NABOKV-L post 0005455, Thu, 31 Aug 2000 20:17:18 -0700

Tom Bolt Interview with Brian Boyd
lines) -----------------


Note: this is the full text of the
interview I conducted this past winter
with Brian Boyd. It appears here with
permission of the Editor of BOMB, Betsy
Sussler, and of Brian Boyd. It is the only
complete publication of the interview,
and corrects mistakes that crept into
the printed version.

According to BOMB, the version of the
interview that appeared on their Web site
attracted more readers than all other
BOMB interviews that have appeared
online put together.

--Thomas Bolt



Interviewed by Thomas Bolt


A commentator from a distant southern
land that begins with Z composes an
outlandish elucidation (which may, in
fact, be a matter of life and death) of
another man's masterpiece. His
startling, perhaps outrageous claims
upset certain entrenched academic
specialists, and he must flee (a world
tour, a centenary), and undergo the
ordeals of exile before coming to rest,
in some almost successful disguise--as
a Professor of English at the
University of Auckland, New Zealand,
for instance. An unlikely plot, but the
real story is no less exceptional:
Brian Boyd, author of the prize-winning
two-volume biography of Vladimir
CONSCIOUSNESS, and the just-released
ARTISTIC DISCOVERY, is a scholar who
changed his mind.

"Brian Boyd's remarkable, obsessive,
delirious, devotional study, NABOKOV'S
PALE FIRE," Ron Rosenbaum called him
"an ornament of the accidents and
possibilities of Nabokov scholarship"
and praised him "for having the courage
and humility to retract an earlier
conjecture and the imaginative daring"
to (as Boyd himself might put it) RE-
re-reread PALE FIRE. But has this book-
length study, written in response to a
discussion on the Internet's NABOKV-L
Listserv, produced a robust thesis or
the shadow of a madman's fancy? All I
can say now is that reading Nabokov's
is like being immersed in a medium that
clarifies, but not without some
shifting and spill of glare, what was
before all ooze and squid-cloud. Or, at
the very least, a different story.

Brian Boyd has edited Nabokov's English
novels and autobiography for the
Library of America, is on the editorial
board for the Pléiade edition of
Nabokov's collected novels (for which
he will be introducing, editing and
and ADA), and is co-editor (with Robert
Michael Pyle) of the about-to-be
he has been called "the great man of
Nabokov studies," and "the world's
leading scholar on Vladimir Nabokov,"
Boyd is also at work on a biography of
philosopher Karl Popper and a critical
study of Shakespeare. Without pausing
to wonder what the National Security
Agency was making of our back-and-forth
millennial emails with BOMB in the
subject line, we conducted a brisk
correspondence interview from opposite
sides of the planet.

Thomas Bolt: What's the best Nabokov
novel to start with?

Brian Boyd: Depends who asks the
question. I always hesitate to
recommend ADA, on which I have worked
with what many would think manic and
misguided intensity, because I know
good readers of Nabokov who recoil from
it. Yet others adore it, and wonder why
I cautioned them they mightn't like it.
I read LOLITA as a horny thirteen-year-
old who had heard it was a hot book,
only to find it cooled my libido and
overheated my cranium, but for someone
more mature than I was then, it can be
a great place to begin. I read PALE
FIRE at sixteen in a state of rapture
that revives each time I go near it. If
you like human warmth, make a move for
THE DEFENSE. If you like your laughter
punctuated by pathos, sit down with
PNIN. If you seek solid backdrops for
your fiction, give yourself THE GIFT.
If you delight in intellectual
dizziness, search out THE REAL LIFE OF
SEBASTIAN KNIGHT. If you savor perfect
prose and poise, try basking in SPEAK,

TB: Chasing the black squiggles and
zigzags through PNIN, watching M'sieur
Pierre pop out of the tunnel into
Cincinnatus's cell in INVITATION TO A
BEHEADING, hearing Ada (at twelve) say
"Tower," or feeling the twang on the
screen at the end of BEND SINISTER--
these are unforgettable instants of
writing, with their own specific
vibrations and reverberations. Every
highly skilled writer has moments to
which only she or he could have given
us access; what's different about these
moments in Nabokov? Are there just more
of them, or with VN are we always
dealing with what, in speaking of his
favorite writer of his own generation,
Sirin, Nabokov called "functional
imagery," a "rolling corollary, the
shadow of a train of thought"? In
NABOKOV'S PALE FIRE you describe one
such moment and its echo--Kinbote's
discovery of the secret passage. What
other favorite--passages--come to mind?
What are your five or seven or ten
greatest moments in Nabokov--or, if
that's impossible, which ones do you
think of first?

