BJKS Podcast

90. Brian Boyd: The life & works of Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita, and writing biographies

January 19, 2024
BJKS Podcast
90. Brian Boyd: The life & works of Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita, and writing biographies
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

Brian Boyd is a Distinguished Professor in English and Drama at the University of Auckland. We talk mainly about Vladimir Nabokov: Brian wrote the defining biography on Nabokov (in addition to books on more specific aspects about Nabokov), so we discuss Nabokov's life & work, Brian's approachh to writing biographies, with some hints of the new biography Brian is writing about Karl Popper.

BJKS Podcast is a podcast about neuroscience, psychology, and anything vaguely related, hosted by Benjamin James Kuper-Smith.

Support the show:

0:00:00: Why this is a special episode for me
0:07:02: Nabokov's family & childhood
0:15:54: The Russian Revolution, starting in 1917
0:19:52: Nabokov's study years in Cambridge and emigre years in Berlin in the 1920s and 30s
0:30:19: Nabokov's early American years: teaching and butterflies
0:35:56: Nabokov's Russian vs English works, and the problem of translations
0:41:48: Lolita
0:50:13: Pale Fire
1:02:46: Nabokov's writing process
1:07:26: Nabokov's reception
1:10:00: Writing Nabokov's biography: how it started, meeting Nabokov's family, researching and writing, and the responsibility of writing the defining work on someone
1:28:26: Which Nabokov book should new readers read first?
1:30:58: A book or paper more people should read
1:35:03: Something Brian wishes he'd learnt sooner
1:38:47: Advice for PhD students/postdocs

Podcast links

Brian's links

Ben's links

References and links

The estate Nabokov inherent and immediately lost in th revolution:

Ada online, Brian's line-by-line annotations to Nabokov's Ada:

Boyd (1985/2001). Nabokov's Ada: The Place of Consciousness.
Boyd (1990). Vladimir Nabokov: The Russian Years.
Boyd (1991). Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years.
Boyd & Pyle (eds) (2000).  Nabokov’s Butterflies .
Boyd (2001). Nabokov's Pale Fire: The Magic of Artistic Discovery.
Grass (1959). Die Blechtrommel.
James (1897). What Maisie Knew.
Machado de Assis (1882). The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas. [The 2 new translations are by Thomson-DeVeaux (Penguin Classics), and by Jull Costa & Patterson (Liveright)]
Nabokov (1929). The (Luzhin) Defense.
Nabokov (1936). Invitation to a Beheading.
Nabokov (1947). Bend Sinister.
Nabokov (1955). Lolita.
Nabokov (1957). Pnin.
Nabokov (1962). Pale Fire.
Nabokov (1967). Speak, Memory.
Nabokov (1969). Ada or Ardor.
Tarnowsky (1908). Les femmes homicides. [Nabokov's great-aunt; see also:  Huff-Corzine & Toohy (2023). The life and scholarship of Pauline Tarnowsky: Criminology's mother. Journal of Criminal Justice]
Vila, Bell, Macniven, Goldman-Huertas, Ree, Marshall, ... & Pierce (2011). Phylogeny and palaeoecology of Polyommatus blue butterflies show Beringia was a climate-regulated gateway to the New World. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences.

[This is an automated transcript with many errors]

Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: [00:00:00] As I mentioned to you before we started recording, today is, this is a very special episode for me. Obviously every episode is very special, but this kind of stands out from a, uh, I guess from, from how you and your work entered my life, so to speak. So usually it's scientists. I've read their papers as part of my education, as part of my PhD, as part of my work, that kind of stuff. 

Today, you know, speaking to you, the Biographer Vladimir Nabokov and, uh, so I thought I'd briefly tell the kind of slightly random story of how I came to your books and to Nabokov in particular. So I was at this weird moment when I never really read too much, like I never read too much as a kid. I think my parents read like some stuff with me, but I wasn't a huge reader, I would say. 

And I certainly didn't read serious in quotation marks literature. Until then, at this weird moment when I was 16, and we, I grew up in Germany, uh, we [00:01:00] watched, uh, in German class, the film version of The Tin Drum by Günther Grass, which, Günther Grass is one, I think at the time he was the last, the most recent German speaking Nobel Prize winner, the film won the Oscar for best foreign film, so it's like this, you know, and, Supposedly very important thing, and I was so embarrassed because I didn't know anything about either. 

I was like, I don't know who this guy is, I don't know what the film, and I never had that in school, I didn't care about school. Um, but I, for some reason, I was like, I was kind of embarrassed for not knowing who these big figures were. Anyway, so that kind of started me on a, basically reading seriously. I don't think the Tindrum was the best book to start with, to be honest, but hey, you gotta start somewhere. 

And kind of shortly after that, I was Basically skipping school is the best way I can put it, uh, and the, I couldn't go home because my, I think my mum would be there, so she didn't want her to know it. So I'd often just go to the local book store and kind of browse books and spend an hour there just so I didn't have to be in school. 

So I was just walking [00:02:00] around and the weird thing maybe about the German book system is you have to sell the books for the price on the back of the book. in Germany. You don't have, like, you can, you can't really dis, discount them unless sometimes and under rare circumstances they can do it. And so there was this, like, tiny section where there were discounted books and there were these two bricks of a book that were in there. 

These two books that were, I think, 40 euros each in the original price. Um, and I think that maybe put some people off the 40 euros, but these two Bricks of books that were I think set down to like 10 euros each or something like that called Vladimir Nabokov The Russian Years and Vladimir Nabokov the American Years and I thought okay Nabokov, I've heard that name I think I think that's an important writer I'm not sure and then I read the back of the book and I'll try to accurately translate this as I go along now So the back of the book said it was a quote by someone I'd never heard of but the quote was very positive It said I don't know what I should admire more. 

The kind of, [00:03:00] uh, blinding richness of detailed facts. Yes, Dieter Zimmer. 

Brian Boyd: Dietz H. 

Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: Oh, you know that one. I was on site. Okay. Yeah, so basically, yeah, the The back kind of said, you know, this this greatly detailed book Whether I should admire more the care and sensitivity you took towards interpreting Nabokov's work or the independence of your judgment and style I'm sure that you've written not only kind of the defining work of Vladimir Nabokov But also one of the great writer biographies of the century And I thought, okay, that's pretty, that's a pretty nice statement. 

Um, and so I bought the books. And it took me a while to actually start reading them because they're so, so big and intimidating. But once I did, I kind of threw your biography Not exactly fell in love with Nabokov, but I was just deeply fascinated with, especially him as a person, his life and the times and all that kind of stuff. 

And so, you know, this was 15 years [00:04:00] ago, whatever. And, uh, so as I said, it's, it's, uh, it's very exciting today to speak to you because it's a very different kind of influence that compared to other people. Um. Maybe briefly, I think you had a, from what I remember reading somewhere, a slightly more traditional introduction to Nufflecuff than I did. 

Brian Boyd: Uh, well, I, I had always been a, a reader and, uh, I was reading, uh, trying to read Joyce, uh, in my, uh, actually my parents had a bookstore. My parents left school at, at 14 in, in Northern Ireland. So didn't have an advanced education of any kind, but they knew my curiosity and my desire to read. So they bought a bookstore in order to feed my, which had a lending library in order to feed my passions of books. And, uh, I happened to, uh, to reshelve the books that customers had [00:05:00] got out. And, um, I noticed that this. Novel Lolita was supposed to be a great book and a dirty book and I was about 12 or 13. So, uh, I, I snuck it home and, and read it and it was over my head really at that age. Uh, we, we weren't as sophisticated about sexual matters as kids these days. And, uh, but it wasn't until, uh, I was in my last year at school. So I was 16 when the Time Magazine did a cover story on Nabokov. They did an interview with him. Which had the headline, I've never met a more lonely, more lucid, mad mind than mine. And he said in the interview was fascinating. So I went to the local public library to see, uh, they obviously they didn't have the, it was on the occasion of his, uh, his longest novel, Ada, being published in 69. And, uh, I, um, couldn't find that of course in, in our local public library, but I went for his [00:06:00] latest available, which was Pale Fire. And, uh, I just blissed out 

Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: Yeah, I guess Lolita wasn't the kind of naughty book you were hoping for as a 13 year old. 

Brian Boyd: No, um, yeah, it was very puzzling. I mean, it's doing so many things. I mean, it's doing the sexual thing pretty intensely for one who understands his arcane ways of phrasing things. But for a For a 12 year old or 13 year old trying to grasp that vocabulary and the situations, uh, no, it was, it was far too much for me. 

And it took me quite a while, in fact, to get back to really, um, get to, to really appreciating Lolita up there with some of his other books that I'd fallen in love with in the meantime. 

Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: We'll get more to his works later, but I want to talk about his, about him, about his biography. Um, and go through some of, maybe share kind of some of the fascination that I had whilst reading your books, and that presumably you had whilst [00:07:00] researching them. 

Brian Boyd: Yeah. Yeah. 

Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: I thought we could maybe start by to a little bit kind of introduce the family. 

What kind of family was he born into? I mean, he was born in 1899 in St. Petersburg. What was kind of the environment there that he was born into? 

Brian Boyd: He was born into a very wealthy family. a very liberal branch of that wealthy family, not all the members of the collateral members of the family were liberal, but Nabokov's father and mother were, his father was, um, a jurist, a, um, uh, a criminologist, uh, an editor of the, one of the leading Russian, well, the leading Russian daily newspaper in St. 

