In the middle of our present political storms, it feels a little odd (if undeniably enjoyable) to dive into a literary teapot tempest that’s half a century old — but here goes.
“The Feud: Vladimir Nabokov, Edmund Wilson, and the End of a Beautiful Friendship” traces the shifts in the relationship between America’s pre-eminent man of letters in the 1940s, Edmund Wilson, and an impoverished Russian émigré writer, Vladimir Nabokov, who hit the literary big-time with “Lolita” in the late 1950s. Author Alex Beam, a Boston Globe columnist, sums up their history succinctly when he observes, “[T]he two men proved to be two entirely different and contradictory people, Wilson the erudite literalist, and Nabokov the ludist, the fantasist, the trickster king. The opposites attracted, and then they didn’t.”
They met in 1940, when Wilson was 45 and Nabokov was 40. Nabokov — a refugee, first from the Russian Revolution and then from Nazi-dominated Europe — was initially the supplicant in the relationship and Wilson the dispenser of favors. As temporary literary editor of The New Republic, Wilson sent book-review work Nabokov’s way and generously introduced him to editors at The New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s Bazaar, and other publications. He also supplied an enthusiastic blurb for Nabokov’s first novel written in English, “The Real Life of Sebastian Knight.”
But the two men came from very different places culturally, politically, and temperamentally.
The considerable pleasure of “The Feud” derives from the agile way Beam shows how those differences manifested themselves in the first two decades of the friendship and then erupted into enmity in the third. Beam wears his learning lightly. He has a keen sense of the absurd and is mischievous but not malicious in exposing the foibles of these frenemies. He also, while he’s at it, has some Nabokovian fun as he laces his narrative with wordplay and faux-scholarly flourishes.
Both men, in his account, were adherents of personality cults. Wilson’s object of worship was Vladimir Lenin. He saw Soviet Russia as “the moral top of the world, where the light never really goes out.” After viewing the preserved corpse of Lenin in Moscow, he described it, preposterously, as “profoundly aristocratic.” He later retracted some of his enthusiasm for “Things Soviet.” But he stayed leftist/libertarian in his sympathies, and for decades refused to pay any US income tax.
Nabokov’s object of worship was himself, and the greater his success, the less need he saw to be diplomatic about it. His family had lost all its wealth and security to the Bolshevik Revolution, so he hardly felt kindly toward Stalinist Russia. In his anti-Communist fervor, he supported the Vietnam War and was a Nixon fan. On the literary front, he was still more contrary, dismissing Dostoevsky (“a third-rate writer”), Henry James (“that pale porpoise”), and Jane Austen (being candidly prejudiced “against all woman writers”).
Wilson had his pet peeves, too (Freud, Cervantes). But there was one writer they admiringly agreed on: Alexander Pushkin, author of “Eugene Onegin.”
While things were awkward between them after Wilson read the first half of “Lolita” and, without bothering to finish it, declared it his least favorite Nabokov novel, the real sparks flew when Nabokov published his translation of “Eugene Onegin.” Nabokov sneered at all other attempts to translate Pushkin’s novel in verse. His own version, which came with 930 pages of commentary appended to the 200-page poem, was savaged by Wilson in The New York Review of Books.
“The only characteristic Nabokov trait that one recognizes in this uneven and sometimes banal translation,” Wilson wrote, “is the addiction to rare and unfamiliar words.” (Wilson’s examples included “rememorating,” “producement,” “curvate,” and “scrab.”)
Nabokov swung back, questioning Wilson’s knowledge of Russian, which by all accounts was good but not on par with a native speaker’s. The dispute went on for years in the pages of The New York Review, Encounter, The New Statesmen, and The New York Times Book Review. Writers Anthony Burgess, Robert Graves, Robert Lowell, and V.S. Pritchett all joined in.
Some commentators even raised the possibility that the whole brouhaha was a joke conceived and executed by Nabokov. He was, after all, author of “Pale Fire,” an academia-mocking novel consisting of a 1,000-line poem and a commentary six times its length. Might his 930-page commentary on Pushkin also be a parody?
Beam addresses all these issues and has great fun with them. But his book mostly leaves you asking yourself how prideful and pig headed even the smartest men can be. If there’s a broader application to “The Feud,” it stems from that question, which doesn’t bode well for any of us.
Vladimir Nabokov, Edmund Wilson, and the End of a Beautiful Friendship
By Alex Beam
Pantheon, 224 pp., $26.95
Novelist Michael Upchurch (“Passive Intruder”) is the former Seattle Times book critic.