BB: If I get properly started I'll
never stop. Two favorite moments will
have to suggest the whole spectrum: the
paragraph in the last chapter of SPEAK,
MEMORY that begins "Whenever I start
thinking of my love for a person, I am
in the habit of immediately drawing
radii from my love--from my heart, from
the tender nucleus of a personal
matter--to monstrously remote points of
the universe" and ends "I have to have
all space and all time participate in
my emotion, in my mortal love, so that
the edge of its mortality is taken off,
thus helping me to fight the utter
degradation, ridicule and horror of
having developed an infinity of
sensation and thought within a finite
existence"; and Greg Erminin hoping to
keep talking to Ada for just a moment
longer, and saying as he is about to
leave "I guess it's your father under
that oak, isn't it?"--only to hear her
answer "No, it's an elm."

TB: To my memory, you don't mention
Samuel Johnson's cat Hodge in your new
book on PALE FIRE. Is the epigraph to
PALE FIRE important? Is there more to
it than the obvious Boswell-and-Johnson
reference? For instance, is the
interesting thing the transition away
from the easy acceptance of a
commonplace cruelty as it becomes
personal? Or is "Hodge" indeed shot in

BB: Some readers of my new book may
suspect I think I have PALE FIRE sewn
up. I do have an argument there that to
my mind allows us deeper into the
novel--which, incidentally, quite
rightly appeared on "The Novel of the
Century" lists on both sides of the
Atlantic--but I am very aware that
aspects of PALE FIRE still baffle me.
If I said nothing about its epigraph,
it was because I didn't know what to
say. Under the interrogator's lights, I
will say this much:

Unlike George Eliot, who finds it hard
NOT to affix epigraphs to novels and
even chapters, Nabokov tends to allude
INSIDE his houses of fiction, not on
plaques at the entrance. PALE FIRE is
his only novel in English with an
epigraph. When he prefixes his first
novel (predictable in other ways too)
with two lines of Pushkin, the choice
seems all too obvious for a young
Russian writer. When he attaches as
epigraph of his second-to-last Russian
novel the wonderful line "Comme un fou
se croît Dieu, nous nous croyons
mortels," and attributes it to Pierre
Delalande, the only writer he ever
admits has influenced him (although he
then promptly admits to having invented
Delalande himself), that seems
unnatural yet wonderfully Nabokovian.
But the epigraph to PALE FIRE?

One of the many reasons this excerpt
from Boswell is so tantalizing is that
Nabokov never seems interested in
Samuel Johnson anywhere else. It's a
wonderfully self-contained little
vignette: "This reminds me of the
ludicrous account he gave Mr. Langton,
of the despicable state of a young
gentleman of good family. 'Sir, when I
heard of him last, he was running about
town shooting cats.' And then in a sort
of kindly reverie, he bethought himself
of his own favorite cat, and said, 'But
Hodge shan't be shot: no, no, Hodge
shall not be shot.'"

So self-contained, in fact, that we
don't know how it relates to PALE FIRE.
Shade, the renowned poet to whom
Kinbote acts as a kind of demented
Boswell, is an eighteenth-century
scholar, and like Johnson himself,
writes on Pope. But why this particular
anecdote, apart from a vague kinship
between Johnson's "kindly reverie" and
Shade's essential kindliness toward

Shade, preoccupied throughout his poem
"Pale Fire" with death and what might
lie beyond, writes as he draws to a
close: "I'm reasonably sure that we
survive / And that my darling" (his
daughter Hazel, whose suicide occupies
the tragic climactic centerpiece of the
poem) "somewhere is alive, / As I am
reasonably sure that I / Shall wake at
six tomorrow, on July / The twenty-
second, nineteen fifty-nine, / And that
the day will probably be fine." In fact
he is killed by a madman within hours
of penning these lines: he will NOT
wake tomorrow. He feels sure life will
continue, yet, unlike the Hodge who
Johnson feels sure will live, he is
shot. But as I argue in my book, Shade
is also right: Hazel somehow IS alive,
and Shade himself DOES wake despite his
death. In that sense, as your last
question implies, Tom, Johnson's
assurance that Hodge will not be shot
prefigures Nabokov's knowledge that his
favorite, Shade, will not really die.

