The feud Vladimir Nabokov, Edmund Wilson, and the end of a beautiful friendship

Alex Beam

Book - 2016

"In 1940 Edmund Wilson was the undisputed big dog of American letters. Vladimir Nabokov was a near-penniless Russian exile seeking asylum in the States. Wilson became a mentor to Nabokov, introducing him to every editor of note, assigning reviews for The New Republic, engineering a Guggenheim. Their intimate friendship blossomed over a shared interest in all things Russian, ruffled a bit by political disagreements. But then came Lolita, and suddenly Nabokov was the big (and very rich) dog. Finally the feud erupted in full when Nabokov published his hugely footnoted and virtually unreadable literal translation of Pushkin's famously untranslatable verse novel Eugene Onegin. Wilson attacked his friend's translation with hammer a...nd tong in the New York Review of Books. Nabokov counterattacked in the same publication. Back and forth the increasingly aggressive letters volleyed until their friendship was reduced to ashes by the narcissism of small differences"--

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New York : Pantheon Books [2016]
Main Author
Alex Beam (author)
First edition
Physical Description
xv, 201 pages : illustrations ; 22 cm
Includes bibliographical references and index.
  • Introduction
  • 1. The Beginning
  • 2. Such Good Friends
  • 3. Sex Doesn't Sell... Or Does It?
  • 4. Whose Mother Is Russia Anyway?
  • 5. Meet Eugene Onegin
  • 6. What Hath Nabokov Wrought?
  • 7. "He Is a Very Old Friend of Mine"
  • 8. We Are All Pushkinists Now
  • 9. Until Death Do Us Part
  • 10. Just Kidding?
  • 11. Why?
  • 12. As I Was Saying...
  • Acknowledgments
  • Notes
  • Index
Review by New York Times Review

IN 1964, Vladimir Nabokov published an English translation of Pushkin's "Eugene Onegin," regarded by many as the supreme treasure of Russian poetry, in an edition that spanned four volumes. The poem took up a fraction of their 1,895 pages. From the bowels of his dictionary, Nabokov dislodged words that might as well have been invented. If you're looking for "mollitude," "ancientry," "shandrydans," "agrestic," "muzzlet" and "scrab," all in one poem, your search is over. Yet, for some reason, to translate Pushkin's robust Russian word for "friend," Nabokov reached for "pal." The volumes were also heavy on extras - sermons on prosody, disquisitions on usage, vitriolic reproofs of all the strained translations of Pushkin out there. For a quarter-century, the literary critic Edmund Wilson, Nabokov's pal, had remained publicly silent about Nabokov's fiction. So when Wilson panned the translation in The New York Review of Books, he plunged to absolute zero a friendship that had been cooling only gradually. The ensuing quarrel drew in a crowd of what Alex Beam calls "1960s eminentos," from Robert Lowell and Christopher Ricks to the historian Alexander Gershenkron. In "The Feud," Beam deems Wilson's 6,600word appraisal "an overlong, spiteful, stochastically accurate, generally useless but unfailingly amusing hatchet job." Beam's own account is unfailingly amusing, not overlong, winningly useless and not entirely free of spite for Wilson, who, based on the evidence Beam provides, seems to deserve it. Why did Wilson savage his friend? Wilson had taken up Nabokov's cause in 1940, when Nabokov, already established as a man of letters in Berlin, found himself beached in North America, wearing Sergei Rachmaninoff's hand-me-downs and casting no public shadow. Wilson pulled strings so Nabokov could publish and eat. He implored The New Yorker not to edit away the Russian writer's weird English, which, long before "mollitude" and "scrab," showed an inventive disregard for native norms. For a time, Wilson and Nabokov loved each other's company. Their correspondence, published in 1979, after both were dead, is a landmark of midcentury letters. Beam, like Nabokov's biographers, traces the rift to several causes. Competition was one. "Memoirs of Hecate County," Wilson's sexually explicit novel, published in 1946, sold nothing like Nabokov's "Lolita" did in 1958. That novel made Nabokov a household name, freeing him from penury and college teaching. It sizzled, sauntered and rocked, in contrast to Wilson's book, which the critics had pronounced overserious and unsexy. "Insect monotony" was how Cyril Connolly described the sex. And then there was Communism. For decades, Wilson had been rooting for the Soviet Union to make good on the utopian visions of the 1917 revolution. He longed to know Russian as only a leftwing dreamer could. But to Nabokov the Bolsheviks were the men who had dispossessed his family, even strafing the ship they escaped on with machine-gun fire - in other words, not a group to be redeemed by Wilson's armchair apologetics. And once Wilson went on the attack, Nabokov was not about to ignore his old friend's poor command of the Russian language. Beam, a columnist for The Boston Globe who served as Moscow bureau chief for Business Week, never explicitly takes a side, but his allegiance isn't hard to guess. He channels Nabokov, aping his stylistic flourishes, while depicting Wilson as a gouty, lecherous grump. Implicitly, "The Feud" celebrates the idiosyncrasy of literature rather than its monumentality, and the charismatic Nabokov would seem the perfect embodiment of idiosyncrasy. By 1958, Wilson was past his prime and so were his cherished subjects, Marxism and modernism. But throughout the 1920s and '30s, he had written selflessly and gorgeously about his contemporaries, literary and otherwise, making a contribution to American literature as large as, and much broader than, Nabokov's brilliant but narrow one. It's not surprising that Nabokov's reputation has endured while Wilson's has faded. Personality sells. But it would be a shame if "The Feud," so brisk and entertaining, provided a reader's only glimpse of one of America's best critics. ERIC BENNETT is the author of "Workshops of Empire: Stegner, Engle, and American Creative Writing During the Cold War" and the novel "A Big Enough Lie"

