A thunderous “stet!”

There’s a Korean saying about life: “Life is ten thousand joys, and ten thousand sorrows”.  If there were a saying about the internet it would be similar.  The internet is a squillion marvels, and a squillion disappointments.

One marvel is The Paris Review’s interviews of famous writers going back to the 1950s.

There’s great material here.  What the subjects give away and what they withhold, the competence and incompetence of the interviewers – see the cringe-making introduction written by Graham Greene’s interviewers; Greene, eternally sardonic, the man with a “chip of ice in his heart”, must have been laughing up his sleeve – and the sport there is to be had in comparing subjects.

One such sportive event is to read side by side the interviews of my naughty, Vladimir Nabokov, and Georges Simenon, two authors on opposite ends of the spectrum of baroqueness; Nabokov with his tropical phantasmagorias, Simenon, who for every day spent writing, spent two cutting “adjectives, adverbs and every word which is there just to make an effect.”


The Nabokov interview in The Paris Review is famous for his exhilarating diatribe on the concept of poshlost which Wikipedia translates as “self-satisfied inferiority”.  The diatribe is amusing and characteristic of the chief Nabokov traits: rapture, drollery, elaboration upon elaboration, cattiness.

It’s worth reading the whole interview, primarily because Nabokov acquits himself so poorly.  Which is exactly as he would have wanted.  “As an interview subject, Mr Gold, you’ll see I make a very good writer”, he seems to be saying to the unfortunate Herbert Gold, dead meat surely from the moment he asks about Nabokov’s “sense of the immorality of the relationship between Humbert Humbert and Lolita”.

I can hear Nabokov’s “Dunderhead!” from here, 43 years in the future. “What an idiot is this Gold!”

I’m a loving reader, not a scholar or even a would-be conscientious interviewer, but I know Nabokov doesn’t care a fig about morality.  Nabokov is not concerned with morality and I know this not because Lolita is the story, amongst other things, of a paedophile, but because morality is always a matter of bad taste and Nabokov is the connoisseur of taste, a “tutor in exquisiteness”, as James Wood calls him. And what is poshlost if not the ceding of taste?

In the event, Nabokov’s response to Gold’s inane question is remarkably mild, the only time he’s mild in the entire interview.  Again, it’s as if he’s saying to Gold, “there’s no way you’re ever going to get a handle on me … you can ask something as stupid, as poshlost-y as that, and I’m not going to bite.”

He seems intent on making Gold another “galley slave”:

Interviewer: E M Forster speaks of his major characters sometimes taking over and dictating the course of his novels.  Has this ever been a problem for you, or are you in complete command?

Nabokov: My knowledge of Mr Forster’s works is limited to one novel, which I dislike; and anyway, it is not he who fathered that trite little whimsy about characters getting out of hand; it is as old as the quills, although … one sympathises with his people if they try to wiggle out of that trip to India … My characters are galley slaves.

He is just as caustic, naturally, on the subjects of critics and editors.

The purpose of a critique is to say something about a book the critic has or has not read.  Criticism can be instructive in the sense that it gives readers, including the author of the book, some information about the critic’s intelligence, or honesty, or both.

On the subject of editors, the reader can hear him winding up a notch in extravagance as if he’s become bored with pedestrian insults:

Among these [“proofreaders”] I have known limpid creatures of limitless tact and tenderness who would discuss with me a semicolon as if it were a point of honour … But I have come across a few pompous avuncular brutes who would attempt to “make suggestions” which I countered with a thunderous “stet!”

No, on the whole, despite his hamfistedness, I pity Mr Gold.  From the very first click of the heels – “Interviewer: Good morning. Let me ask forty-odd questions. Nabokov: Good morning. I am ready” – Nabokov is the nightmare subject. Petulant, phoney, and like his chess player protagonists, unremittingly calculating and defensive.

Only once does Gold come close to penetrating the veneer:

Interviewer: Do you feel you have any conspicuous or secret flaw as a writer?

It’s a good question finally – that “secret flaw” hooks — and Nabokov knows it because it’s the only time he approaches seriousness:

Nabokov: The absence of a natural vocabulary … Of the two instruments in my possession, one – my native tongue – I can no longer use … My English, this second instrument I have always had, is however a stiffish, artificial thing, which may be all right for describing a sunset or an insect, but which cannot conceal poverty of syntax and paucity of domestic diction when I need the shortest road between warehouse and shop …

The shortest road?  And all this time I thought he was aiming for the scenic route!



1. Wikipedia

Images: Scott Hansen at ISO50


12 thoughts on “A thunderous “stet!”

  1. Thanks for posting this–fascinating reading and greatly helped by your analysis. Because most interviews today are verbal soundbites or marketing ploys, we’ve lost the art both interviewing and being interviewed.

    And you are so right–poshlost is a word we need on many levels.


  2. Have you read the Hemingway interview? He is just awful!

    Philip Roth insisted on writing out his answers. Clever man. It makes for very good reading.

    I imagine that you have seen Nabokov’s ultimate example of poshlost: A classic 1950s magazine advertisement that Nabokov calls “The Adoration of Spoons”. Fabulous.

    There’s a funny story about the English faculty at Harvard contemplating hiring Nabokov to teach a few classes. Someone objected that he doesn’t have the proper academic credentials. Another responded that he is, though, one of the greatest writers of the 20th century. The dry response:

    The Elephant is a very fine animal, but the Zoology Department isn’t offering him a job. Hahahahaha!


    • ooo, good. I’ll read the Hemingway one with relish. Roth? He has to be good at something I suppose. I can feel an adoration coming on for the nameless wit. How wonderful and … well, Nabokovian. Also, he was probably very right to be concerned. As N says in the interview about teaching at Cornell, “My method of teaching precluded genuine contact with my students. At best, they regurgitated a few bits of my brain during examinations … Vainly I tried to replace my appearances at the lectern by taped records to be played over the college radio.”

      So great to meet a fellow fan, Jenny. I feel I should greet you all over again :)


      • Jenny, thank you! Ada is the one I haven’t read. Wondering how that happened now I see it’s his “longest and lushest novel.” I like the blurb for Boyd’s book on Ada:

        Boyd reveals the myriad ways Nabokov found both to extol the amplitude and freedom of consciousness and at the same time to deplore our appalling entrapment in the self and the moment. Nabokov sought always to transcend the limits of the mind, looking for intimations of some freer consciousness beyond the mortal and material world.


  3. OOOO, My,
    Nabokov is quite intimidating in this interview… Drowning the interviewer with his beautiful tongue.

    I am in awe of his genius.

    If he were a rock star, I would have attended all of his rock concerts throwing my panties on stage!! (Metaphorically, of Course).

    Solid, what do you teach? Creative Writing? Philosophy?


    • haha, I would be there next to you throwing my panties too .. and trying to get a backstage pass so some of that genius could rub off just by being near him.

      I have qualifications in literature and philosophy but I aint no teacher. I know you raised this once before. Something about the suggestion of being a teacher is confronting. Good confronting, and confronting nevertheless. You’ve given me something to think about.


      • Thank you, Kim. I’m blushing. I like to think I’m passing on whatever gifts I have through this blog. I had great intentions of writing on the weekend — really — but somehow it raced past in a blur. And now we’re up to Monday afternoon already here. What’s in store for you this week?


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