Petersburg, okay. And was the leader of the largest party in the first Duma, the first state parliament in 1905, when the Tsar closed down the Duma, uh, dissolved it. father and others went to Vyborg in, in Finland and signed an appeal calling for [00:08:00] general mass resistance to this, this decree, uh, to get people to stop paying their taxes and to, uh, avoid conscription. And uh, for this, he was sent to prison by the Tsar and then, uh, later in 1918, he was trying to set up, uh, he was the head of a, a to set up a constitutional assembly. Lenin didn't like the idea of that at all, so he threw him in prison. So, you know, it's a great record to be thrown in prison by both the Tsar and Lenin. So that, yeah, that gives you a sense of how close to history Nabokov's family was. His father, his grandfather was a Minister of Justice under Alexander II and III. And his parents were fabulously wealthy, his mother's side of the family owned mines in the Urals. As Nabokov said in his autobiography, 50 Servants and No Questions [00:09:00] Asked, that they were extremely wealthy. 

And Nabokov, when he was about 16, inherited an estate from his uncle that was worth, I've had it said, um, Actually almost a, a couple of hundred million dollars in, in today's money. So, yeah. Uh, and, and then he lost, he lost it the next year because it was just before the revolution. 

Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: Yeah, I think this is part of the, I think part of the fascination. I had BOGOs life was that in part he had this extremely privileged upbringing. Uh, we can maybe also speak a little, a little bit about the, you know, the, the, the languages he learned, basically just growing up through his family and, uh, all the different things he did. 

But I think what, what I found really fascinates is you have this like, extremely privileged kid who then becomes way like even more privileged when he and inherits this, what's it called? The. Do you know how to pronounce it? Uh, [00:10:00] the, the memorial estate. And if you, um, there's, it has a Wikipedia entry and it, it looks a little bit like a, it's almost like two on the nose. 

What it is, it's like, you know, white house on the top of a hill and that kind of stuff with like a lake in front of it and that kind of stuff. It's, it's, it's ridiculous. And then, but I think what the fascinating thing about Nabokov is that he does lose it all. Um, and. I think kind of that contrast between, I think that was super fascinating. 

But maybe what was, what was young, young Nabokov like? I mean, so I mentioned languages. How did he end up growing up with three languages? And kind of what were some of his hobbies? 

Brian Boyd: Well, the first, the first language he learned to read was English. He had the English governess and, uh, mother, in fact, who, who was at least trilingual, perhaps quad lingual, read. bedtime stories to him from English books. So he didn't learn to read Russian, uh, to, to, to read and write Russian until he was about six. 

His father was appalled when he found out, um, and promptly, uh, [00:11:00] in a Russian tutor. But, uh, yes, he, he had a French governess from the time he was about six. So he was fluent in French by the time he was seven. He also had the best draughtsman in St. Petersburg, the kind of Canaletto of St. Petersburg, teaching him as a drawing master. learnt these languages so well, and he had such a passion for literature, that he says he had read all of Shakespeare in the original, all of Tolstoy, and all of Flaubert by the time he was 13, so, yeah. 

Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: You know, just a slightly, like what kind of kid does that? It's so slightly, because supposedly he must have started when he was 10 or so, like earlier. 

Brian Boyd: Yes. Yes. Um, I mean, he, he was very precocious. He, he had a, he could multiply large numbers in his head when he was five, you know, and then he lost that mathematical side of his precocity, uh, during an illness when he was [00:12:00] seven. And after that, he became interested in butterflies. So it's a very curious, uh, phenomenon. Oliver Sacks was very interested in my biography because of things like that. yes, he had a very, uh, oh, he, he also was telling himself stories all the time when he was five. So, uh, uh, he was precocious in a lot of ways. But, you know, Russia was a very literary culture and still is. So you can go from, from one subway called Gorky to another called Chekhov to another called Dostoevsky. Um, you know, you don't get that elsewhere. 

Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: Um, yeah, you already mentioned the butterflies a little bit and I guess we'll, we'll get to that kind of occasionally throughout the conversation. What, what, what does one do with a, with a hobby of butterflies? How, how does that manifest itself and where does that come from? 

Brian Boyd: It seems to have been something that was in the family and in a lot of noble families, I think, who had German tutors. It seemed to [00:13:00] be Germans that were particularly. Likely to be butterfly collectors and they passed on the passion to their tutees and, uh, Nabokov's father collected butterflies, his mother collected mushrooms, um, which, which again is, is, it's a very, very Russian thing to do. He just fell in love with this, this first swallowtail butterfly when he was seven and, uh, and it became a passion very, very quickly. And by the time he was Eight, I think, eight or nine. He had mastered all the butterflies of Europe and by ten he had masterfied, mastered the butterflies of the world. So yeah, he, he got, and he tried to publish his first article on butterflies at the age of 12. 

Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: Yeah, it just occurred to me that I, I had a slightly different interest in butterflies as a child. I remember when I was I think four or five. I, I liked butterflies, but I liked caterpillars more. And I, I, I knew that you could get cat, you know, butterflies come from caterpillars. So I figured if you put a butterfly into a cocoon, it would turn into a caterpillar.[00:14:00]  

So I think I just murdered lots of butterflies in my attempt to get caterpillars by just putting them into like tubes or something like that. Yeah. I'm, I'm very sorry. Um, anyway. So I mentioned literature and butterflies. I think the last one of the main, I think he was interested also in sports, right? 

But I think one of the other kind of slightly unusual interests he had was chess. So maybe, yeah, how did those two end, end his life? 

Brian Boyd: Again, chess is a very Russian passion. was interested in, in chess problems, you know, he would, he would relax from composing a very, a fiendishly difficult novel by composing chess problems, and he was a world class chess problem composer, represented the U. S. in, in this, and some of his, uh, I think Maurice Spassky, uh, uh, Commented favorably on one of his chess problems. 

So [00:15:00] he was, he was a good chess player. He wasn't a great chess player. He was more interested in trying to create something intricate and complicated and novel and poetic in the chess problem composition line. maybe he was trying, I don't know. knowledge of chess is It's almost silt. So I don't know whether he was a bit like that over the chessboard, that he was trying to do things that were too complicated. Um, so he preferred the element of time to drop out of it so that he could compose in his own free time and have multi layered chess problems with false clues. And Yeah. 

Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: Yeah, that's funny. I just remembered that I think Marcus Carlson said he doesn't like chess problems. Maybe there's a slight difference between playing chess and solving chess problems or coming up with them. But yeah, I also don't know much about chess. Okay, so kind of moving forward a little bit in his life. 

Uh, so we have this precocious young child who speaks multiple languages, [00:16:00] very interested in literature and all sorts of other things. Yeah, from a privileged position, becomes even more privileged, and then suddenly everything changed. So maybe for context, a little bit of what was, why did everything change, what was going, what was the revolution in Russia, and what did Nabokov's family then do in response to that. 

Brian Boyd: There was a first, a kind of public, uh, popular revolt in February 1917, which led to the overthrow of the czarist regime. And Nabokov's father, again, had a key role in this. He, um, actually drafted the resignation, the abdication manifesto of the czar. uh, he became of the provisional government, not the first provisional government, there was a series of provisional governments that were set up during 1917 that collapsed one after the other, and he was in, uh, one that began about June 1917. Lenin was allowed back into Russia from, from Switzerland. And [00:17:00] instigated the Bolshevik coup in October or November, depending on which calendar you're using. And at that point, there was lot of shooting in the streets of St. Petersburg. Nabokov's father was fearful that his sons would get conscripted into the Red Army. 

So he sent them down to the Crimea. And then the rest of the family followed about a few days later, but in the meantime, he, he'd been imprisoned by the, by Lennon and by some fluke managed to be released from, from prison and made his own way to the Crimea where there was a, a local government set up he was minister of justice in that government. 

So, there was a, a wave of, um, different. ERs of the, um, the Crimean Peninsula in those, those months between 19 1917 and 1919 when, uh, the Nabokov finally managed to [00:18:00] escape as the, the whole peninsula was falling into communist hands. There was machine guns strafing on, on along the, uh, the, the water as they sailed out of silver stoppel. So, yes, his father was Minister of Justice of Minimal Justice, he used to say, because things were so chaotic and, uh, the, the White Army, uh, who, well, there were massacres on both sides. It was, I mean, 800 people shot, of the White Army shot by the, the Reds, uh, off Yalta Pier. They were in, in Yalta. Nabokov wrote a poem about that, um, which I managed to smuggle out of what was still the Soviet Union in, uh, 82. Uh, yeah. So they got out of Russia with, with almost nothing, uh, with a, a pearl necklace that had been hidden in some talcum powder that, uh, had, had, uh, thought to them with. So that was about all of the, they lived on when they got to London [00:19:00] where Nabokov's father's brother was the, the Russian consul. Nabokov's father then helped set up a Russian liberal newspaper. There was something in London first, but then as the center of the Russian immigration moved to Berlin in 19, during the course of 1920 really, as inflation hit Berlin and it became rather cheap for those who didn't have deutschmark to move there. 

So, uh, at one stage, Four or five hundred thousand Russian refugees in Berlin two hundred presses, two hundred Russian language presses, in Berlin in about 1923, 24, when there was a paper shortage in Russia. And so they were sending material back to the, well, the, the nascent Soviet Union. 

Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: To some extent, not all that surprising, maybe someone who grew up in a very kind of culturally elite family, and who spoke English [00:20:00] fluently from childhood on. Uh, Nabokov then went to Cambridge, so How did that happen? Kind of why? Yeah, what was he doing there? 

Brian Boyd: The, the idea had been that he would go to, to Oxford or Cambridge anyway, uh, even if there hadn't been a revolution. He, he asked about Oxford versus Cambridge and was told that Cambridge was stronger for the sciences and he was, because of his interest in lepidoptery, he, uh, in butterflies, he decided to go to Cambridge rather than Oxford. And, uh, he, he did study, uh, ichthyology, um, fish for a term wasn't diligent enough, uh, and, and he decided it was actually easier to focus on Russian and French literature, um, which he, of course, he knew. better than almost anybody there. So, um, yeah, those were his subjects. Um, he was a very, uh, he had lots of interests other than the studies, shall we put it [00:21:00] that way. 