Copyright (c) The New York Times Company [January 10, 2017]
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

In this intriguing and melancholy chronicle, Boston Globe columnist Beam (Gracefully Insane) traces the rise and fall of the friendship between Edmund Wilson and Vladimir Nabokov. The two men met in 1940, when Nabokov's cousin pleaded with Wilson, an eminent critic and writer, to help Nabokov, a recent émigré from Russia to the U.S. Among other things, Wilson commissioned reviews from Nabokov, helped him secure a Guggenheim Fellowship, and introduced him to prominent editors. Over the years, the two spent holidays together with their families, exchanged affectionate correspondence, and even collaborated on a translation of Alexander Pushkin's Mozart and Salieri. By the time Wilson died in 1972, it had all fallen apart. The main cause was Wilson's scathing review of Nabokov's 1,895-page, hyperquirky translation of Pushkin's Eugene Onegin (one of his many criticisms was Nabokov's choosing the obscure term "sapajous" over the logical translation choice, "monkeys"), which began a protracted war of words between the two. Beam's book evokes the strangely satisfying sensation of witnessing smart people bickering over seemingly small matters. It also provides a fascinating behind-the-scenes glimpse, full of anecdotal ephemera, of how Wilson and Nabokov interacted and why. But the more lasting sensation is the bittersweetness of this portrait of a fallen friendship-at its height, Nabokov wrote to Wilson, "You are one of the few people in the world whom I keenly miss when I do not see them." (Dec.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Review by Library Journal Review

The almost legendary tale of Vladimir Nabokov and Edmund Wilson's very public literary debate is told with great sympathy and skill by Beam (columnist, The Boston Globe; American Crucifixion). From this feud, ostensibly begun over Nabokov's translation of Alexander Pushkin's Eugene Onegin, he has fashioned a kind of Euripidean tragedy on the self-destructive power of the ego. On one level it is a story of two titans of modern American literature coming to verbal blows over vocabulary and syntax, but more importantly, and more universally, it is the story of a generous friendship collapsing under the weight of reputation and the desperate need to have the final say. Beam is a natural storyteller and lucid scholar. The intellectual back-and-forth (mostly glimpsed through letters and diary entries) is fascinating-who would ever imagine that the incorrect use of the past participle could evoke such passion? And yet, the account of these two apparent geniuses devolving into bickering schoolchildren is endlessly readable and bittersweetly comic. VERDICT An outstanding and entertaining book that could have surprising appeal beyond its intended literary audience. Readers who give it a chance will soon find themselves unable to put it down. [See Prepub Alert, 6/6/16.]-Herman Sutter, St. Agnes Acad., Houston © Copyright 2016. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

