s eighteen.”

RR: [Laughs]

RC: Lolita really impacted the culture rather widely. Was it his greatest work?


RR: I guess so. Let’s see. Is it my favorite Nabokov work? I think so. I’ve gotten a whole lot of pleasure out of Pale Fire, which not everybody likes. And Speak, Memory; I love that book.

He considered Lolita to be his greatest work. And that says a lot, because, after all, he’s a very self-defending writer, so he’s essentially saying, “My most popular book, my easiest-to-read novel that even a smart eleven- or twelve-year-old can read, I think it’s my greatest work.” And so, I go with him in that judgment.

RC: Is it because his usual intellectualism gets a bit eclipsed by the emotion in the book, and because of the presence of that magical child and the way that he portrays her?

RR: Yeah, that’s part of it. Although, again, I would go back to the book itself and its language. For me, it’s just fucking funny, line by line. And so perceptive. And also tremendously touching. He talks about how, when they were deep in their travels, they had reached a point where he would fake going to sleep, and then he would hear her wait a little bit and then start crying. Every night. Every night. I’m hard-pressed to come up with something in American literature that has moved me that much. You know, as much as that little report. Very simple language.

RC: And the usual cerebral tone of his prose is, in Lolita, put off onto Humbert Humbert. So he sort of uses Humbert to make fun of Nabokov’s own archly intellectual quality.

RR: Yeah. I think it’s good to remember that although Nabokov had big struggles in his life – he lost his money, they were kicked out of Russia, his father was murdered, you know, a lot of trouble – and despite his doubts about himself, still, he saw himself as, and was, a tremendous winner. He could carry almost any room on his charisma and his verbal brilliance. And he was not shy; he threw his weight around. There were always some people who were very irritated and frightened by him. And then there were people who just adored him; they just loved him. And so, he was a guy who could find his way and get over in almost every situation.

I think pretty early in his life, probably in his thirties, he also started seeing how there were aspects of his personal behavior that were monstrous. That he had been very cruel to his younger brothers, for example. And that he had this impulse to say shitty things about other writers. He knew he went too far, but he didn’t stop it; he didn’t want to stop it. And so, his larger personal enterprise in his writing was to be more and more honest about what could be monstrous and very, very cruel about somebody who was brilliant. And Lolita is where it comes out maybe the strongest. He’s doing the same thing in Ada, but it’s just tiresome at that point.

So, that’s good, that’s great. He’s not just congratulating himself on how brilliant he is; he’s starting to see other dimensions: darker sides of it.

RC: Nabokov rather cunningly tells us that Lolita lost her virginity to a boy she meets at summer camp. When Humbert finally has her alone to himself, it’s Lolita who proposes that they engage in an act of eroticism that she considers to be merely a game: one that, in her mind, has no connection with childbirth. Was this an ingenious way of making the story slightly more palatable as well as complex: by avoiding the deflowering of an adolescent by Humbert and making the girl herself initiate a physical seduction?

RR: That’s hard to answer, but I think it came out of his research about teenager sexuality. He read all kinds of books about it before he really started writing. You know: average age of onset of menstruation; how often teenage girls masturbated; all of this stuff. It’s in his notes. And I think he came upon the fact that, hmm, something like twenty-seven percent of girls of fifteen had already had intercourse: something like that. So, in a way, he thought he was being accurate when he did that. But of course, I think he’s conscious of the fact that this throws an interesting complexity into the situation, and we do avoid that situation of a big hairy brute, you know, sticking his cock into a little squirming twelve-year-old.


RC: Well said, Robert!

RR: [Laughs]

RC: You said that he and Edmund Wilson had many a chuckle over the Story of O. Was it Maurice Girodias’s English translation that they were looking at together? Nabokov’s archenemy, I should say, Maurice Girodias. That’s kind of ironic.

RR: It might not be, because they both read French.

RC: Girodias was a great thorn in the side of Nabokov even though he helped him quite a bit by publishing Lolita in France. Lolita even had the honor of being briefly banned in France, as a result of pressure from British censors, while it was being openly published in America. This was also a very ironic and bizarre twist.

RR: Yes, it was. The way it all worked out for him … I mean, he could not have scripted it any better.

