Something curious and wonderful happens when you read his lectures: you slip into the flow and the logic of his reading. Towards the middle of them – as he is musing on a sentence from Dickens, say, which the word ‘heavy’ properly weights down – no one else is there. Certainly, there are no students, no Thomas Pynchons, no Ruth Bader Ginsburgs. The word Eigengrau means own grey, or intrinsic grey, or brain grey. It is what you see when you close your eyes. After a while you are in Nabokov’s own grey, turning down corridors, coming on the characters in their humble rooms, which are still inflected with the grandness of his childhood ones, they cannot help it. High ceilings, a patch of dazzling snow outside the window, a paperweight winking on the mantlepiece. I haven’t even read Bleak House – it is the cherished prerogative of an uneducated person, to save Bleak House for the end of the world – yet there I was, a little thread between my fingertips, following his dolphinish walk through the fog, and entering the place where Krook has spontaneously combusted.
Think, Write, Speak is a frequently fascinating assortment of Nabokov’s hitherto uncollected, untranslated and even unpublished materials. Like its title, the volume falls into three parts: articles, reviews and memorial pieces written in the Russian émigré press (1921–37); lectures, book reviews and interviews dating to Nabokov’s first decade in America (the 1940s); and then interviews galore from after the moment when Lolita turned Nabokov into a famous author (1958–77).
The provocative Nabokovian interview shtick is best taken in small doses, and reading one interview after another can be tiring, especially as he gets asked the same questions over and again (butterflies, chess, paedophilia). He keeps patiently answering until, in 1974, he goes full Lou Reed on one interviewer (“no”, “no”, “hope so”, “no comment”, “no comment”). In another, seemingly bored, he makes up a story that he has taken up jogging to help cure his insomnia. Nabokov. Jogging.
A quarter of this collection shows Nabokov at his wittiest, most profound or most original. The rest is more ephemeral. A few pieces are barely worth including: the interviews with Nabokov from his periods in the USA and Switzerland too often reveal just merciless contempt for critics insufficiently well read or respectful. His observations can be wildly off the mark: in March 1941, he said in an interview with the Wellesley College newspaper, ‘Because the Russian-German friendship had its roots as far back as the Russian Revolution, there is little chance of its being dissolved in the near future.’ In other responses to student interviewers, he is merely condescending or slapdash.
The book we have is not like any other I’ve read. Not quite diaristic, at times resembling an untrimmed book of aphorisms, hammering on pet themes (the quackery of Freud, the bogusness of political novels, the illusory nature of “reality”), Think, Write, Speak is a twisting and bumpy road for the reader who attempts to read it front to back. Sinuosity, the quality Nabokov prized in his own sentences, isn’t the word for this journey.
Think, Write, Speak is something of a mopping-up exercise, containing uncollected and unpublished essays and reviews, as well as a large number of interviews with the press. These last could have been approached in a more rational way. The editors have followed the eccentric practice in Strong Opinions of only printing Nabokov’s reported speech from each press interview, omitting any scene-setting or commentary the journalist might have included. There are a handful of truly insightful pieces: Penelope Gilliatt catches Nabokov in full flight, and there is a magnificent account of a butterfly-hunting expedition by Robert H. Boyle for Sports Illustrated.