He was much more interested in composing poetry. Uh, he translated Alice in Wonderland into, um, into Russian. He translated Romain Rolland's, uh, Colas Bregnant into, into Russians. He pursued endless women as he had been doing since he was 16, you know, and he was a mad keen sportsman. So he, he was goalkeeper in soccer and also a keen boxer and tennis player. yeah, his studies came a 

Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: Yeah, it's funny. There seems to be quite a few goalkeepers in literature, right? Wasn't Camus also a goalkeeper? I think there were a few more. 

Brian Boyd: He, 

Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: Some, uh, kind of makes sense maybe that the person who stands at the back and observes the game quite a lot and has this like slightly unusual position in football. 

Somewhere, somewhere, somewhere it weirdly makes sense. Yeah, I mean, so you already mentioned that he liked writing poems and that kind of stuff. Um, I mean, yeah, funny enough, you know, we've, we've been speaking about someone who, you know, will become an author and will start publishing books [00:22:00] fairly early on, but we haven't really talked about him writing all that much yet, even though, you know, obviously literature has been a backdrop. 

So, um, Yeah, what, what was kind of, what were kind of his first writing ambitions, his first published works and, um, 

Brian Boyd: he, he's basically writing a poem a day, almost, uh, from the time he was about 15 onwards. And he, because he was so wealthy, he was able to publish, uh, his first book when he was 17, a book of fairly conventional love poems for the, the then love of his life. Uh, and then he published another book in 1918 with a a, a classmate. This was already during the turmoil of the Russian Civil War, so there were very, very few copies of it left. He published two more books of poetry in 22 and 23, and he was starting to write, uh, fiction and plays, uh, verse plays. So he was, he was always pretty prolific. Uh, [00:23:00] his early work, he disparaged later as, as being very trite and conventional. 

And yeah, it, it wasn't great stuff, but he matured rapidly and, uh, by about 23, 24, he was writing some very powerful stories. And then his first novel in 1925, when he was 26, just after he got married. you know, he kept on flooding, he was producing books at a great rate in the Russian emigration. And very quickly he was recognized as the literary star, at least of the younger generation. 

So the first Russian to get a Nobel Prize was Ivan Bunin, who was in 1933, who was another Russian emigre. But already people were saying in 1929, when his first. Real masterpiece, the defense, uh, or the illusion defense is sometimes called these days was published when the first installment of that came out, another writer of [00:24:00] his generation said that the Russian immigration is saved that she knew that. This would never be forgotten. His work would ensure that the whole Russian immigration was remembered. That's strong response. But of course, uh, yeah, his work was, um, as it got more and more complicated, it got less and less easy to translate. So, uh, his first two novels appeared in German and him money. Uh, he didn't. Get much money from, from his writings in, uh, in the immigration. He, uh, kept himself going as a, as a language tutor, as a tutor of poetry, as a tennis tutor, as a boxing tutor. Um, so all his skills came in handy and he briefly earned enough from the. the translation of a second novel, which was strongly German focused, unlike his first one, which was émigré focused, even though it was set in Berlin. [00:25:00] he was able to buy a little plot of land, but, with a dream of building house on it. But then the Depression happened, and that didn't happen either. So, yeah. 

Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: Yeah, so I mean, yeah, as I mentioned, he, he lived for a long, long while in Berlin, Um, as part of that kind of Russian emigre culture. Uh, why did he leave again? I mean, what could possibly be a reason to believe in Germany in the 20s and 30s, but kind of, yeah, just to kind of briefly span some of the biographical details. 

He, he was, he was in Berlin and then, yeah, what happened? 

Brian Boyd: The woman he married was, uh, Vera Nabokov, uh, she was Jewish. His father had been the foremost Gentile champion of Jews in Russia before the revolution. So he'd written very strong, uh, of pogroms and just as, as a journalist, uh, of pogroms and of trials of, of Jews that [00:26:00] were rigged. Um, so, and his, uh, his. 

Co editors in, uh, Rech, the, the daily newspaper he edited in before the, in Russia before the revolution, and in Rul, the one he edited in Berlin in the emigration, were nearly all Jewish, and closest friends were Jewish, both at school and in the emigration. So, um, In 1933, when they were really struggling financially, he and his Anne went to live with her cousin, who was of course also Jewish, in her apartment and, uh, It was in 1936 when Nabokov's father was, uh, assassinated by Russian right wingers in 1922, uh, because they held him responsible for the Russian Revolution. [00:27:00] 1936, Hitler appointed one of the, one of these two people, uh, one of the two assassins, uh, who had Served his time as head of Russian emigre affairs in Berlin and Vera Nobokov said to him You've got to get out and and so he went to it He'd been trying for years to get out of out of Berlin, but there hadn't been a clear path He'd been trying to go either to France where he had a lot of literary contacts and and where the center of the Russian immigration had moved by then and Or to an English speaking country, England, the States, Canada, South Africa, he them all and didn't get anywhere. in 19, at the beginning of 1937, yes, he left Germany not to return and was able to, well, establish a very poverty stricken existence as a writer in France, where his family joined him in the mid year 37. And then they managed to [00:28:00] flee France. Uh, after the tanks had started rolling through France, uh, they, he'd been trying for ages to get a, an exit visa as you needed in those days, and found the bureaucracy, needed to be bribed and, uh, he didn't have the money for, uh, his passage out, but, uh, a Jewish organization helped to fund the family to get to the, the states, so he arrived in in, at the end of May, 1940. 

Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: Yeah. I want to ask a little bit about one thing. I hope I remember this correctly. One thing that I kind of always found interesting is it, it didn't seem to me as if. Nabokov ever really complained about what happened to him in a sense. I mean, Again, I hope this is not misremembering it, but I remember him as kind of someone Yeah, I guess what I mean is like, you know You you you come from this like extreme position and then you're just like shoved out of your own country Then you go to different country. 

Then you're kind of [00:29:00] pushed out of that country I think it would be fairly easy to get resentful of a lot of a lot of the things that happened to you But it seemed to me that that he didn't quite Um, so I'm curious kind of a little bit about like kind of what, um, like personally, how did he deal with all of these things with, with being in poverty now and yeah, fleeing his country and yeah, everything. 

Brian Boyd: He Thought it was vulgar to, to complain about the loss of his estates, you know, and the family's wealth. But he, he was always very, very strongly anti Soviet because of the, the repression, the, the tyranny, uh, wrote invitation to a beheading. Uh, in fact, he started writing that in the year that Hitler came to power. 

And it was, it was focused on a kind of futuristic Russia, but it was. Clearly, uh, anti totalitarian and then in during the Second World War, he wrote a novel called Ben Sinister, which combines [00:30:00] elements of Hitler's and Lenin's speeches and treats them as a, as a single ogre, if you like. Um, so he was, um. He was strongly anti totalitarian, although he was, unlike his father, he was not really very political. 

But, uh, no, he, he knuckled down and did what he had to, to, to support his family. Uh, he, he undertook translations, uh, the, the coaching when he was, he, he couldn't really do coaching once he got to France, which is why they were so poor. You look at photographs of him there and he's very, very gaunt looking. And then in, uh, Once he got to the U. S., he was, he was lucky enough to have a few contacts that he could get commissions to write reviews, and he started publishing in the New Yorker, poems and stories, and also teaching. He was able to get into the U. S. because a friend of his, uh, Uh, a novelist got offered a [00:31:00] job to teach creative writing in Stanford felt his English wasn't up to scratch, so he gave the position, as it were, to Nabokov, who did teach at Stanford for, uh, in his second year. in and then had a precarious position renewed from year to year in Wellesley College in Boston from 41 to 48. And then he got a position at Cornell, uh, which lasted until Lolita made him so rich that he didn't need to teach anymore. Yes. So, um, he always worked hard. So both writing and teaching and, and while he was teaching in Boston, he was also working as a lepidopterist in basically an unpaid, almost unpaid position. He was curator of lepidoptera at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology. And he was doing research there. And, uh, once they got a car, which wasn't until about he never learned to drive as [00:32:00] His, his wife did all this typing for him. All this driving for him. She marked all the essays that he, exams that, that he had from his students. she was an ideal support. And she did this very voluntarily. He didn't have to ask her. But once, once they had a car, he would drive around the U. S. and in the summers and, uh, and collect butterflies and discover new species, which. Is, is not the, the most important thing, but it was something that he dreamed about since he was a, uh, an eight or nine year old. He was also doing major revisions of, uh, South American butterflies, for instance. So, and this, this might be of interest. He did a major revision of the blues, the polyomantine of South America, which he never visited, although he would have loved to, on the basis of very few samples that was able to collect during, in wartime conditions from [00:33:00] other institutions. And, uh, the people who that, that work wasn't really any attention to until the late 1980s. Uh, when new methods of collecting and new methods of DNA analysis and so on, chromosome analysis first and then DNA led to new work on it. And, and the people who worked in that area were also gobsmacked by how brilliantly Nabokov had done it. 

And boldly he had revised the, the genera in these, uh, in this family that they just wanted to pay homage to him all the time by naming new butterflies they discovered after things in Nabokov. Uh, so there's a, uh, a Humbert, a Lolita, a Viola after his wife. Uh, I was asked to, uh, to suggest a name. So I suggested one of my favorite characters, Hazel, Hazel Shade in, in, uh, in Pale Fire. 