That's MY best shot at the moment.
Whether--apart from tantalizing us--
that's what Nabokov intended by the
epigraph, I have no idea.

TB: Well, a king can look at a cat. A
character in a comic novel I finished
recently remarks that the great novels
of the 20th Century are comic. How much
of a stretch is this? I'll vouch for
ULYSSES being a comedy, or at least
comic. Are PALE FIRE and LOLITA
comedies? If so, how is a Nabokovian
comedy different from what we usually
think of as comic?

BB: In exam questions on Shakespearean
comedy or on modern fiction, I have
sometimes set up as a springboard for
my students Nabokov's dictum "Genuine
art mixes categories." ULYSSES is a
very funny novel, as are LOLITA, PALE
FIRE and ADA, but I would hesitate to
call ULYSSES a comedy, and wouldn't
apply the term at all to Nabokov's
unholy trinity. Proust's IN SEARCH OF
LOST TIME has its hilarious moments,
but who would call it a funny novel,
let alone a comedy? There is something
that produces an uneasy twisted smile
in Kafka's THE CASTLE, and even in THE
TRIAL, but it would be hard to find
oneself further from the comic than
when we are lost in those labyrinths of
non-arrival. Speaking of non-arrival,
WAITING FOR GODOT seems easily the
finest comedy of the twentieth-century
stage, but Beckett's novels, for all
the laughter they can provoke, leave us
harrowed. It's hard to think of a great
novel that does not have great humor,
but I can't think of a novel I could
call a comedy and still think great.

TB: What about DEAD SOULS? And I have
RARELY laughed so hard as at some of
the books you mention.

BB: Don't get me wrong: I find most of
these books often hilarious and
altogether wonderful. I suppose what I
object to is the idea of "comic novel"
or "comedy" as implying a) a chuckle a
minute and b) a broad smile at the end.
A great novel should move more of our
facial and mental muscles than that,
and far more unpredictably.

TB: How important--no, how critical--is
humor to Nabokov's writing?

BB: Indispensable, of course. If I
return to Nabokov for the first time in
a while, I'm regularly amazed at how
funny he is, and funny without the
punchline predictability of, say, an
Oscar Wilde. He knows we expect things
of life, and his extraordinary
imagination shows us how there are far
more possibilities (in words, phrases,
images, people, things, moments,
stories, worlds) than those we blandly
expect, and he makes us enjoy that
sudden surprise when we recognize the
gap between what we hadn't even known
we expected and what we actually find:
and THAT'S humor. Nabokov always uses
humor to undermine our attachment to
the ready-made, to enlarge our sense of
the possible, to whet our appetite for
the surprise of life.

TB: Is part of it an unwillingness to
accept a conventional idea of
"seriousness" and what should be taken
seriously? These novels bulge with

BB: What we take for seriousness can
often be no more than sharing a common
sense of what matters. The great
parodists often see THAT as complacent
conventionalism, a fake unanimity that
only bespeaks a lack of imagination and
urgently needs subverting.

TB: "As often was the way with
Sebastian Knight, he used parody as a
kind of springboard for leaping into
the highest region of serious emotion."
Does Nabokov require that his readers
do a different kind of thinking than
most authors?

BB: Any novelist has to know and work
with the way we all think, or risk
never finding readers. Nabokov knows us
so well he knows we can perform better
than we suppose, if he does not ask too
much of us (as Joyce sometimes can) at
the wrong moment. He stretches us, not
like a drill-master but like a tennis
coach who sends down hard shots
calibrated just so that we can zing
them back with style when they looked
impossible to reach. By the sheer
pleasure of our performing at this
level, he teaches us to see more
sharply, to move more nimbly, to swing
more boldly. Or (quick change of
sportsgear) while he makes his novels
dazzling rather than difficult on the
surface, he lures us into their
glittering depths, he teaches us to be
more curious, more imaginative, more
retentive, more alert to the surprise
of the world's particulars and
patterns, he invites us to dive for
discoveries that lure us down to deeper
wonders, because he senses that the
world itself is a vast reef of
inexhaustible color and endless

TB: Are Nabokov novels constructed in
layers--where a succession of what D.
Barton Johnson calls "worlds in
regression" become available to us in
stages? Do other writers use these
techniques? Is it always conscious (or
self-conscious) on the part of the

