william boyd

Secrets of Nabokov’s Teapot

Down here in southwest France, the summer of 2023 has been kind: sunny, not too hot, an obliging shower of rain when required. Only one phenomenon marks it out – a spate of bird crashes, five so far, four starlings and a thrush. By this I mean the sudden death of a bird caused by it flying, full- pelt, into the glass doors and windows of our house. Some- times I hear the thwack, almost as if a rock has been thrown, but most often I discover the corpse on the doorstep or on the ground below the window. The sheer force of the collision breaks the bird ’s back, I suppose. It ’s easy to understand why this happens, particularly in sunshine: the greener y outside is reflected onto the glass; the bird thinks it can fly on safely into a deadly illusion.

We have a large fig tree next to our house and every year it bears tremendous f ruit. It ’s the fig tree that attracts the starlings, in their modest but ravenous murmurations. A couple of hundred will circle and suddenly descend on the tree, gulping down the figs, squealing and fighting with each other. But starlings are nervous birds, easily spooked. A tractor starting up in the next field, a barking dog, a door opening and they are off , w i t h a g r e a t w h i r r o f w i n g s a n d a t s u p e r - h i g h s p e e d . They are very fast flyers. This is what accounts for the starling death toll, I realise. I don’t know what the solitar y thrush was thinking about.

Every time this happens I’m reminded of Vladimir Nabokov’s unique and hilarious novel Pale Fire and the opening cou- plet of the 999-line poem that gives the book its title:

I was the shadow of the waxwing slain By the false azure in the window pane. I’ve reread Pale Fire several times and regularly choose it as my favourite novel when the question arises. I have read almost everything Nabokov wrote and, as with any writer one reveres, when the work has been thoroughly consumed, one becomes more and more curious about the actual person.

I happen to have one thing in common with Nabokov. Both of us appeared on the legendary French book programme Apostrophes . I n f a c t , I a p p e a r e d t h r e e t i m e s o n Apostrophes, but always with other writers. Nabokov – in the enduring glow of his postLolita fame – had the whole show to himself.

Apostrophes ended its fif teen-year run in 1990. It was an astonishing programme. Broadcast live on a major channel on a Friday evening and lasting sixty minutes, it simply involved writers talking about their books and being interrogated about them. Yet it regularly had an audience of millions of viewers – some programmes were watched by six million – and guaranteed the participating authors a massive spike in sales. Its success owed to the diligence, candour and personality of its presenter, Bernard Pivot, who is still famous today (he was

chairman of the Académie Goncourt f rom 2014 to 2020). Pivot read ever y book that he presented on the show. His integrity shone with a clear bright light. No publisher, however eminent, could sway his choice of books. No celebrity or politician pushing their memoirs could finagle their way onto Apostrophes i f Pivot didn’t want them. The show could be unashamedly highbrow but Pivot had no truck with intellectual flimflammery. He asked di cult, blunt questions and called out bullshit when it was aired.

Nabokov agreed to do a show dedicated entirely to himself but he had one condition. It was what music stars on tour call ‘riders’ (stipulating the type of mineral water served, the flowers and decor in the dressing room, the colour of the tow- els and so on). Pivot told me this himself so I know it ’s true. Nabokov’s rider was that, during the live transmission of the show, he would be allowed to drink some whisky. It would help calm his nerves. Pivot said that this would be impossible: the channel would never agree. But then they found a way.

A DVD of Nabokov’s interview on Apostrophes was released (I own a copy) and Pivot explained the clever scheme they came up with to satisfy Nabokov’s demand. As Pivot and Nabokov talk (Nabokov’s French was very good), Nabokov can be seen, f rom time to time, reaching for a tetsubin – a traditional castiron Japanese teapot – that was set on the coffee table in f ront of him and he would carefully pour some tea into a porcelain cup. Every now and again he would pause to have a sip and the interview would continue.

Of course, the ‘tea’ was whisky. A bottle of whisky had been decanted into the tetsubin and a delic ate cup and saucer provided. Once you know this, you can see as the long inter view progresses that Nabokov is slowly but surely becoming gently pissed. But his responses to Pivot ’s questions remain remarkably lucid and clever. This is thanks to a condition that he laid down throughout his life that pertained to the dozens, if not hundreds, of inter views he gave. Questions had to be supplied in advance and he would write his answers to them – and read them out if the interview was being broadcast. Consequently, Nabokov ’s published inter views are in a c lass of their own, as any reading of Strong Opinions or Think, Wr i te , Spe a k will underline. And this is exactly what he did on the live broadcast of Apostrophes. Sometimes on the DVD it ’s just possible to make out the semi-concealed index cards where his replies were written down. This allowed him to cope with the genial mind-fuddling that his regular recourse to the tetsubin and its whisky engendered. In any event it ’s a great, memorable inter view. And Pivot, fine actor that he showed himself to be – impassive, attentive – gave nothing away as his guest paused before answering the next question, reached for the tetsubin and carefully poured himself another calming whisky shot.

september 2023 | Literary Review 1