And, you know, And, and it's really astonishing, you know, I mean, just [00:34:00] as kind of almost throwaway remark, suggested that if we had a Wellsian time machine and we went back to see how the, blues, the polyomatines populated America, he hypothesized that there must've been about five different waves that came across the Bering Strait. And in 2011, a team at Harvard were able to establish that he was right in all the details that he suggested five different waves and and sort of named the periods and there was nothing. I mean, there was just nobody was doing that kind of analysis of butterflies all that all that far back. So yes, he worked compulsorily 14 hours a day at the at the lab at Harvard. So it was really hard for him and that was. Partly because It was such a trauma for him. This, this is where, where he [00:35:00] does complain, where he, he laments it. He tries not to linger on it, but he does express how painful it was for him, having worked so hard to get Russian up to a standard where. As others will say, Russian literary prose has never been so rich as his. He, he, he bought a four volume dictionary when he was at Cambridge and went through it, uh, Russian dictionary and went through it page by page. He had an extraordinary vocabulary, an extraordinary knowledge of Russian literature, and he was using literature in very complex ways in his late Russian fiction. And then he had to give that up. He felt and start writing in English and that transition from having developed his instrument for 20 years in Russian and having to start in a way afresh in English, he felt so painful. That was one reason to avoid facing that pain. He focused instead on butterflies for seven or eight years. 

Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: Yeah, I actually had a question about the [00:36:00] switch from Russian to English, um, because it's something that I find kind of interesting that, so maybe for context, you know, I don't speak Russian and so all of the works of Nabokov I've read have been, uh, either the English original books or the English translations. 

And I wonder kind of what your opinion is on this, or maybe what, what the consensus is, is that it. I mean, obviously you have here also the slight problem that the early works in Russian that I've read in English translation are also, you know, the earlier works and maybe not as refined as later works. 

But it felt to me that when I, I initially, you know, after reading a biography, I was like, great, I'm going to read, you know, because I hadn't read any Davokov, I'm going to read Davokov now from like beginning to end. And then I started with the early Russian ones in translation. And I felt like something was slightly missing. 

And I felt like there was something that I didn't quite. Quite get or connect with. And then it wasn't [00:37:00] until I read P'nin. I hope I pronounced that correctly. Which is the first English book of his I read. Suddenly I was like, ah, Now I see what he's like. Now it kind of starts to make sense. The kind of the the verbal Inventiveness and that kind of stuff and I know he was heavily involved or even translated his own books but somehow it always felt to me that the You have to read him in the original, which is something I generally agree with, but, I mean, I grew up speaking English and German, right, so I have, I don't like translations in general, once you realize how, how poor of an approximation any translation is, but I was just curious, like, how, what you think about this, like, switch from Russian to English, and, um, 

Brian Boyd: Well, um, yeah, I, I think his, his English style actually, his, his late Russian style was very, very rich. It was, it was like, like Proust in, in French, uh, the, the [00:38:00] sentences were very convoluted and full of a series of trapdoors or, or, or images. Whereas his English style, he managed to pare things down. I mean, there's still incredibly lush sentences that he has, but, uh, there's a kind of speed and, and fluidity in the English that I don't think that is there in the Russian. 

So, and you, you said that, uh, he. He had lot of involvement in his translations. He did, um, on the other hand, he tended to let somebody else translate rather than to translate them himself, because, because he would have wanted to rewrite, uh, to let his imagination go in a different direction. So in order to curb that, uh, inventiveness, he had somebody else translate and he would translate the tricky parts or if, if there was embedded verse or something like that, puns and so on, he would. Take care of those, but he would try not to intervene too much. So, I [00:39:00] mean, I certainly feel that when I look at material from to English or from English to Russian or German or French, um, I can see what a loss there is in the translation. I mean, he didn't, he, he did control his translations into the French and his wife, German was fluent. with him through the translations into German, but, uh, yeah, he, I mean, I, I, it depends on the novel. I, I think, um, the defense, uh, which is where I would recommend a lot of people should start Nabokov, the defense opening is, it's not so dependent on language or, I mean, it's, it's language is very lush, but it's characterization and it's story is just so, um, Powerful. 

So heart rending that it carries you over through the slight loss you might have and the switch from Russian to whatever language you're reading it.[00:40:00]  

Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: yeah, it's this general thing, I mean, yeah, I, I basically try not to read translations, which obviously limits me to certain languages, but, I don't know, I've just, I've, for me it was just like this thing where in, I had this like real moment with seeing like how bad any good translation is when I, when David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest came out in German. 

It was like this supposedly great translation that the, you know, guy took like eight years to translate or something like that. It's just a different book. I mean, there's just no other way of putting it. It's just a different book. Um, and this is supposedly one of the best ones out there in German. So it's like, uh, yeah, there's, but yeah, that must've been, it seems to me like that must've been quite unpleasant for someone like Nabokov, who has also the linguistic abilities and several languages to, to then know that many people are reading his books in basically not his language, the language that he put there. 

Brian Boyd: Yes. On the other hand, he was, he was very pleased to have an international audience by the time [00:41:00] Lolita made him famous. Um, Yeah, another thing that, of course, was very difficult him in the transition from Europe to America was the fact that he had the stellar reputation among the Russian immigration, which wasn't, didn't extend outside the immigration at all. he had to come into the U. S. as, as practically an unknown, as English speaking readers were concerned, and started again to build up a reputation, which, which he had even before Lolita, but, uh, yes, it really wasn't until, course, Lolita gave him a reputation that was, uh, incomparably greater than any he'd had in the immigration, so, uh, it kind of paid off in the end, that switch. 

Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: Yeah. So let's talk a little bit about Lolita and, um, So, you know, I haven't read all of his stuff, but it also seems, I mean, in some ways there are, there are some similarities to other books, I feel [00:42:00] like, I feel like Nabokov does a lot of, maybe this is just me, but a lot of main characters that are kind of a bit unlikable, 

Brian Boyd: Yes, yes. 

Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: but, um, I'm curious, kind of, so we, you know, we went through his life a little bit and he's now in the U. 

S., he, you know, worked for years on the Butterflies, and, Uh, now, I believe, uh, correct me if I'm wrong here, but that, uh, this is when he's at Cornell. And so what exactly, what was the motivation, why did he decide to write a novel about someone who, um, yeah, about this middle aged man who, who marries a woman so he can be close to his daughter, to her daughter, sorry. 

What exactly, like, what was he trying to do there and how did that kind of start? 

Brian Boyd: He actually wrote a story, a novella in, uh, in Russian in 1939, uh, that had the same theme of a man marrying, uh, a [00:43:00] woman in this case, a woman who was, who was clearly dying of an illness in order to have access to her daughter. that one is written in the third person. So it's not from the. Point of view of the perpetrator and people didn't like it. Uh, I don't like it actually. Uh, it seems to be so much inferior to lolita the idea for it came back to him As something and I think that there are various things he wanted to establish himself as a an american writer I think he saw a connection with Edgar Allan Poe, who married his cousin who was 14, and it becomes a kind of talismanic figure for Humbert Humbert, the narrator of Lolita, who, who's also, uh, in literature, he teaches French literature in the US, and also way of, uh, a way of [00:44:00] Echoing and kind of parodying, you like, or picking up a lot of themes in Poe picking up also themes in Henry James, whom he hated, he, he loved Poe as a, as a, as a child, but he never got to like Henry James and, uh, Henry James What Maisie Knew, which is about a, a young girl's, uh, misunderstanding of The relationship between her parents, who were both philandering in both directions. Um, so there were these literary challenges, but I think it was also a kind of thematic challenge. Um, he was a very romantic man and he fell very heavily in love with a lot of women in his early days until he, he met Vera and his books are often full of very strong romance elements. I mean, often treated very unromantically, but, uh, love was so important for [00:45:00] him and, uh, love between men and women, but, but also parental love. 

I mean, he absolutely doted on his uh, spoiled him rotten, I think it would be fair to say. Uh, and his parent, he was very, very, he was devoted to his parents. So he felt family love is very strong. So, uh, he, he tries to, Turn these things that he valued so much around to the nastiest converse that he possibly can. 

So he's got this pedophile who, ingratiates himself into the family and pretends as a kind of stepfather. And, but he's really at one stage, he thinks of killing the woman he's, he's married, but, uh, he doesn't have the nerve to go through it, but conveniently she gets killed, uh, in an accident. And he plans to drug rape his stepdaughter, but uh, the drugs don't work. 

But uh, anyway, um, for those who haven't read Lolita, I'm not going to spoil too much of the story, but it, it's the creepiest kind of [00:46:00] intensity of romantic love that Humbert, the narrator, is expressing for this 12 year old. He's, he's only, you call it a middle age. Well, people do think of him that way, but he's only 38 and he's very handsome. Um, and, uh, he's very vain too. So he's very conscious of his handsomeness and he plays on that in, in order to kind of get Lolita infatuated. But then, uh, goes far beyond anything that she could have imagined. And he, he imprisons her. Uh, I mean, he, uh, something that I didn't mention, um, in his family background, his grandmother's sister was a major, uh, a psychologist and anthropologist and a criminologist. And she was very fascinated. Like she wrote a book on murderers. she was fascinated by extreme psychological types. And she was almost a de facto grandmother because his real grandmother died when he was only three. And so he was very [00:47:00] close to this. this Aunt Pasha, as they called her. He was very aware of the psychological literature on extreme sexual perversions and on criminal perversion. 

I mean, a lot of his characters are criminals, And so he, he often inverts his own values in the of the narrator of one of his books. As you said in one of his interviews, all these characters are demons he's booted out of the cathedral. So they're gargoyles on the outside of the cathedral, like. So it was the fascination of doing something Very, very difficult. Uh, that was, that was another part of inside the head of somebody who was so remote from him, this, this travesty of family love, both in terms of how much relationship to wife he pretends to. To love briefly and the daughter, I mean, he loves them in an entirely [00:48:00] wrong way. 

So, um, he read a lot of psychological case studies to find out how things were. And it's really interesting that women who are, uh, sex, uh, sexual abuse therapists think Lolita is just fabulous. It's such a, it offers such an insight into the workings of the mind of a, of a perpetrator. They've written articles on Lolita as a tool for sexual abuse therapy. 

Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: That's really interesting, I didn't know that. 

