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Paru le: 05/11/2013

1961: my ordeal while interviewing Nabokov

Jacques-André Widmer, enfant de Montreux, journaliste et ancien présentateur du Téléjournal, nous livre un témoignage… 

How a 20 year-old Swiss beginner-reporter met the famous writer in Montreux back in the Sixties… An authentic story of a doomed interview
By Jacques-André Widmer 

Back in 1961, I started a two-year training programm as a journalist in the Editorial offices of the weekly magazine L’Illustré, in Lausanne (Switzerland), on the border of the famous Lake of Geneva. In this region where Nabokov chose to settle down for decades, the landscape is a mixture of a beautiful lake (about sixty miles long) and snowy mountain scenery. It has attracted and enticed numerous artists, writers, philosophers and VIPs from the whole world for centuries such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau (philosopher), Byron (poet), Strawinsky (composer), Courbet, Kokoshka (painters), Paul Morand (writer) Charlie Chaplin, Furtwängler (the orchestra director). The place seems to enhance the artistic inspiration of sensitive souls. 

Furthermore, Switzerland is ruled by a very liberal political …and fiscal system. This country does have a true understanding for it’s illustrious foreign guests’ expectations and needs. As a tiny spot on the world map, Switzerland remains one of the rare countries in the world where democracy is not a token word. No wonder Nabokov, as a man of taste, chose to settle in Montreux in a sheltered bay of the Lake of Geneva (or, in French Lake “Léman”) where the winter climate is known to be milder. Nabokov too enjoyed the presence of (rather thin!) scattered palmtrees on the lakeside… He seemed to appreciate above all the soft-spoken caracter of the locals who naturally respect by tradition the privacy of their foreign guests. 

Well, the controversy about Lolita was at its peak when I decided to pull off a journalistic coup: an interview with Nabokov who was potentially available in Montreux, my home town. Up to then I had only produced a few dozens captions for the illustrated magazine I was working for as a trainee. 

The scandalous aftermath of Lolita on the provincial locals in the French speaking part of Switzerland was outrageous (3 main languages are spoken here: German, French and Italian). To the man in the street, in this puritan protestant neighbourhood, that elderly foreign “Russian” gentleman writer seemed totally exotic and slightly subversive. This foreign guy has written a dirty book, they muttered…Called Lolita…they said, with bawdy undertones in their voice. 

Well, I thought as an apprentice-journalist to hold my “scoop”. I just rang up Nabokov and requested politely an appointment for an interview. He swiftly replied: Just come tomorrow at 3 pm. You are welcome… There was very little time left for me indeed to read Lolita. Good job two single copies were still available at the local bookstore. So I thought it was amply sufficient to read the cover story explaining the plot… A digest is as good as a feast, I thought. What a cheek! Of course, I did not tell him this would be my first interview ever. (I was busy trying to conceal the fact to myself too…) 

Then I borrowed a photo-camera from my Dad. He taught me how to load the film and take pictures in the open by daylight. An intricate antique black device full of knobs and controls and smelling of worn-out leather. 

Don’t drop it, my son! he warned me and put it carefully in its leather case when you have finished your photo work. 

Loaden with the fatherly camera which I carried like the Holy Grail, with beating heart and shaking legs and butterflies in my stomach, I introduced myself to the dignified janitor of the Montreux Palace Hotel: Mr Nabokov is expecting me! I said, pretending to be familiar with approching world VIP’s every day. 

He rang up the famous author’s private apartments and I was led to the old-style elevator. Thrilled as you can imagine, I knocked at the door and there HE was…welcoming and smiling. He introduced me to his charming wife. They really did welcome me warmheartedly and there I was invited to sit down on a movie style sofa in a luxurious environment I had never seen in real. I was in a sort of instant fairy tale world. Nabokov was living in this Palace on a yearly basis. (It was still a time when you could have qualified luxury hotel staff in uniform, ready to serve you…) 

From then on, I was so fascinated by the famous man I was supposed to interview that I hardly heard the details of his answers. I followed his speech as if I had been dreaming. When he stopped talking, I uttered my next written question, ill written on a shabby piece of paper, full of sweat and probably remains of jam. I became suddendly totally aware of my sheer inadequacy to lead such an interview. He was talking like a book (in French), using words like idiosyncrasies, mnemonics, preposterousnessand I pretended to take down hastily notes, nodding approvingly, collecting the honeylike words from his lips… 
 What I dreaded most during the whole interview, were the possible embarrassing silence gaps. I had to fill them – I thought – by referring instantly to my notebook to pick up the next question and prevent any hole in the fluent verbal process. 