BB: In one sense it's very common in
literature for stories to be
constructed in layers, so that at the
end we have a quite different
understanding of a situation than we
could at first, before all the
information is in. After all it's a
universal experience for us to see
something one way and then to discover
some time later how much more has
really been involved from the start. So
a Dickens, a Faulkner, a Barth, can
shape a story in terms of layers of
plot or perspective, or a Joyce or an
Eliot can add layers of complication,
through symbolism or allusion, say,
that may take time to penetrate. But I
don't know of anyone but Nabokov who
offers not only a series of surprises
on a first reading but also a new set
of surprising and transforming
discoveries when we reread, and then
again when we RE-reread.

One of the things that attracts me to
this aspect of Nabokov is that it is
not just an exhilarating literary
device but an expression of his
epistemology and metaphysics. His
novels incorporate successive stages of
discovery because, as he says in an
interview, "You can get nearer and
nearer, so to speak, to reality; but
you never get near enough because
reality is an infinite succession of
steps, levels of perception, false
bottoms, and hence unquenchable,
unattainable." The delayed discoveries
in his fiction reflect other facets of
his thought, too: his sense, for
instance, that linear time, while
amazingly bountiful, is also a prison,
that we might be able to understand
things so much better if we could
somehow get outside of time, into a
space where all our past is present;
his sense that there seems to be some
kind of conscious design behind things,
that has created endless levels of
complexity precisely for the purpose of
its being rediscovered by mortal minds.

TB: Can you give us a specific example
of how this shifting focus and
amplified perspective works in a
Nabokovian text?

BB: In PALE FIRE, for instance, on a
first reading we tend to focus on
Kinbote, the commentator to Shade's
poem. If we have the energy and the
confidence in Nabokov to follow his
clues, we can discover, a few pages
into the regular page-by-page sequence,
that Kinbote is not simply who he says
he is. His secret identity becomes more
and more luridly vivid as we read on,
however we read the book, until just
before the end we discover that it is
far more likely to be megalomania than
fact. But on a rereading, Shade's fate
at the end of the novel hangs over the
story in a new way, and so radically
reconfigures our attention.

On a first reading, the sublime joke of
the novel is that the wild imaginings
of Kinbote's line-by-line commentary to
Shade's staid stay-at-home poem have
nothing to do with the poem at all. But
on rereading, we become haunted by the
innumerable correspondences between
Shade's and Kinbote's contributions,
for all the initial comic shock of the
disparity. In ADA Nabokov suggests
"that some law of logic should fix the
number of coincidences, in a given
domain, after which they cease to be
coincidences, and form, instead, the
living organism of a new truth." The
promise of some "new truth" around the
corner, explicit in so many of
Nabokov's novels, is never stronger
than in PALE FIRE, even during a first
reading, as we close in on Kinbote, or
during a rerereading, as we try to
distance ourselves more from him and
see more of Shade, and especially as we
come to sense that there is some force
somehow linking the two parts of the
book--not simply Nabokov outside the
novel, but something WITHIN the novel's
world. Yet on an early rereading we
still cannot identify the deeper
sources of either Shade's poem or
Kinbote's commentary.

But on a RE-rereading, it proves
possible, at least so I argue, to
identify these sources with figures in
the novel we had thought quite ruled
out, and this leads to a cascade of
creative consequences, an answer to the
preoccupations of Shade's poem, an
unexpected resolution to the trio of
tragedies in the novel. You know what I
mean, Tom, because you are steeped
enough in PALE FIRE to have
recrystallized it into DARK ICE, and
because you have read my book. But
because you've read my book you also
know I refuse to give away, to anyone
who hasn't read and reread the novel,
the surprises in PALE FIRE, whether on
a first reading, or a rereading, or the
kind of re-rereading that allows access
to some of the deepest layers of the

TB: Today, this afternoon (your time,
as you read this in Nova Zealand),
which Nabokov characters are your
favorites? Is there in fact something
of the "human interest" that VN
parodied so mercilessly and variously
present in his own novels?

BB: In fiction like Tolstoy's, it makes
immediate sense to ask who is our
favorite--Natasha or Pierre, Anna or
Lyovin?--since a huge part of the
pleasure of reading such work is our
response to characters and our
engagement with their fates. In Nabokov
this pleasure is far from absent, but
the imaginative thrill of our creative
cooperation with the author plays a
still larger role in our response.