Brian Boyd: Yeah. 

Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: I guess it kind of makes sense because he, you know, portrays it from Humbert's perspective, and it's not just this caricature of, you know, it's, it's, yeah, the kind of rich internal monologue, I guess, or whatever. 

Brian Boyd: Yeah. The really creepy thing about it, of course, is because he's, he's such a romantic, this character, even though he's a pervert, that his romanticism. of sweeps the reader to some extent [00:49:00] along with him and you feel kind of tainted by your complicity in his desire. So it is a very uncomfortable read even now. Unlike books that have been scandalous in the past like Madame Bovary or Ulysses. actually at least as scandalous now as it was back then. 

Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: Yeah, there's this, this weird thing when, for me at least, when, when I've read it, when you go, Like, this is really beautifully written, but by God, 

I've rarely seen like this, these, these, the topic, a topic of that nature paired with often such great prose at the same time and such a, as you said, romanticism about the topic. And then you realize he's. You know, going to a 12 year old prostitute, if that's what you can call it. Um, in the, in the beginning, in particular, I was thinking of in, at the Côte, uh, Riviera, Côte d'Azur, I can't remember, somewhere in France.[00:50:00]  

Yeah, it's definitely a, a weird kind of ambivalence you feel of these two conflicting emotions. Well, maybe more than two, but yeah. 

Brian Boyd: Yeah, 

Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: Um, so I want to ask a little bit about Pale Fire, the, the novel that Um, I don't know whether actually you've done this about any others, but you've written an entire book on Palefire, which seems like a bit of a meta joke. 

Um, but, so, here's the thing. I, I started reading Palefire a few days ago. Um, unfortunately I didn't manage to finish it before we started this, but I have to admit I have no idea what to make of that book. Um, it's, uh, maybe for, for, actually do you want to, yeah, I'm not going to introduce it. Why, why, if you're there. 

Uh, maybe what is, what is Palefire, uh, of a, what kind of book is it? How should, how should you think about it and approach it? 

Brian Boyd: Well, it's a novel in the [00:51:00] form of a 999 line poem by an American academic poet and an introduction and a line by line commentary in an index to the commentary by his next door neighbor, who's also an academic in the small American town. It's a bit like Cornell, if you like. The poet dies tragically just after completing, so this is a spoiler if you haven't got that far. after completing the, this poem, which is his magnum opus really. And the, the neighbor, who's utterly insufferable and absolute. egomaniac, uh, intrusive, uh, and, and tries to, he's just, he's homosexual and he's, he's, I mean, that's, know, his relationship to the poet is, is, it's not really sexual because the, the poet is happily married and very heterosexual, but, but there's that, that complicates the relationship. 

And. [00:52:00] commentator, the neighbor next door, who seems to, he's either in a department of Zembla literature and Zembla may be a real country within the novel of the world, or the world of the novel, or he could be in a Russian department. Uh, it's a bit unclear. It shows through that he's probably in fact a mad Russian exile who's created this fantasy of Zemla. 

Anyway, the, the commentary, which is supposed to be line by line, sometimes has excellent comments on poetic effects, usually it pays no attention to this autobiographical poem and tells the story of Charles II, the last king of Zemla, who was exiled, uh, who fled a revolution. And it's just, it's very funny. 

It's kind of romantic. The, the story, the Zemlan story, it almost, To some people reading it, it makes the poem, which is so realistic, seem pale because it's so fanciful. It's a satire [00:53:00] on academic self presentation, the self presentation of critics when they take over a work and don't allow much space for the original author. So it's partly that, although it's not, that's a very thin of what, the things that are going on. It's really, um. It's the fascination between this very homely poet who's writing a wonderful poetry, but about a very prosaically experienced life, with this writing the prose commentary to it, who's a madman and seems to be conjuring up all these visions. 

It's, it's, it's also What entranced me, what made me flip about it when I was 16, was that you follow the cues, um, there are little bracketed comments saying, see note the, in the forward, see note to line 691. And if you go to line 691, you start to find things out about the situation [00:54:00] you realize you shouldn't be knowing at this stage in the forward. then it's the night to line 691 has got another cross reverence to somewhere else. And, and you get about four or five of these and you losing fingers to your place in the various notes. But if you, if you follow that circuit, you know, practically all the surprises of the story. before you've sensed you should, then you go back and you try and, uh, it's, it's just, um, what, what I think is so extraordinary about Nabokov as a writer is that he tries to, to give the reader a sense of the excitement of discovery that he felt in dealing with nature as a, as a lepidopterist. So he was, he was just, thrilled, so, so compelled to carry on working at the, at the, uh, microscope at Harvard when he was working as a semi professional epidopterist. And he [00:55:00] just felt that the thrill of discovery was, was just, uh, incomparable. And so he's trying to supply that kind of a thrill. his literary work, especially his late literary work, and perhaps I think he does it more successfully. 

So I subtitled the, my book on Pale Fire, The Magic of Artistic Discovery, which was a kind of a nod to Karl Popper's The Logic of Scientific Discovery. You, you seem surprised by the fact that I'd, uh, written a book about, uh, about a novel. Well, I've actually, I did my, I've done that. I had already done that. 

I, my PhD thesis was on Nabokov's Ada, uh, which came out, uh, seven years after Pale Fire, which is very, very complicated, very funny, very obscene. Wild, um, a kind of, uh, steampunk novel almost, um, it's, it's set on an, uh, an alternative in the 19th century where there are swimming pools and, and [00:56:00] cars and planes and so on. uh, I wrote my thesis on that and, uh, it came out as a book and I'm still, I was going to transition from working on Nabokov after the biography came out to working on Shakespeare and I thought I I needed to all my Nabokov material out of my study and get some space for, for Shakespeare and for other things I'd become interested in. 

And, uh, and then I just looked at all my, my index card notes on Arda that I, um, I don't know, several thousand index cards. And I thought, Oh, I really should do something with this. I should publish it as line by line annotations so like what the, the, the mad annotator does in power. And I started publishing that seriously, serially, annotations to one chapter, and there are 69 chapters in the novel, every six months, and I'm still going, I'm at chapter, I've finished [00:57:00] chapter 54, and this, this commentary to the novel is now about 2, 200 pages long, it's to hit 3, 000 before I'm finished, so, you know, I'm within, within sight of the end, But, uh, for three quarters of the way through. 

But yeah, so if you thought one book about pale fire, a book and, uh, so I've got a website on this, uh, where, which is interactive where you can jump from a passage of the text to my annotations, to images, to, to motifs that, you know. 

Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: Yeah. Uh, but, uh, I'm just trying to figure out like what the thought process is of someone who reads Palefire. You know, with, with the whole basically making fun of the people making annotations of books and then deciding to do that yourself anyway, kind of what did you, did you, I mean, was there a point where you were like, is Nabokov saying you just shouldn't do this or is it just kind of a playful, you know, [00:58:00] it's just a, uh, a way to play with different genres. 

Like, what was, what was your, like, was there a point where you're like, I think I shouldn't do this just because of pay of fire. 

Brian Boyd: not at all. In fact, Nabokov got the very idea for the format of Palefire he devoted quite a few years in the, curiously enough, in the years while he was writing Lolita and teaching at Cornell and Harvard, he devoted several years of very intense work to own annotations to his own translation of the great Russian verse novel Eugene Onegin by Pushkin it come it came out in four volumes and it's It's such, uh, an unparalleled rich set of annotations that it's been translated into Russian and, and other, other languages that people have, have translated, uh, somebody translated uh, Päofa, [00:59:00] Eugene Onegin from his English version into Dutch without knowing any Russian because his, his translation is so. Astonishingly exact and his are so precise. Um, so no, he, he, he, He respected the, I mean, he, he wanted to show what he could do as a literary scholar, uh, having landed a job at Cornell, I think, uh, but, uh, it wasn't that he felt that scholarship was, uh, scholarship was ridiculous. It's just that it was often done very badly, egotistically. 

Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: Okay, I have a brief last question about Palefire, just because with Palefire there's As you alluded to kind of the, the, the question of in what, in what order do you read it? Uh, so you said follow the cues and I actually thought by that, I actually, so for context for the listeners, um, I, I, we had to reschedule this and I said, Oh, great. 

I'll have a bit more time to read pal fire. And then, uh, you said, [01:00:00] uh, follow the cues. And so I thought, ah, okay, I'll do that. And I thought you meant follow the. Somehow I didn't think of those cross references. I actually, what I did is I read the introduction and then at the end of the introduction, I think he says, actually read my commentary first. 

Brian Boyd: Yes. 

Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: actually, I read the introduction and then the commentary and then the kind of poem as you go along with the commentary. Um, so I'm just curious. I mean, this is a weird question to ask about a novel, but what order should I read it in? 

Brian Boyd: Well, I think, I think what I read it and I, I followed those, those cross reference cues and then I think I, I got a sense of how unreliable, uh, commentator Ken Boat was. So I ignored his, his instruction to read his commentary before the poem and read the poem. I'm not sure. I, it's a long time ago now, but I think the, you know, there's no, it's obviously it's going to be a different experience, whatever order you, you read things. in, in that, in that novel. But I, I [01:01:00] think part of the, the, the fun of the, the novel is that the poem is so perfectly structured. It's, it's got 999 lines. It's got, it's got a very powerful mid five, the line 500, the middle line of the poem is, is just a tragic conclude conclusion to one part of the poet's life. 

And, uh, it, it's really heart rending. I mean, I've, I've read it out to People in in kitchens and in buses and people have tears in their eyes. It's really it's really very moving The commentary seems utterly crazy, you know, you're trying to get back to the poem and yet you want to hear more about this, this, this mad story of a king's escape and so on, imprisonment and escape, and just the, the, the weird customs of Zemla as the commentator describes it. So the perfect control of the poem and the utter chaos of the commentary and [01:02:00] yet Nabokov has also got. about four different plot lines converging on the last two notes in the commentary. that despite the apparent chaos, you're, you're led along various threads and it's, uh, an even, even more complex order underneath that chaos. So it's very satisfying. Yes. 

Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: just remember especially the first page when I read it. It's, it's just weird because it's, you know, an introduction to this poem. And then, you know, you have this form where like, oh, he wrote it on this cards and he did this and that and then at the end of one of those paragraphs, it just says like, there's a loud amusement park outside my window and you just go, what? 

Like, is that supposed to be there? Like, yeah, it is. Yeah. Um. Okay, I wanted to ask a little bit about Nabokov's writing process. I mean, yeah, I don't know how much, uh, how much you can say about it, but kind of how did he. How did he write? Is there any advice that you, did you learn anything [01:03:00] about how to write a book from him in terms of like, how, like practically how to do it? 

Um, how, how did he write all those novels? And 

Brian Boyd: Well in, in his earlier work, his Russian work, he wrote longhand, he never learned to To type and he revised incredibly heavily, but partly I think, uh, because he was working as a lepidopterist in, in the forties, he developed the habit of getting research notes on index cards. And he decided that that was a good way to compose his novels. 

He would spend, um, three or six months. He would the basic idea of a novel in a kind of flash of inspiration. And then he would kind of try to figure out. to resolve all the problems it might have in the telling and a new way of a new angle for telling it. He would try to resolve all that before he set anything down on paper. then by the time he started to write, he knew the novel [01:04:00] that he wanted to write so well that he could start anywhere in the book. And so he would. Pick up an index card for a, you know, a late chapter and write a few paragraphs and then slip a couple of hundred pages earlier and so on. Do it in whatever order it came to him on a particular day. He would write in pencil and had a pencil with a A rubber eraser on the back and he was very proud of using up his eraser faster than the lead in the pencil. He just he revised so meticulously and so So, um, yeah, it's it's a very unusual process of composition. And of course, not one that anybody who's got a computer nowadays is going to use. 

Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: I was a little bit surprised that he had that process because, you know, he's such a poetic writer. I, I would have almost assumed more that he, you know, wrote and let the language itself carry it forward to some extent as, you know, other authors do. [01:05:00] Um, but in a way, so I guess also very, very fitting. For someone who composed chess problems in his teenage years that he would go the complete opposite way and basically figure out what he was gonna say and then Kind of add the words almost 

Brian Boyd: There are always hidden trapdoors in Nabokov's fiction, I think, so, and it, you fall through them and you discover a new world underneath and then you fall through to another level, and that's part of the fun, and part of the, especially for his late fiction, works like Lolita and Pale Fahranada. He's got to plant all these cues, these kind of almost, I mean, he does, in his autobiography, he compares the process of writing to the composition of chess problems, clearly it's a kind of cue. to, to readers, to readers novels in that way. So, yeah, and that's, that's why I can, you know, spend nearly 3, 000 pages on annotating a 600 [01:06:00] page novel. He's planted so many clues, even on the first line or two, uh, it took about several pages to disentangle what he was doing there. And, and yet on the other hand, he also makes sure that his, his is very accessible. It's not difficult in the way that, say, Joyce is, it's not easy reading, of course, but it, sentences flow so fast, they carry you along even though you realize that you're, you're not getting everything as you go. You have to come, you'll have to come back or you have to make connections, um, but, but on the, on the surface, it seems very lucid. It is lucid. 

Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: Yeah, I mean the thing that's maybe that I find sometimes a little bit difficult is that I think he has I feel like you have to pay very close attention because he uses so much visual imagery and details and that kind of stuff that I typically don't like that, that too much actually. I think I prefer very, also [01:07:00] very plain writing styles because I always have to, with Nabokov, I have to like concentrate on actually imagining it. 

Otherwise I feel like you, yeah, it just loses a lot. 

Brian Boyd: Well, yes, he, he writes in a way that, that very deliberately targets the, the visual imagination of the reader. The whole sensory imagination of the reader, but especially the visual. Yeah, um, he does want readers to imagine. 

Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: Yeah. I want to ask a little bit about, in a sense, Nabokov's, the perception of Nabokov. So, I mean, the, the one kind of. I mean, as we, as we briefly discussed before we started recording, I feel like he's one of those kind of famous, non famous writers where he's, his name is very famous and in a way he is, but somehow I think many people, he, he's not, you know, as widely read, maybe, that's, that's a way of putting it, as other people, outside of Lolita maybe. 

So maybe, um, As with a very, uh, trite kind of question is [01:08:00] almost like should, should he have won the Nobel prize? He never did. Uh, he was nominated once, I believe, in one of the probably strongest years of nominations. If you look who else was nominated, W. H. Auden, Samuel Beckett, uh, Borges, Neruda and E. M. 

Forster. None of him won it. It went to Mikhail Sholokhov. That's how you pronounce that. Um, yeah, how, how do you feel about that? I mean, should he have won it? 

Brian Boyd: Uh, well, the Nobel Prize is a hit and miss thing, and a lot of people uh, in the 60s, uh, that, uh, it, it should have gone. to Nabokov. Norman Mailer was told he'd won it, uh, and I don't know how that happened. He said, God, what about Nabokov? Um, you know, that was his immediate reaction. Um, of course he, he wasn't anywhere near deserving a Nobel prize, but, uh, I think, uh, the Nobel prize often rewards great writers and [01:09:00] often selects people who will not actually last the distance. 

And I think, uh, a better measure for me is, is writers, writers are Select the canon of future generations of readers, I think, and their enthusiasms. there, there are so many writers who've been inspired by it. And Martin Amis is, is one, of course. Um, Martin Amis has this lovely comment about Nabokov. He does all the usual things in fiction better than everybody else. So he's talking about plot, characterization, language, uh, uh, form. And I think that's true that, I, I think he, he loosened up the way fiction could be written. So a lot of people are profiting from his discoveries as, you know, as he profited from discoveries that were made by say Tolstoy and, uh, and Joyce and Proust and[01:10:00]  

Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: We've talked now for, I don't know, one and a half hours or whatever about I want to ask about you a little bit. Uh, so it sounds very critical, uh, but it's more of curiosity. How exactly does one get to spend years, if not decades of one's life, researching a single person and, uh, writing books about that person? 

I mean, so you mentioned earlier a little bit, how you first, how you first read Nabokov. So maybe when did this kind of interest in, in reading someone of yours become a bit more serious and where? Um, you mentioned your PhD thesis. I don't know whether there was anything before that, but well, presumably, you know, just randomly choose a topic, I guess. 

How did your kind of more serious involvement with Nabokov start? And when did you kind of go like, I'm actually gonna like, write a biography about him now? 

Brian Boyd: Well, um, as I said in my last year at high school, I flipped over PowerFire and I read that very, very thoroughly. I [01:11:00] actually wrote an article on PowerFire in my first year at university. It was a, was an essay in American Studies where we could choose whatever topic and asked, can I write in PowerFire? 

And they were very excited to have somebody write on such a new novel, a complicated novel that wasn't on the course. So I was allowed to do that and I. Turned that into an article for publication that didn't get accepted, but I did my MA thesis on him and thought that was Nabokov out of my system. And I went to, went to Toronto to do my PhDs where we had two years of coursework before we got into our thesis. 

Um, I was actually going to do. A 17th century topic first was what I put for my scholarship application. I got back into the 20th century and I was going to work on the novelist, the American novelist John Bath, whom I got very interested in. I started working him for about six months and I got, A bit bored and something, uh, just a [01:12:00] visit to a friend of my mother's, there was a picture on the wall, alerted me to a clue that I'd missed on the opening, in the opening page of ARDA, which I'd written, uh, one was one of the books I'd written about in my MA thesis. And I thought, God, I've missed so much. And so I just, uh, I went back to ARDA and started going through the up cues in the reference library of the Toronto. And, uh, it was, I was just making so many discoveries every day. And it just, uh, it was just bliss the whole two and a half years I was working on the thesis. um, then I wanted to carry on working on the Bokov. The terms of my scholarship oblige me to come back to New Zealand from Canada, and, uh, I resented this fiercely, and, um, at this stage I had a Canadian girlfriend, and, uh, I thought, uh, I was going to be so far away from research materials, I knew there wouldn't be [01:13:00] much on Nabokov in New Zealand. 

Nabokov was kind of famous for saying that he didn't think people should study literary manuscripts. said that reading a writer's manuscripts was like, writer making manuscripts available was like passing around samples of your own sputum. And so, He gave the impression that he'd destroyed all his manuscripts, but I, in, in the year I finished the thesis, letters between Nabokov and the literary critic Edmund Wilson came out and I went to Yale University Library to find the originals and discovered 25 letters that hadn't been incorporated and, and lots of mistakes in the published version. So I started scouring, uh, libraries in the northeast of the U. S. and finding lots of things. I, and I was thinking at that stage of doing a bibliography of Nabokov. There had been one done, but it was, it was [01:14:00] absolutely full of errors and of no use to anybody. So I thought of doing a bibliography that would, and there'd also been a biography done that was the same person. Even, even more erroneous, and I thought of smuggling in a biography by the back door by setting out the context in which he wrote and, uh, every, every major work and his relationships with his publishers so on. And so I had, uh. done a lot of kind of bio bibliographical work and then I sent my first two chapters of my thesis to somebody in the U. 

S. who was a Russian literary scholar who was republishing Nabokov's works in Russian in the U. S. and also edited something called Russian literature tri quarterly. He sent it on to Nabokov's widow and she invited me to visit. And so instead of coming back across the Pacific, I went [01:15:00] back across Europe and met her in Switzerland. 

