Vladimir Nabokov, Edmund Wilson, and the End of a Beautiful Friendship
by Alex Beam
Pantheon Books, hardcover, $26.95, 224 pages
Neither Vladimir Nabokov, Russian émigré writer whose career was made by the publication of Lolita, nor Edmund “Bunny” Wilson, American man of letters, whose career in literary criticism declined as Nabokov’s fame rose, comes off looking good or noble in this book. I had not realized how venomous and petty Nabokov could be, nor how mushy and sentimental, not to mention stupid, Wilson could be.
Alex Beam, Boston Globe columnist, author of five previous books, and former Moscow bureau chief for Business Week, begins his book with a quote from Samuel Johnson’s “The Uncertainty of Friendship,” which mentions friendship’s “sublime enjoyment” but also how “there is no human possession of which the duration is less certain.” Dr. Johnson is an appropriate figure to quote because both Nabokov and Wilson shared the great doctor’s immense learning and impatience with blockheads; what they lacked was his humility.
The friendship of Nabokov and Wilson began in 1940 when the composer, Nicolas Nabokov, Wilson’s summer neighbor on Cape Cod, asked Wilson to help his recently arrived penurious cousin, Vladimir. Wilson, interim literary editor of The New Republic at the time, gave Vladimir some books to review, introduced him to the editors of The Atlantic and The New Yorker, and was soon smitten by the brilliance of the Russian’s prose, except for the puns. Wilson could not abide puns and told Nabokov so. This was a precursor of things to come: “In many ways the two men proved to be entirely different and contradictory people, Wilson the erudite literalist and Nabokov the ludist, the fantasist, the trickster king.”
The other harbinger was a cultural-political one: Wilson admired Lenin and first began to study Russian while laid up in a Russian hospital on a visit in the 30s. Whereas Nabokov had had to leave an idyllic aristocratic life, celebrated in Speak, Memory and live as an exile. When Wilson gave Nabokov an inscribed copy of To the Finland Station, a “sympathetic overview of the origins of European and Russian Marxism,” he hoped it would make his friend think twice about Lenin. Nabokov replied, “Not even the magic of your style has made me like him.” Beam adds: “For Nabokov ‘Leninist reality,’ as the Soviets liked to call it, would always be ‘a pail of milk of human kindness with a dead rat at the bottom.’”
Despite these “seeds” of discord, as Beam calls them, the two men hit it off. They both loved the study of prosody, both had strong, often contradictory, opinions about everything, though a hatred of Freudianism united them. Wilson loved the Russian language and worked hard at it; Nabokov “occasionally derided” his friend’s Russian but also reached out to him as a translator for his novel, The Gift, for which Wilson was too busy. Both men enjoyed limericks and Wilson would slip Nabokov choice bits of pornography he had found; Vera, Nabokov’s wife, did not approve. The two men also had a running dispute about the proper way to have sex in a taxi cab. Both loved to perform magic tricks; Wilson in person, Nabokov in his books.
But then Nabokov wrote Lolita. Wilson despised it but, without finishing it, handed it on to the publisher Jason Epstein. Neither he nor any other American publisher dared publish it, so it was left to the French. Lolita became a worldwide bestseller and made Nabokov rich enough to move to Switzerland and live in the Montreux Palace Hotel. The only book that competed with Lolita was Dr. Zhivago by Boris Pasternak.
Which Nabokov despised and Wilson loved. At first, knowing Pasternak’s difficult situation, Nabokov kept his opinions to himself—“Dreary conventional stuff . . . trashy, melodramatic, false and inept”—but when Pasternak won the Noble Prize, Nabokov and Vera caught a whiff of a Russian plot and Nabokov lined his cannons up. Beam notes, “Nabokov, over time, became unhinged on this subject.”
So did Wilson, but in the opposite direction. “Dr. Zhivago,” he wrote, “will, I believe, come to stand as one of the great events in man’s literary and moral history.”
Wilson waxed full-tilt mystical on Zhivago, doubling down on his questionable premise that the novel was a profoundly Christian work, pregnant with religious symbolism, for example, “the five barless windows in the house in Siberia are the five wounds of Jesus.”
This from the man who had ridiculed the conversions of such writers as Evelyn Waugh, W. H. Auden, and T. S. Eliot.
Wilson was also prone, in Beam’s words, to “some kooky political notions: among them that 69 percent of the government’s budget was devoted to military spending, which was not true.” “Wilson,” Beam writes,
had evolved into a ban-the-bomb-style enemy of the national security state, but Nabokov was all for bombs, the more the merrier. He would gladly have loaned the Strategic Air Command his maps of Moscow and St. Petersburg if he thought that would hasten the demise of what he always viewed as the “evil empire.”
In 1964, however, when Wilson and his Russian wife, Elena, visited the Nabokovs in Montreux, they were still getting along famously.
Then came the publication of Nabokov’s translation of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin. “What,” Beam asks, “had Nabokov wrought?”
A doorstop composed of unequal parts hubris, genius, philological research carried to proctological extremes, heedless and needless provocations, often but not always informed by an exquisite literary sensibility.
Wilson then, in Beam’s phrasing, carpet bombed the translation in The New York Review of Books and the war was on. The problem, as Chesterton might have put it, was that it wasn’t an argument but a quarrel. The quarrel intensified and became more insulting and personal as it moved to other fronts: Stephen Spender’s Encounter, New Statesman, and The New York Times Book Review. What really irked Nabokov was Wilson lecturing him on his native language, and speculating on Nabokov’s psyche by writing that his Onegin translation showed “the drama of Nabokov himself attempting to correlate his English and Russian sides.” According to Beam, Nabokov considered this as “ ‘human interest’ twaddle.” Later, Wilson even dared to mention Vera, to whom Nabokov was fiercely devoted, in an unflattering light.
The feud permanently estranged the two men and even went on after Wilson’s death when his posthumous work was published. Some of this Nabokov responded to, some of it wasn’t worth it. And then, after Nabokov’s death, a few others joined the fray and Nabokov’s son, Dmitri, fired off a few salvos.
Why did this happen? Besides the seeds of discord already mentioned, Beam chalks it up to a combination of Wilson’s envy of Nabokov’s success and Nabokov’s reluctance to admit how much he owed to Wilson. Beam tells his well-researched story lightly and humorously when he can, sadly when he must. As Nabokov wrote to Elena Wilson when she was gathering their letters for publication, “I need not tell you what agony it was rereading the exchanges belonging to the early radiant era of our correspondence.”