Yet Nabokov is a great creator of
character. Like Shakespeare, he can
stretch human possibilities into
unforgettably intense new
configurations. In that sense my
favorite CHARACTERS in Nabokov,
inventions almost of the order of Iago
or Falstaff, would have to be Humbert
and Kinbote.

Of course I would not want to spend
time with either outside of fiction.
Who in Nabokov's cast list do I warm to
as people?

Luzhin (THE DEFENSE), so gifted as a
chess-player, so uncertain what moves
to make in the game of life, stirs my
sympathies, as his heroic and doomed
wife, so selflessly devoted to this man
she does not really understand and
cannot really help, fires my
admiration. Still more engaging, and
much less thwarted, is John Shade (PALE
FIRE), neither young, attractive nor
outwardly heroic, but touching, tender,
talented, true. He makes the most of
his world as he observes it moment by
moment, as he responds to others, and
then as he offers it back to them
amplified by his art.

TB: Are you writing something on

BB: Yes, I have a book well under way.
We were talking earlier about layers in
Nabokov. Now Shakespeare of course is
the most inexhaustible writer of all,
yet he does not work at all as Nabokov
does, arranging successive stages of
discovery on successive readings. With
Shakespeare, a single exposure to a
play has to convey it all, and yet so
many moments have such an explosive
multidimensional charge, such a long
reverberation time, that we cannot hear
the whole play in ANY single run-

What I am trying to do in SHAKESPEARE
SHAPES HERE, although it's only the
flow of these questions that makes me
suddenly notice this contrast, is to
look not at successive stages of reader
response, as in Nabokov, but at
successive stages of authorial design.
In the case of Nabokov, although he's
so much closer to us in time, although
he has left manuscripts behind,
although I have even written his
biography, I haven't a clue how he
arrived at the ideas for his most
complicated work, but I think I can
figure out the sequence of deepening
responses he has prepared for us. And
the sequence of reader responses seems
to explain why if not in what order he
thought up this or that novel.

With Shakespeare, it's almost the
reverse. We all respond in a single
performance or reading (provided it's
not one that artificially narrows the
text through the mania of a director or
the myopia of a critical fashion) to
the sequence of effects Shakespeare has
planned, yet moment after moment
contains such a charge of possibility
that we can cut many courses through a
particular play. In order not to skew
it by overstressing some secondary
reverberations or some possible
intonations, we need to try to
rediscover how and why Shakespeare
shapes the play as he does.

As you know, he almost always
refashions existing stories. Centuries
of scholarship have found copious
evidence of the often multiple sources
he drew on. Twentieth-century criticism
has also recovered the tradition of
multiple plot structures that he worked
with. I think I have also discovered
another device Shakespeare invented for
shaping his plays, one he developed
from the central character type (the
Vice) of the late Tudor morality plays
that were the staple drama of his
youth. I dub this Vice-derived device
the Verso.

With all three keys in hand, it now
seems possible to gain an entry to
Shakespeare's workshop, to reconstruct
the successive transformations he made
to the sources of many of his plays in
order to turn them into the finished
works we know. This not only clarifies
our sense of his aims and structure--
and answers writers from Jonson and
Johnson to Byron and Nabokov who have
wrongly thought his structures poorly
articulated--but it also reveals how
much, and often why, he adds to the
structural skeleton the marvelously
resilient flesh of each new line.

I won't say in detail how the Verso
helps Shakespeare to reshape and
reanimate any particular source, but
let me just note that his Versos are
often the most unexpected and
theatrically vivid characters in his
plays, from Aaron and the Bastard in
his earliest phase, to Bottom and
Falstaff in his early and Malvolio and
Parolles in his late middle years, to
Autolycus and Caliban at the end of his

TB: Speaking of drama--LOLITA is the
most-filmed Nabokov novel. Is it also
the least filmable? I think some of the
short stories, "A Matter of Chance" for
instance, would make the transition to
film wonderfully. Which of Nabokov's
novels would make good (or better)
films--or should filmmakers give up?

BB: I wouldn't think LOLITA any more
difficult to film than THE GIFT or PALE
FIRE. In very different ways all three
novels exist in the gap between
extraordinary inner lives and mundane
exteriors. But I don't think that makes
them unfilmable, it simply ("simply"!)
requires radical rethinking of what
film can do.