I can’t remember precisely the questions I asked Nabokov. I bet I asked him whether the story was partly autobiographical…notwithstanding the presence of Mrs Nabokova. 
On the other hand, what I do clearly remember, is that he resented quite strongly talking only about Lolita. He really seemed fed up with the turmoil about that “little book” of his which he even seemed to despise in comparison with numerous scholarly works which he mentioned. And which did not arouse the least attention of the Press. He was on the verge of disavowing it. He advised me to forget about Lolita and read “much better books” of him. (I never followed his piece of advice to that day, I must confess!!!) 

Mrs Nabokova (a former teacher of mine told me to use the female Russian ending when addressing her) remained silent during the whole weird interview I was conducting …or following. 

When I ran out of new questions on my notebook, I ventured to ask permission to take a few pictures of the couple on the balcony of their Palace residence. (Well, if my interview was to be a total flop, I would make up for it with the photos…) 

While they were posing obligingly on the balcony, I struggled with aperture settings and exposure length on this antiquated bulky camera I had discovered an hour beforehand. The Nabokov couple never showed any sign of impatience. I was aware, I was all thumbs and this feeling did not help me at all but drove me to the verge of panic. I think I even forgot to wind the film forward after I took the first snapshot and got away with it by confessing: This is not my usual camera, sorry. The next photo will be better: click! Click! Click! 

To be on the safe side, I took more snapshots than enough and ventured to tell Mrs Nabokova reassuringly: “Madam, you’ll be pleased with the pictures. The sunset light suits you so well! Needless to say, I shall send you copy of the pictures and of my article when the magazine is published… 

After delivering such a clumsy compliment, we went back to the living room. I felt it was time to flee. 

This is when Monsieur Nabokov, just before taking leave, told me in substance: Well, young man, I am used to teach in several Universities. I was watching you during the interview. And I think you did not take down enough notes. And not at the best chosen moment. While teaching I immediately notice those conspicuous students in the crowd who do not take enough notes. Ominous sign… he said, smilingly… 

After receiving that gentle scolding, I mumbled some incoherent words and assured my famous guest that I would take his advice into account for future interviews. (Which I have done up to now!) 

But I still could not and would not tell him this was my first interview ever. Such a confession would have deprived me of the tiny remains of dignity which were still available. 
I think he must have understood or felt it without my telling him… 

As a way of excusing myself for my shyness and clumsiness and to say something clever to give myself an air of assurance, I thought it wise to add: “Do you know I live on the other side of the bay, a few hundred yards away and that my Dad is the manager of the small gauge mountain trains in the region?” 

Mr Nabokov nodded silently which I took for a sign of approval and interest… 
I bowed politely and thanked the Nabokov couple warmheartedly for their exceptional welcome while I was walking backwards towards the exit… Monsieur Nabokov closed the door behind me. 

I sighed and rushed downwards, using the staircase of the Montreux-Palace Hotel instead of the elevator to escape through the backdoor. 

Several hours later, when the turmoil of ideas and emotions had calmed down in my head and in my heart, I started decyphering my handwritten notes. Quite an ordeal! My home-made shorthand writing was as cryptic as Egyptian hieroglyphs. I could nevertheless dig out some verbatim quotes, top up the missing words with bits and pieces fished out in the pond of my memory or my imagination, add some comments on the mobile expression of the writer’s face, the beauty of Madame Nabokova, harp on the description of the luxury flats in the Montreux-Palace and comment on the softness of the oriental carpets. 

An article was indeed published in L’Illustré during the following weeks. The senior sub-editors were not enthousiastic about that first opus. And the photo-editor did not jump for joy at the sight of my pictures. 

I made sure the Nabokov couple got several copies of the magazine. I can imagine they were neither overjoyed watching their photos on the balcony nor reading my first piece of journalistic literature… From then on, I had my eyes wide open while walking along the quayside, dreading any possible encounter with my innocent victims. Good job I never met them again! 

The meek shall inherit the earth… 

What about the published article on Nabokov in Montreux? It was a short piece of writing if I remember well. And you will easily understand why… May those who insist on my getting it out of the archive and translate it into English for publication do the job by themselves! 

I am not going to be faced again with the clumsiest piece of journalistic writing ever produced on Nabokov and probably in my whole career. 

There are enough reasons to blush in life to add insult to injury. 

Two years after that historical piece of reporting (1963), I settled in London as a free-lance journalist and nevertheless started a career in journalism which turned out to be quite successful. 

I thank you, Monsieur Nabokov, for your piece of advice: do take down accurate notes while interviewing anybody. The lesson was never to be forgotten. 
 I have followed your advice through the decades. 

And I have read Lolita with delight many times since then and discovered the movie many years later. 

Isn’t it high time I did read the scholarly books of Nabokov? 
I’ll rush to the Geneva English bookshop tomorrow. Promised! 

J.-A. Widmer 

(photo: Nabokov sur son balcon du Montreux-Palace en 1961, photo jaw)