The Weekly Standard
THE MAGAZINE: From the May 29 Issue
Axis of Envy
MAY 29, 2017 | By PARKER BAUER
When the cage isn't big enough for literary lions.
Vladimir Nabokov Photo credit: Newscom
In January 1944 the up-and-coming novelist Vladimir Nabokov sent the oracular literary critic Edmund Wilson a letter, with two enclosures. The first was a sample of Nabokov's new translation of the Russian verse novel Eugene Onegin; the second was a pair of socks Wilson had lent him. The translation, he disclosed, had been done by "a new method I have found after some scientific thinking." In one sock Nabokov had poked a hole, which his wife, Vera, had sewed up with "her rather simple patching methods."
Sometimes Wilson would tuck in a note to Nabokov a paper butterfly with a wound-up rubber band, which, on opening, "buzzed out of the card like a real lepidopteron," delighting Nabokov, whose sideline was the classifying of butterfly genitalia for the Harvard Museum. Mostly by mail, the two writers carried on discourse and disputation (and sometimes just carried on, needling one another) for a quarter-century. Alas, it all ended quite badly.
Pen pals forever, or so it might have seemed: two literary minds who meshed and yet clashed, both deeply engaged but different enough to keep it interesting, masters of the amicable insult. "We have always been frank with one another," breezes Nabokov in 1956, as a kind of keynote for their entire correspondence, "and I know that you will find my criticism exhilarating." Their letters—crackling with debate on diction both Russian and English, with pleas to read this or that overlooked novel, with a crossfire of critiques of their own works—were private, even intimate. Their breakup was anything but. At the end, the combatants were flinging their charges not in personal notes but in the letters columns of literary journals where, almost cinematically, the world could enjoy the spectacle. Curious latecomers can catch it in this retrospective account.
Alex Beam, a newspaper columnist and author of books on life in a mental hospital and the murder of Mormon leader Joseph Smith, brings to this one a tonic light touch, at times an elbow. He reveals that on first learning of the falling-out a few years ago, he thought it "was the silliest thing I had ever heard." For better or worse, he appears not to have gotten over that first impression. When he quips, a bit later, that the duo's "early years together had elements of a courtship, thriving on shared discoveries," we have to feel that he gets it just right. Although Nabokov lived mostly in Germany, England, Switzerland, and America, he was irrevocably Russian. He grew up in St. Petersburg, where his father held a post in the government after the February Revolution in 1917. The family left the country two years later, fleeing the Bolsheviks. Nabokov père was shot dead while addressing a political event in Berlin.
By then, Nabokov was enrolled at Trinity College, Cambridge, and in the next dozen years, he would publish nine novels, all in Russian. In 1940 he arrived in the United States, aiming to start a new literary life. Providentially—though the skeptic Nabokov would have sniffed at the notion of providence—he had a cousin who lived in Wellfleet, Massachusetts, across the street from Edmund Wilson. Needing an advocate, as well as an income, Nabokov wrote to Wilson at the cousin's urging.
Wilson, then literary editor of the New Republic, was pleased, and poised, to lend a hand. At 45, Nabokov's senior by four years, he was the nation's leading critic, having helped to establish the careers of F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Dos Passos, Ernest Hemingway, and William Faulkner. Soon he was running reviews by Nabokov and commending him to other editors. "You are a magician," Nabokov wrote in thanks.
Wilson was fascinated by all things Russian—history, politics, language. In the 1930s, with many in literary America, he had gone through a phase of infatuation with Soviet communism. He visited Russia in 1935, landing in a hospital with scarlet fever, where he set himself to learning the language. His fourth wife, Elena Thornton, was Russian on her mother's side. Before their marriage he wooed her in the Wellfleet house, where, between episodes of lovemaking, he would make her "laugh a lot" by retelling "Russian stories from V. Nabokov." Beam leaves out that last bit, about the risibly aphrodisiac powers of Nabokov's fiction. It comes from Wilson's journals. Yet Beam does a detailed, folksy job—a sort of chummy voiceover—of relating the feud and its long epistolary foreplay.
In 1943, Wilson pulls strings, helping Nabokov get a Guggenheim Fellowship. He wangles advances for them both on a proposed book collaboration, which never gets done. Together they do turn out a translation of Alexander Pushkin's play Mozart and Salieri, Wilson polishing Nabokov's draft and writing the introduction. Their letters make clear their closeness, from afar. Nabokov: "You are one of the very few people in the world whom I keenly miss when I do not see them." Wilson: "Our conversations have been among the few consolations of my literary life through these last years." (The years in question were those of World War II—which is hardly noted in their hundreds of letters.)
One eventual fault line was political. The second of Nabokov's English-language novels, Bend Sinister (1947), portrayed a dictatorial dystopia that it was no leap for him to imagine, since he had fled the scourges of Lenin and Hitler alike. Wilson—whose leftism had moderated but not enough that you'd notice—couldn't abide the book. He fired a squib to Nabokov:
You aren't good at this kind of subject, which involves questions of politics and social change, because you are totally uninterested in these matters and have never taken the trouble to understand them.