TB: Humbert Humbert's energy is almost
entirely mental; he comes off as a
sodden sad-sack on film, in both
Kubrick's and Lyne's LOLITAs. What's

BB: The disparity between the openness
and airiness of Humbert's mind and the
obsessively, stiflingly close focus of
his thought and conduct. The films show
only his glum concentration. Without a
sense of his equally remarkable mental
freedom, we can't see how much he
limits himself, let alone how much he
denies or at least forever diminishes
in Lolita.

Were I to have time left over after
everything else I want to write, I
would love to compose screenplays for
of its obvious difficulties: poem and
line-by-line commentary won't readily
oust thrillers as a Hollywood genre.
ADA, because of its apparent ease: an
intensely erotic and happy love affair,
punctuated by heartstopping romantic
reversals and recoveries, in radiantly
photogenic surroundings.

DARK is not only filmic but concerned
with film--and there are movie theater
scenes in PNIN and LOLITA, and a movie
being made in ADA. Why is film so
interesting to VN?

BB: Because of his intense visual and
narrative sense. Because he is
attracted to art of all kinds, from
literature and painting to comics and
sign-writing, and to the EVOLUTION of
art. Because he was fascinated by the
gap between original and imitation
(object and description, text and
translation, story and adaptation) and
hence between prose fiction and its
film reflection. Because anything, art,
science, or the life in between, offers
him a new range of possibilities,
perspectives, prisms.

TB: Some biographers seem judgmentally
intrusive; others indulge in a post-
mortem PR campaign. If I were a
biographer, I'd like to think I would
help people to see the subject's life
"in its own terms"--not that that
approach precludes serious criticism.

BB: Certainly you want to try to
understand your subjects' lives in
their own terms, although that's
already a multi-faceted thing: their
terms at the time, their terms in
retrospect, their presumed readiness to
agree to your account in light of
information they might themselves never
have had. You have to try to
reconstruct your subjects'
understanding of particular problem
situations they find themselves in, yet
also to reconstruct what the situations
might objectively have been. You have
to try to see through your subjects'
eyes, but you also want the view from
the side or the glimpse of what's going
on behind their backs.

TB: What isn't a biographer's business-
-or ours? When the decision of whether
or not to keep something private or
make it public comes down to you, how
do you decide?

BB: If it would hurt innocent living
people, you have to think hard. If it
would distort too much if omitted, or
if it would cause more trouble should
someone else later air the information
without explaining the context, then
you may have to go ahead and publish
anyway. But that sounds as if there are
clear rules. Actually you have to rely
on intuition, compassion, your
consciousness of the horrors you'd want
to avert if someone began to write YOUR

TB: How much of biography (and
narrative history) is fiction, like it
or not?

BB: This may not sound very hip, but I
don't think anything in a biography
should be fiction. Of course biography
involves hypothetical and imaginative
reconstruction. But any human
explanation involves hypothesis,
because the brain isn't an organ that
can just soak up predissolved truth and
then squeeze it out for others. But a
hypothesis should be testable against
evidence or argument. Any part of a
biography may be wrong, and if
demonstrably wrong, it should be
criticized in light of the evidence.
Fiction just can't be challenged in
that way. No doubt biographers
sometimes plug gaps with nothing more
than imagination and gall, on the
assumption that no one will ever
unearth evidence that could challenge
what they have imagined, but to me that
is just biographical bad faith, the
confidence man's confidence that one
CAN get away with writing fiction.

TB: Which are the best contemporary

BB: The finest contemporary biographer
I know is Richard Holmes. He has
(which reports his following in the
tracks of Robert Louis Stevenson, Mary
Wollstonecraft, and Shelley). I
wouldn't like to single out one book;
among his astonishing qualities are his
range, and the different kinds of lives
or relations of life to life or Life
that he writes about (straight lives;
his own life entangled with his
subjects, in FOOTSTEPS; Dr Jonson's
entangled with Savage, in JOHNSON'S

He has a full-blooded interest not only
in other lives, but also in biography
as a form and a heritage. He has deep
curiosity, energy, intuition, sympathy,
historical and literary sensitivity,
and originality. He's a wonderful
writer who can take readers where they
might not have planned to go and give
them an unforgettable tour.

TB: What interested you in Karl Popper?