RC: It’s amazing. And as you say somewhere in your book, “Without Wilson’s stewardship, the road would have been different – there might not have been a road.”

RR: Yeah, that’s right. I mean, he could have been like so many other gifted writers: “Yes, I’m proud to say I published three stories in the New Yorker fourteen years ago, and now I’m working hard at Cornell,” you know? “I’ve got tenure, and I’m looking forward to my retirement when I can back to my writing.” I mean, really, that could have been it. That could have been his path.

When I say it was really fortunate how it worked out, I mean, about Lolita, the fact that everybody said no in America. He got it to all the good and important publishers. Then it comes out in the Olympia Press edition, and that allows word of mouth to build to a frenzied point, especially after Graham Greene somehow gets his hands on a copy in 1955 and writes, at the end of the year, he says: The three best books I read last year were A, B, and C: C being a book called Lolita that you’ve never heard of. Then this drumbeat starts to build, and people start sneaking the book into the country: in small numbers, but to influential people. And then, all the turmoil over Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Tropic of Cancer is going on, and there are court cases, and finally it’s getting to the point where the defenders of decency are being recognized as being completely ridiculous. Just as that logjam breaks, Putnam says, OK, we’ll bring it out. It was the first world success of a sex book after the break of that logjam.

RC: Even the way it came into Putnam’s hands is absolutely hysterical. Do you want to mention that?


RR: Yeah, I thought that was great. [Laughs] It was some “questionable” woman – well, I don’t know if she was questionable, but she was …

RC: She was sort of what we might today call an “exotic dancer,” no?

RR: Yeah, that’s right. And obviously, a good reader, too! And here’s a sexy book, somebody gave it to her, and then she shows it to Minton, Putnam’s editor-in-chief, and they’re conducting an affair at the same time or a little later.

I didn’t think they were going to let me tell that story about Nabokov’s son, Dmitri, getting it on with Mrs. Minton, Polly Minton. It’s in the Berg Archive, buried deep in a page-a-day diary. Other people have read it, but nobody’s been allowed to put it into a book. Or has tried to. Maybe I’m the first one who thought it was a great story and wanted to. But when I submitted all my quotations … you have to list everything you want to quote from a Nabokov source that’s at the Berg Collection. And this really gave me the heebie-jeebies. You have to submit that to Andrew Wylie’s agency, too. The Wylie Agency now administers the Nabokov Estate, and it’s the most powerful literary agency in America, and Wylie is known for sometimes highhanded professional behavior and for militantly protecting his brands. So I had to ask permission of them and also of the Berg Collection. I had this long, long, long list of stuff. And some of it was to quote three words – “It was ‘a pretty day’” – but then there’s this long quotation from Vera’s diary: of when Dmitri and the distraught wife have a little fling. And somehow, they all signed off on it. I don’t know if they didn’t notice or what.

RC: That’s an interesting back story; I didn’t realize that.

RR: I was very grateful that they did sign off. It was generous of them – very open-minded.

RC: I just reread some of John de St. Jorre’s Venus Bound, the history of the Olympia Press. And, in there, he says that this woman not only tipped Minton off to the book and received a generous finder’s fee for it, but it wasn’t the Olympia Press edition that she’d read; she’d read excerpts of Lolita in a literary magazine! Isn’t that hysterical?

RR: She must have read it in the Anchor Review. I didn’t know that; I’d always assumed it was the Olympia.

RC: So, she was a very well read person.

RR: Yeah!

RC: Well, thanks so much for penciling me in and spending some time on together. This has been a great talk; I really appreciate it.

RR: Yeah, really fun.

* This interview was conducted on 23 July 2015.
* Charles Olson, Call Me Ishmael (New York: Grove Press, 1947), p. 60.


See also:

Robert Roper talks about his groundbreaking biography, Now the Drum of War: Walt Whitman and His Brothers in the Civil War. Interviewed by Rob Couteau on October 12, 2010.


Since: 8 August 2015 | Copyright © 2015 Rob Couteau
key words: Robert Roper, Melville, Moby-Dick, J. D. Salinger, Catcher in the Rye, The Dharma Bums, Jack Kerouac, Road Trip Books, America, Lolita, Nabokov