And because of all this work I'd been doing in archives in the US, I knew a lot of things about Nabokov that weren't common knowledge and I was grilling her. And then a couple of months after I got back to New Zealand to do a postdoc on New Zealand literature, which I'd never really encountered. I had not paid much attention to it at all at university, or subsequently, um, and, uh, she, she wrote to me asking would I sort out Nabokov's archive. And so she paid my way, she paid my time, and I was able to look through this enormous archive, catalog it for her, and kept on asking her questions. Eventually she said to me, I wanted to see his letters to his parents, which I knew were there. She wouldn't let me see them. And she said, why do you need to see those? 

If you were writing a biography, of course, I would show you everything. But if you're doing only a bibliography. so, [01:16:00] uh. My, my jaw dropped, but, uh, so I, I reminded her of that, uh, so I was just starting university teaching, picking up a lot of new material. got a scholarship to do the bibliography and reminded her of what she'd said and said, would you tolerate my doing a biography? 

So that's how it started. 

Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: What was it like meeting Vera, Vera Nabokov for the first time? Because I mean, she's so present in, I don't know whether all novels are dedicated to her, but many of them are dedicated to her. 

Brian Boyd: Yes. 

Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: from, from his autobiography. What was it like meeting her for the first time? And what was she like? Yeah, 

Brian Boyd: and she has a good sense of humor, but I, I wasn't able to trigger it. very well, um, un unlike Na, was a naturally very, very funny person. Um, she was quite deaf. She was 79 or no, 77 when I first met her. She was quite deaf, so it [01:17:00] was, conversation was very strained. She couldn't hear my, couldn't interpret my New Zealand accent very well. 

I don't know what it was. Um, and I was always trying to pry out. Of her more information than she was willing to give. So it was fraught in that way. So she, she trusted me, uh, enough to allow me to work in the archive, to lock it up, to come back and start working anytime I liked while I was there for a year and a half. But she, she didn't drop her guard until she read the first chapter of the biography and then she, she, she'd always call me Mr. Boyd and until then, and, uh, and then suddenly it was Brian, uh, you know, so, so she, she'd been apprehensive, I guess, about what, what I would write, so. You raised the question about somebody dedicating himself to working on one author. 

Well, published far more on Nabokov than anybody else has, and than most people [01:18:00] do on one author. But there are many literary scholars who will work on one author their whole career. I've written a book that covers Homer and Dr. Seuss, and, and the history of from prehistoric times to the present. 

I've published a couple of books on Shakespeare, and I'm going to do another one up my sleeve. And I'm currently writing a biography of Karl Popper, who has nothing to do with literature. So I do lots of other things as well, even as well as being compulsive about Nabokov. No. 

Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: yeah. I mean, I didn't mean it in the sense of like, um, yeah, yeah. Not having other interests. What I mean is more like, uh, I mean, I guess in parts, yeah. You know, what you just described is that it's not like you decided to do this. And then you spend however many years on it. It kind of developed gradually and back and forth and sometimes more, sometimes less. 

But I guess there's something, you know, in science, I'm used to. [01:19:00] Talking to people who spend, you know, decades trying to figure out a very specific question. But somehow that seems to me categorically different from saying like I want to understand this person and their work. It's, it's in a way quite different even though, you know, the time spent and the work is probably more or less the same I would imagine. 

But yeah, it's just curious to me because Like, I like reading biographies, but I imagine, like, it must, you know, I mean, you have two, like, eight or nine hundred page books on it, on him. So how, how, how do you write, how does one, but in particular, how did, did you write this book? I mean, did you, you, you already mentioned smuggling a poem out of the Soviet Union? 

I wonder whether that has something to do with it. Um, but what's the kind of practical work of writing a biography about someone who died, but pretty recently? 

Brian Boyd: Yes. Well, fortunately, because I had access to his archives, I knew the people he was in closest contact with. And if they were still alive, I went and interviewed [01:20:00] them. And in fact, Vera me the addresses of the people she wanted me to see most. But I did. Work in, I think, 18 countries for the biography. 

So, um, yeah, , it was, it was a lot when I was just coming out of being, having been a student for 10 years, it was a expensive business. Um, his archive was, was very large and I was the only person who had access to it too. So there was also, he'd given a lot of papers to the Library of Congress as a tax break, uh, in the wake of the success of LL Lolita. And that material was, was not publicly. available at all. So I was the first person to get access to that material. And so I had access to a lot of, of Nabokov as well as to, uh, all his living friends. And there was also a surprising amount of, say, in Columbia University in New York, there's a very good emigre, [01:21:00] uh, literary archive. 

So of his friends are represented there in his own, own letters to people in the Russian literary community in the 20s and 30s there. So, um, I was able to build up a pretty comprehensive picture of him. Now, now I'm working on, Popper, Karl Popper, uh, who Didn't die until he was 92 and was absolutely a workaholic. I mean, he would work through the night in his eighties and nineties. He's got an archive that seems about 10 times the size of Nabokov's and, and also had contacts with Nabokov as a, as a writer was working on his own, just, just him in the index cards or him in the blank page. Uh, whereas. Popper as a, as a philosopher and as a philosopher of science was, was always talking to other philosophers or to scientists. 

And so there's this vast network of people with whom he's working out ideas. And so the, [01:22:00] the data is just endless. So it's, it's a very different process. Thank goodness. I've got, uh, I'm working with computers now. Yeah. When I was writing the Nabokov biography. PCs were just coming in and I had a very shaky one that the only thing I could afford, which was not a high end thing. 

This was long before Apple or anything like that. And, uh, my computer was so temperamental that I didn't know if it was going to boot properly that day when I switched it on. Uh, and in fact, I, I lost most of the material of volume one, uh, after having written it. I mean, I had printouts of it or my wife and another friend had to reenter it. 

In a new computer, uh, but in, in those days I was writing longhand and I did use index cards. In fact, you know, Nabokov composed an index cards. Well, I, took up that idea from him, but I had thin paper cut to index card size so that I could take say 10, 000 cards in a briefcase between [01:23:00] Malta, Switzerland and Auckland so that I'd, I'd, I'd never let them out of my grasp really. 

And, uh, and yes, then I was writing longhand and, uh, and entering into a computer, but now of course I do everything on computer and I can access Poppus Archive, uh, online. So many things have changed. 

Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: Yeah, yeah, it seems like you didn't. With Nabokov and Popper, you didn't exactly choose the easiest people to write about. Yeah, you could have chosen someone who wrote, you know, two books or three books or something like 

Brian Boyd: Yeah. 

Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: that. I guess you chose very prolific people. 

Brian Boyd: Yeah, prolific. And also, I think, you know, both of them were hailed very highly in their time, but are also not appreciated at their, at what I think is their worth. So yeah, I mean, there are aspects of Nabokov that were not really understood. Uh, his, his philosophical depth, I think, uh, wasn't appreciated in his lifetime. [01:24:00] So that was one of my key focuses and, uh, in my PhD thesis, and that was something that, that appealed very much to Vera Nabokov, because nobody had really tackled that side of his work before. 

Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: I'm curious a little bit about, in a sense, the responsibility of writing a biography. You know, anyone who wants to Anyone who likes Nabokov and wants to know about him as a person, beyond what you can read on Wikipedia, basically, you know, has to, has to buy a book. So, kind of, Nabokov's life goes through you, like via your interpretation of it and how you write about it, how you, um, think about it. 

Is, is that something that was, uh, that you felt whilst writing? It feel like, you know, here's this person who, who's writing means a lot to me and I've met all his friends and family and I want to do well by them. And yeah, I'm just curious a little bit about kind of whether you felt any like [01:25:00] pressure or responsibility when writing this kind of book or whether it's like, Oh, if it doesn't work, someone else will write a better one. 

Brian Boyd: Uh, well, I mean, I, I think try to be a responsible writer in everything I do, but there certainly is a strong sense that Everything that you choose to focus on and every sentence of the way you, you describe it is coloring the reader's take on, on this. And you could, you could skew it so many different ways. 

You could change the emphasis, change the tone, change the selection of the details, and it would be quite a different picture. So I had to just. trust my sense of what I thought was important about his character, uh, about his creative imagination, uh, about his relationships with others. And yeah, it's, it's a very, very responsible kind of position. 

And in the case of. Papa, I think I'm feeling it perhaps even more acutely because [01:26:00] Papa was, Nabokov, uh, Nabokov's works many people and, or mystified some and so on, but he, he was such a very private person that although he had some good friends, uh, very. Few people knew him beyond the persona he presented in the many interviews that were published during his lifetime. Uh, whereas Papa was, was not a self contained person in the way Nabokov was, and he was also so full of contradictions and intensities that he really so many people and he had so many devotees and try and work out what it was about his personality that caused some people to think he was a monster and other people to think he was divine. Um, yeah, it's, I think actually, psychologically, the, the popper biography will be more much more complicated [01:27:00] than. Nabokov, because even though Nabokov deals with characters who are psychologically complex and sees them from the inside, he was kind of very straightforward, uh, despite the fact that he wrote about some very perverted people. Um, whereas Popper was, uh, mysterious to himself in a way. I mean, he, he was a critical rationalist, but he would fly into temper tantrums and, uh, and alienate people, uh, by the intensity of his criticism, uh, of them. And, and, uh, by his wanting to convert them by, uh, just being so unrelenting in an argument that, uh, that'd be, that'd be, you know, often, often was Arguing in circles around them, so, uh, you know, they felt the vulnerable, vulnerability of their position and yet he was wanting to drive home, uh, almost, as some people have said, almost to be wanting them to [01:28:00] write a letter of, a note of submission to his argument, so, so, yeah, um. 

Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: Yeah, yeah, I'm definitely looking forward to the, to the pop up biography, but from what I understand, it's still going to be a bit until that comes out, right? 

Brian Boyd: Yeah. Yeah. 

Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: Yeah. Okay. So people can put it on their radar, but, 

Brian Boyd: Yeah. 

Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: uh, uh, yeah. I also wanted to ask, you already answered it a little bit, but like what Nabokov book should people start with? 

Brian Boyd: As I said, I think the defense is perhaps the most humanly engaging, you know, in a positive way. The, the hero in that is, um, he's also psychologically twisted in certain ways, but in a very endearing and helpless kind of way. And his relationship with his wife him on as a, as a kind of psychological problem child is, is so touching. Um, it's, it's very but it's, it's, it's marvelously warm. And I want to, [01:29:00] uh, Penine is, is a, uh, is a novel that many to immediately. It's a very, uh, appealing. central character and in some ways it's very funny, but it's also very sad. So that would be one that many people find congenial. My own personal recommendation. 

Well, I actually, I think his autobiography Speak Memory is, um, just. In terms of its prose, it's actually better than almost his fiction. I mean, his, his fiction, he's masks through which he, he speaks and those masks are fascinating, but he's, he's not, well, I mean, it's, there is a kind of mask, I suppose, in Speak Memory, but the, the prose is less mannered and just more beautiful than in most of his fiction. 

And I think it's evocative. Pale Fire is, you know, as I've said, my own personal favorite, although I've written more on Ada. [01:30:00] Uh, Ada is, is very funny, very raunchy, very crazy, very overloaded, but, but it's just, it is, just inexhaustible. So if you're ready to come back, well, you know, I mean, the thing with Nabokov's fiction is that even though they're very, they can become very complicated if you follow up all the clues and clues and try to solve the riddles, if you don't feel you have to do that. 

You can, you can enjoy it on the surface level. And, uh, Ada is just full of a very passionate love affair. It's very, very erotic, much more so than Lolita and, uh, just, yeah, full of, full of a strange kind of intensity and just vividness. Anyway, anyway, so, I mean, it's, it's hard for me to narrow it down. 

There are a few books as you can tell. 

Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: Yeah. At the end of each interview I have [01:31:00] three current questions I ask each guest. The first is, what's a book or paper more people should read? This can be old, new, famous, not known at all, just something you think more people should read. 

Brian Boyd: So my recommendation. If you ask me that question would be a Brazilian novelist, Joaquim Machado de Assis, who was born, uh, in in 1837, I think he was mulatto. So his grandfather was a slave. His father was a freed man, but slavery wasn't abolished in Brazil until I think it was 1881. So when he was nearing his 50s, and in 1881, he published I think it's just an outstanding book, The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas, which is like a combination of Samuel Beckett and Nabokov. 

It's just an extraordinary novel in terms of the 19th [01:32:00] century. It's just so self conscious and so, so funny, so black, uh, in mood, you know. very, very dark and yet, yeah, it's just, uh, exquisitely written and full of surprises, um, and, and very, very funny. So that would be my pick. And, you know, people who, who have read, uh, Machado, it was just adored by everybody in Brazil who reads anything. 

He is regarded with a reverence that Russians have for Pushkin and greater than English speakers have for Shakespeare. just. popular amongst all ages who read there. And anybody from outside Brazil who reads them is blown away. But somehow he did, he's up there with Flaubert and Tolstoy and so on, but Dickens, but he's, he's not read at the same level. 

And so, yeah, that would be my pitch. 

Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: Okay, it's a fantastic recommendation because I've never heard of him. I've [01:33:00] said this before, like usually these recommendations are something I've never heard of before or something that I've heard about 500 times and I know I should read. Um, occasionally I've actually read things, but almost never. Um, so I love always the ones that also come from the, I probably prefer the ones that I've never heard of like this one, uh, is there a particular translation you'd recommend or is there just one or? 

Brian Boyd: There are two newish translations that came out in about the, uh, the last two or three years into English. I used to teach it within the context of an English course, and I just, I mean, you know, if you know a bit of Latin and, and a bit of French and, I don't know, and, and, and you're interested enough, I I, I translated the opening paragraph or so of his into. Exactly the same number of words that he'd used. So a hundred words, a hundred words. And the, whereas the existing translations that were available at that time were about 130 or [01:34:00] 150 words, and they'd lost all the, the tautness and the rhythm. And, uh, so. certainly couldn't do that for the whole novel, but I gather that these two new versions, which I haven't read, are much superior to the earlier versions. 

So there's a 2020 something, there's one with notes and one without notes, and apparently the one with notes is very useful because it's a very elusive novel, but the one without notes is actually probably the more Idiomatic translation into English, but I mean, I don't know he's well, he's been translated into German if you want to read them that way. 

Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: Yeah, I always have this, this question, like, do I, do I read the English or German translation? I guess Portuguese probably doesn't make that much of a difference. Like there's some language where there's an obvious, like, it obviously makes more sense, but 

Brian Boyd: It's, it's been translated more often probably into English, so got a range of translations there. 

Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: yeah. Anyway, I'll, I'll find the two that you mentioned and put [01:35:00] them in the show notes. Um, second question is something you wish you'd learned sooner, which can be, you know, from your work life, from your private life, whatever you want, but something that you think would have improved your life if you'd learned a little bit sooner. 


Brian Boyd: picked up German to do the Popper biography. I wish I'd known, and well, picked it up, uh, you know, in a very rudimentary kind of way. I wish I'd learned that early. I wish I'd learned Greek, which, which he Works with, uh, as well as quantum mechanics. I wish I'd learnt a lot of physics. 

I wish I'd learned, uh, a lot of philosophy. So, I mean, popper is like, NACA is a, is a polymath in perhaps even more directions than naca. So I'm pushing beyond the boundaries of my secure knowledge everywhere I trade in the pop biography. So yeah, there are all sorts of things I wish I knew and I, I was hoping in a way that doing the pop biography would be a. Kind of way of picking up a second education, but, [01:36:00] uh, yeah, it hasn't worked out that way. Just, just compiling the data and assembling it. And so I haven't had, I never expected to get up to his level of mastery of, um, of quantum physics where he, he, he talked to Schrodinger and Einstein and Bohr and argued, argued with them and others, uh, and was one of the founding editors of, of, uh, the foundations of physics. 

And, you know, And logic. I mean, you know, he did groundbreaking work in logic. All these fields that are, you know, I thought I was going to get up to a certain level of competence. I'm, I'm not going to be able to do that. And, uh, I think I have interesting things to say about his ideas. All the same, and I certainly know his life better than anybody else, I think. 

You know, I've just been working with the data so much, I've got more data, but uh, but yeah, all those things, if I'd German, Greek, you know, physics, [01:37:00] oh yes, it would have been so, so much easier. But you know, the thing is that nobody who consider undertaking Popper's biography would have all those skills, so. 

That, that's my consolation. And he also, he also wrote music in a Bach like vein. And, you know, he studied the Vienna Conservatory of Music. And, and, you know, I listened to a lot of classical music, but I have no sophisticated understanding in the way he had. And he would whistle symphonies for pleasure. Yeah. 

Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: yeah, I guess that's the, the, the tricky part of, I guess in that way, maybe doing these interviews as always is a little bit similar to writing a biography in the sense that you, you try and, you know, enter someone's world and the way they think and that kind of stuff. And you're always a complete outsider to everything because, you know, they've lived it and you walk with a biography, obviously you can spend a lot more time on it than I can with an [01:38:00] interview, but there's the sense of. 

You know, especially with, I mean, you know, with you today, we, we just talked about Nabokov, but there were so many other things that we could have talked about and that, you know, I then, I guess I have the luxury in that sense that I can just focus on one topic and spend less time on it overall. But yeah, I understand, I understand what you mean. 

I've definitely had some interviews where you're like, how do I understand all of this and, and be able to hold a decent interview with this person who knows like a million things more about a million different topics. But, um, I guess I don't know. Maybe the biography is in the sense like an interview then where you're the intermediary between the person and someone who knows almost nothing about it. 

I don't know. Um, final question, advice for PhD students or postdocs. Uh, so yeah, usually I ask this to, you know, people in neuroscience and psychology, where I guess there's a kind of more traditional, uh, or where there's. A specific means to that context. I don't know [01:39:00] whether that's the same in like, you know, writing biographies. 

And then I guess the question is always about like people at this kind of transitionary period, you know, you've finished something, you're starting to become independent, that kind of thing. Yeah. 

Brian Boyd: My, my stress would be on going for quality over quantity. You know, the, the pressure is so much to, to build up a CV with lots and lots of publications, but unless you're really developing an original of inquiry, just a sheer number of, of publications, I think are not going to get you very far. So I think. I would suggest, you know, slowing down the publication rate and making sure that you've got a problem nobody else has been quite asking in the same way, or perhaps an entirely new problem if, yeah, that would be my advice. 

Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: Okay. Well, uh, yeah, as I said, uh, when we started, yeah, [01:40:00] yeah. Well, I mean, yeah. 

Brian Boyd: I think if people can see that you're, you're asking something new, you're not just using an existing methodology that happens to be productive at the moment, then they'll be more likely to want to single you out for support. 

Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: I mean, yeah, Brian, thank you very much for your time. As I said in the beginning, this is kind of a, an unusual episode for me. That was very special. Um, so, uh, yeah, thank you very much for taking the time and looking forward to the proper biography. Okay. 

Brian Boyd: Thanks very much, Ben. It was, it was a pleasure talking to you.

Why this is a special episode for me
Nabokov's family & childhood
The Russian Revolution, starting in 1917
Nabokov's study years in Cambridge and emigre years in Berlin in the 1920s and 30s
Nabokov's early American years: teaching and butterflies
Nabokov's Russian vs English works, and the problem of translations
Pale Fire
Nabokov's writing process
Nabokov's reception
Writing Nabokov's biography: how it started, meeting Nabokov's family, researching and writing, and the responsibility of writing the defining work on someone
Which Nabokov book should new readers read first?
A book or paper more people should read
Something Brian wishes he'd learnt sooner
Advice for PhD students/postdocs