The charge was bizarre, betraying an almost amnesiac incomprehension of Nabokov's émigré history, which surely was no secret. Wilson had a long-term psychic investment in Lenin, having chronicled, in To the Finland Station (1940), his ascent to power. To Nabokov, Leninism was "a pail of milk of human kindness with a dead rat at the bottom." As he reproved Wilson later:
you somehow did not bother to check your preconceived notions in regard to old Russia while, on the other hand, the glamor of Lenin's reign retained for you the emotional iridescence which your optimism, idealism and youth had provided.
Yet all the fuss was still in good fun, more or less. Despite his dislike of Bend Sinister, Wilson finagled to get it published. He promoted it to other critics, not wanting to review it himself. And much later, in 1955, he lent his name to getting an agent for a dramatized version. Only with the publication of Boris Pasternak's Doctor Zhivago (1958) did the rancor begin. Wilson composed two lengthy exegeses of the novel, declaring his belief that it would "come to stand as one of the great events in man's literary and moral history." Nabokov, though he admired Pasternak's verse, thought Zhivago was tripe. He later called it "the black cat" that came between them.
Where Wilson, his Marxism abated, saw in the novel an affirmation of Christian premises—especially the idea that the vital unit is the individual, not the mass—Nabokov seems to have seen only competition for his own current novel, the notorious Lolita (1955). The two books were vying to top the bestseller lists. It didn't help Nabokov's humor when Pasternak was awarded a Nobel Prize (which he declined, wary of Kremlin repercussions).
Lolita was another sore spot. Nabokov thought it his best novel; Wilson abhorred it. "Nasty subjects may make fine books," wrote Wilson, "but I don't feel you have got away with this." He ought to know: His own sensational novel Memoirs of Hecate County (1942) had once been banned in New York state.
In 1964 Nabokov published his translation of Pushkin's Eugene Onegin, of which he had sent Wilson a sample long before, along with the mended socks and the ominous note about "scientific thinking." Far from his finest work, nonetheless it would be his magnum opus, measured by weight alone: four volumes, 1,895 pages—nearly all of it Nabokov's commentary and appendices, not the novel itself. This was just the sort of excess that would gag Wilson, who had long urged compact editions of classic works, volumes small enough to be handled in bed.
Nabokov's publishers promoted the idea of a review by Wilson; in an earlier essay he had praised the evocative powers of Pushkin. Nabokov was apprehensive, and for good reason. Wilson's review in the upstart New York Review of Books ran 6,600 words, but the second sentence gave the thrust of the whole thing:
Since Mr. Nabokov is in the habit of introducing any job of this kind which he undertakes by an announcement that he is unique and incomparable and that everybody else who has attempted it is an oaf and an ignoramus, incompetent as a linguist and scholar, usually with the implication that he is also a low-class person and a ridiculous personality, Nabokov ought not to complain if the reviewer, though trying not to imitate Nabokov's bad literary manners, does not hesitate to underline his weaknesses.
His hedge that he felt for Nabokov a "warm affection sometimes chilled by exasperation" could scarcely take the curse off. But he had a case: In the same journal, Nabokov on his high horse had savaged a previous translator's version of Onegin. Wilson judged that Nabokov's overly literal translation did no justice to Pushkin. Onegin is the tale of a louche aristocrat who kills his best friend in a duel and scorns the woman with whom too late (when she marries a prince) he falls in love. Its poetic effects, mistily resistant to posing in English, are doubly blurred by the nutty syntax and diction—"scrab," "rummers," "shippon"—that Nabokov deploys and Wilson deplores.
Moreover, the afterbirth—the massive commentary—suffered "mainly from a lack of common sense." Whether or not Wilson had convinced himself that his attack was completely objective, Nabokov could view it as nothing else than the end of their friendship. The New York Review published his protest, then a follow-up flurry of broadsides from Wilson rebutting the protest. The quarrel spilled over into Encounter, where Nabokov published "A Reply to My Critics"—now numbering, besides Wilson, assorted Slavic scholars displeased with Nabokov's quirky translation. Other writers, including Robert Lowell and Robert Graves (both pro-Wilson), weighed in with letters.
Telling this "silliest" story, Beam strikes the right notes, lightly. On occasion he succumbs to an urge to address his subjects: "But really, Vladimir" and "God bless you, Edmund." He mixes metaphors, including this threefer: "storm-tossed characters pinballing around the canvas of early-twentieth-century Russian and Soviet history." These beefs are minor.
Beam lays stress, perhaps a bit too much, on Edmund Wilson's declining influence by the 1960s. Wilson was living out his days alone, for much of the year, in the dust and shadows of the house he had inherited from his mother in northern New York, while Nabokov, flush with Lolita royalties, lived with his wife in a Swiss luxury hotel. Wilson, says Beam, clung to envy; Nabokov, to self-satisfaction: "Wilson had known Nabokov as a man in need, and continued their friendship into a time when Nabokov preferred to be regarded as a man who needed nothing from anyone."
Hearing of Wilson's poor health, Nabokov, for the first time in years, wrote him a letter: "please believe that I have long ceased to bear you a grudge for your incomprehensible incomprehension of Pushkin's and Nabokov's Onegin." The note went unanswered, Wilson saying to someone, "It always makes him cheerful to think that his friends are in bad shape." Nabokov noted in his journal for the week of June 12, 1972: "E. W. died." Five years later, Nabokov would follow. There wasn't any winner.
Parker Bauer is a writer in Florida.