BB: I wrote Nabokov's life because I
thought he was the most exciting
twentieth-century writer I had
encountered, and because I thought he
was not, despite his fame, appreciated
at the right height or depth. That, I
think, is changing. Writers on both
sides of the Atlantic have begun to
place him alongside or above Joyce. The
exact position doesn't matter, but he's
in the right constellation.

Popper I find the most exciting
twentieth-century thinker I know of. He
too has fame, although a very uneven
one: he has been repeatedly called the
foremost philosopher of the century,
and yet his work is generally ignored
by philosophers, especially in the USA.

Popper accounts for our human position,
in a century where science has done so
much to change our world and our sense
of it, and yet where it has also come
to be seen (often, though this has been
forgotten, thanks to his work) as
uncertain, as anything but a body of

Postmodernists deny that there is such
a thing as truth or the search for
truth, yet this seems no more than a
posture, or at best an argument they
think they have acceded to but do not
in practice accept. After all, they
maintain AS true the claim there is no
truth, and, like anyone else, they feel
outraged when individuals or
institutions lie to them, and want to
refer to the evidence that shows up the
lie. Popper stresses the inevitable
uncertainty of our knowledge, that what
we so often have thought to be the
truth turns out not to be, but he
explains also the growth of knowledge,
especially scientific knowledge, TOWARD
truth. He shows that we can often find
when an idea is wrong, that we can
learn when we have made mistakes,
although when we posit large-scale
explanations we can never establish
that what we think we have found out is
true. No doubt we may often hit on the
truth (although any particular idea may
still turn out to be wrong in ways we
cannot yet see), but we cannot attain

Popper's deeply anti-authoritarian
epistemology does not throw away the
authority of truth, since that may be
the only appeal we have recourse to
when someone, especially someone with
power, claims to be in possession of
the truth. For if there is no such
thing as truth, in the postmodernist
sense, there is no such thing as
falsehood, just opinion backed with
more or less widespread agreement and
force. And if there is no such thing as
truth, we cannot challenge those who
wish to impose their own conclusions by
showing them false.

TB: How do Popper and Nabokov compare?

BB: In many ways they could not be more
different. Popper disliked words and
loved ideas, Nabokov disliked ideas and
loved words. Popper valued science's
powerful generalizations, Nabokov
preferred unpredictable individual
details. Popper worried intensely about
whatever could be found out by human
effort, and shrugged away the rest as
unknowable, Nabokov was fascinated
above all by what the human mind seems
constitutionally unable to know: does
consciousness of some sort lie behind
life or beyond death?

But they also had much in common. Both
were supremely assured, highly
independent, at odds with their time.
Both, above all, were committed to the
creativity and freedom of the mind, and
to its endless quest to discover an
open-ended and boundlessly rich world,
a world that, for all their formidable
erudition, they each realized we
ultimately know very little of.

TB: As a lifelong reader of Nabokov, as
a researcher, biographer, and scholar,
how well do you feel you know Nabokov?

BB: I feel I know Nabokov's WORKS
perhaps better than he expected them to
be known so soon. He always seemed
genuinely and pleasantly surprised when
someone discovered something he had
hidden in one of his novels, even if it
seems rather obvious by the standard of
other things he concealed. He knew he
had hidden a great deal in such a way
that it could eventually be
rediscovered, but much of this, both in
its details and in its implications, he
seems to have expected would not be
unearthed for a long time indeed.

But Nabokov himself? I know the dates
in his life better than he did; I have
reconstructed situations in his life,
and explained them in a way that would
I hope have seemed accurate to him and
to others involved; but the man
himself? The philosopher Thomas Nagel
asked "What is it like to be a bat?"
and answered that we, with our human
minds, could never know. Were we to
acquire the brain of a bat, we would
not be thinking like humans any longer,
we would lack a linguistically
formulable understanding of the
experience; were we to retain human
cognition, we could not have yet
entered the experience of battiness. In
that sense, I just have no idea what it
would be like to be a Vladimir Nabokov-
-what it would be like moment by moment
to have a brain of such different
dimensions and powers.

VN: Little was left of the square. The
platform had long since collapsed in a
cloud of reddish dust. The last to rush
past was a woman in a black shawl,
carrying the tiny executioner like a
larva in her arms.

...Desperate Russian critics, trying
hard to find an influence and to
pigeonhole my own novels, have once or
twice linked me up with Gogol--but when
they looked again I had untied the
knots and the box was empty.