Nabokov on Apostrophes.

Making my way through the November 8, 2019, TLS, I found a translation of what is apparently a famous interview; the introduction:

To mark the imminent publication of the French translation of Ada, Bernard Pivot interviewed Vladimir Nabokov for an episode of Apostrophes, the prime-time literary talk show on French television. (The episode was first broadcast on May 30, 1975.) Although Apostrophes was one of the best-loved programmes of its time in France, Nabokov had to be cajoled into participating. All other Apostrophes interviews were impromptu, with a group of critics involved in the discussion. This episode was also broadcast live and before a small audience, and there were other critics present, but Nabokov was allowed to have the questions – only from Pivot himself – sent in advance, and to prepare his answers, which during the programme he read from cards roughly concealed behind a stack of his books. Nabokov was pleased with the result, and although some viewers deplored the absence of the programme’s usual spontaneity, Pivot later re-broadcast the episode twice, and regarded it as one of his finest accomplishments. In 1987 he recalled, for readers of Le Nouvel Observateur: “He [Nabokov] was really anti-TV. I went to see him in Montreux when I was starting to work for [channel] Two. I had to please him, and please Véra … He received me in a large salon [at the Montreux Palace, Nabokov’s residence], where there was a piano. We started talking. The piano tuner came in. He set to work. We moved to another salon, where we hadn’t noticed another piano. Our conversation resumed, and five minutes later, we saw the piano tuner come in. We left for a third salon, without a piano. It was a very Nabokovian scene … To boost his courage [during the live broadcast], he wanted to drink whisky. But he naturally didn’t want to set a bad example for French viewers. We had poured a bottle of whisky into a teapot. Every quarter of an hour, I would ask him: ‘A little more tea, Monsieur Nabokov?’ And he would drink with a broad smile. He was a great comedian, incredible for his joking, his warmth, his humour, his artful dodges, his impudence, and of course his intelligence. In my memory Nabokov is an icon. He spoke for more than an hour. I have an almost religious feeling for that programme”.

Unfortunately, the translation is even more shortened than they indicate by ellipses, as I discovered by watching the video (available here with Spanish subtitles); there’s even a blatant error in translation (vingt ‘twenty’ is rendered “eighteen”). Happily, The Nabokovian (the official website and journal of the International Vladimir Nabokov Society) has put online a transcript of the original French, and it’s a very enlightening interview. I was particularly struck by his response to Pivot’s question “Est-ce que pour vous, Vladimir Nabokov, un roman ce n’est pas d’abord une excellente histoire ?” [Don’t you think, VN, that a novel is first of all an excellent story?]:

Je suis parfaitement d’accord avec vous, et j’ajouterais toutefois que mes meilleurs romans n’ont pas une mais plusieurs histoires, qui s’entrelacent d’une certaine façon. Mon Feu Pâle possède ce contrepoint, et Ada de même. J’aime voir le thème principal non seulement rayonner à travers le roman mais encore développer des petits thèmes secondaires. Quelquefois c’est une digression qui tourne au drame dans un coin du récit, ou bien les métaphores d’un discours soutenu se joignent pour former un nouvelle histoire.

I completely agree, but I would add that my best novels have not one but several stories, which intertwine in a certain way. My Pale Fire has this counterpoint, and Ada as well. I like to see the main theme not only radiating throughout the novel but also developing small secondary themes. Sometimes it’s a digression which turns into a drama in a corner of the narrative, or the metaphors of a sustained discourse join up to create a new story.

He talks about the difficulty of existing on a Nansen passport and his inability to speak in public without a text to read from, among many other things, and it’s a blast to hear him talking in his idiosyncratic (and heavily accented) French. Recommended to anyone with an interest in Nabokov.


  1. David Eddyshaw says

    There was I, wondering what zany yet thought-provoking views Nabokov had on apostrophes …

    (The only literary figure I can think of offhand who did have marked views on apostrophes is George Bernard Shaw. I suppose he’ll just have to do.)

  2. The world is getting smaller, as they say. “NABOKV-L thanks its Tahiti correspondent Alain Anreu for sharing his copy of the famous Nabokov/Bernard Pivot TV Interview.”

  3. “Alain Anreu” is an anagram of “Aural Inane” and thus clearly a pseudonym. Quilty? Is that you?

    There was I, wondering what zany yet thought-provoking views Nabokov had on apostrophes …

    C’est pour éviter un tel malentendu que je l’ai mis en italique, mon vieux.

  4. As Pnin once said, “It is a cata-stroph!”

  5. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    I was surprised that Apostrophes finished in 1990, as I feel sure I watched it, though I doubt whether my French was adequate to follow it in 1990. I have seen Bernard Pivot many times in more recent programmes, such as Bouillon de culture and Les Dicos d’Or. It would nice if they re-broadcast the Nabokov interview.

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