(c) Copyright Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Introduction   I first learned of the friendship and subsequent feud between Edmund Wilson and Vladimir Nabokov only a few years ago. A friend of mine had been tracking down Alexander Pushkin's descendants--there are a few--and mentioned in passing that Wilson and Nabokov had ended a quarter-century-long friendship because of a disagreement over how to translate Pushkin's novel in verse Eugene Onegin. I burst out laughing. It was the silliest thing I had ever heard.   I hadn't known about this famous contretemps because I was eleven years old in 1965, when Wilson trained his guns against his longtime comrade in letters--"a personal friend of Mr. Nabokov . . . an admirer of much of his work," as he introduced himself in a salvo of ill-will splattered across the pages of The New York Review of Books. I wasn't reading the Review, then in its third year of publication, and it certainly wasn't lying around my parents' house. I was reading Boys' Life, what the Russians would call the "organ" of the Boy Scouts of America. I think Vladimir Nabokov, he of the wondrous outdoorsy boyhood, would have approved.   I know a thing or two about Russian language and literature--my harshest readers will confirm that modest count--but I had never read Onegin, and was familiar with only the highest peaks of Nabokov's astonishing range: Lolita and Speak, Memory. There was a time when college students with literary pretensions read Edmund Wilson, but it wasn't my time. When I graduated in 1975, Wilson had been dead for three years, with his literary renown and influence already in deep eclipse.   Several years into this project, I laugh less now. Of course the pedantic exchanges between two eminent men of letters still ring silly--is pochuya, which could mean "sensing," or "sniffing," a present or past gerund? (Good question!) Did Pushkin know English well enough to read Byron? (Maybe.) But the end of a friendship is always a loss. Especially a friendship so deeply and mutually celebratory as this one. "Edmund was always in a state of joy when Vladimir appeared," Wilson's third wife, Mary McCarthy, recalled. "They had an absolute ball together. He loved him."1 Their correspondence was legendary, full of rambunctious exchanges about literature, gossip, sex in taxicabs, sore gums, and very genuine emotions. "You are one of the few people in the world whom I keenly miss when I do not see them," Nabokov wrote to Wilson eight years into their friendship.2   And then, nothing.   Like so many intimate relationships, this one bore the seeds of its own destruction. In one of his very first letters to his new acquaintance, Wilson scores Nabokov for his punning, which Wilson finds tiresome. But of course it is irrepressible, and will continue throughout his life. Nabokov's last major novel, Ada --the title itself a pun, alluding to "ardor," and to the Russian ah, da (oh, yes)--mentions Mr. Eliot's famous poem, "The Waistline"; and so on, ada infinitum. In many ways the 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.   When their friendship ended, much was made of the fact that Wilson never reviewed any of Nabokov's novels. Indeed Nabokov himself complained in a gift inscription to Wilson, "Why do you never review my works?" But it is very hard to imagine Wilson enjoying, say, The Gift, Nabokov's favorite of his own Russian novels. The Gift would have infuriated Wilson. It is simultaneously a work of literary criticism, a memoir of the Russian emigration in Germany, and a complicated gloss on Pushkin's Onegin. The Gift incorporates a novella-length, jocoserious "biography" of Nikolai Chernyshevsky, a sacred figure of nineteenth-century socialism whom Nabokov mercilessly lampoons.   It is supremely Nabokovian; a novel, and not a novel. And it ends with a perfectly crafted Onegin stanza, Nabokov's knowing nod to his favorite Russian writer. That stanza appears on--but I anticipate.   It is equally hard to imagine Nabokov reading, savoring, or even understanding Patriotic Gore, Wilson's unsentimental, revisionist overview of the literature and the mythopoeia that animated the combatants in America's Civil War. Wilson spent more than ten years researching the book. It is difficult to envision Nabokov spending even ten minutes perusing its index. When Gore appeared in 1962, Nabokov had already ensconced himself in Switzerland, settled atop a pile of money from the fabulous sales of his novel Lolita. America, and Edmund Wilson, were only faintly visible in his rearview mirror.   Let me make two quick points:   Told from such a distance in time, this becomes a story of unequal combat. Nabokov is very much alive in his work, perhaps less on the night table than on the college syllabus, but nonetheless he remains known to millions. Not so Wilson. In the years leading up to his death in 1972, "he was not much read," his friend Jason Epstein wrote in a heartfelt obituary. Once hailed as the "dean of American letters," possessed of what the biographer Leon Edel called "a certain Johnsonian celebrity," Wilson is largely unknown today. When I mentioned Wilson's name to a participant at a donors' event at the Boston Public Library, his reply was: "It's weird how he makes everything about ants." No, that is Edward O. Wilson, the Harvard professor and author of The Ants, The Anthill, and Journey to the Ants. Edmund Wilson was someone else entirely.   Second: There seems to be an infectious tendency to "go Nabokovian" when writing about the late, great novelist. Andrew Field, Nabokov's first biographer, decided not to include an index with his biography, a complicated and annoying homage to his subject, who sometimes bent indexes to his own playful needs. When Wilson's biographer Jeffrey Meyers wrote about the Nabokov-Wilson feud, he couldn't resist the easily available pun "when Pushkin came to shovekin."3 Douglas Hofstadter, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Gödel, Escher, Bach, who spent two years translating Onegin with great élan, fell into pun-ditry himself, asserting his right to "poetic lie-sense," and so on.   I myself succumbed. It is futile to resist the lure of such pseudo-verbs as "pedanitifies," or to ignore the temptation to tack footnote after footnote onto my explanation of Onegin 's scintillating "Pedal Digression." When I needed to cite an Onegin translation, I quoted from the late Walter Arndt's version, just because I knew that would irk the Nabokovian shade. Nabokov hated Arndt's Onegin. I call Vera Nabokov "Vera Nabokova" in part because that is how she signed her name, but also to fingernail-scratch the Elysian blackboard where the Master may currently be lecturing. He inveighed against the feminization of Russian family names, and insisted on teaching Anna Karenin, never Anna Karenina.   These are pure Nabokovian impulses. Literary confrontations were to be pursued in this life and the next. When revising his Onegin translation after Wilson's death, Nabokov urged his publisher to shake a leg: "I would like to see my edition printed before confronting an irate Pushkin and a grinning E. Wilson beyond the cypress curtain."   A feud unto death, and beyond. As we shall see, Wilson attacked Nabokov from beyond the grave, affording himself a satisfaction we cannot yet fully appreciate. In the five years that he outlived Wilson, Nabokov, too, tap-danced on his old rival's tombstone, in a manner unbecoming the international celebrity and self-proclaimed genius that he was. And then Nabokov's son, Dmitri--but again, I anticipate.   In a famous essay, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote that "friendship, like the immortality of the soul, is too good to be believed."   In the case of Nabokov and Wilson, it was.       Excerpted from The Feud: Vladimir Nabokov, Edmund Wilson, and the End of a Beautiful Friendship by Alex Beam All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.