Mind Games

The High Art Wilson-Nabokov Cage Match

The literary critic Edmund Wilson and the novelist Vladimir Nabokov were the greatest of friends, until they weren’t. The cause of their break up? A poem. But an epic poem, fittingly.

I’ve rarely come across a book as entertaining as this one, or as hugely sad. In The Feud, Alex Beam walks us with good sense through one of the great literary quarrels of the 20th century. Its subtitle says it all: Vladimir Nabokov, Edmund Wilson, and the End of a Beautiful Friendship.

It’s hard to imagine two bigger egos in such “dubious battle on the plains of heaven,” to quote Milton. They met in 1940, not long after Nabokov—already a master-novelist, although not in English—arrived in flight from Europe’s nightmare. A Russian cousin introduced him to Wilson, rightly thinking the two men would have much in common. Both were polymaths who took their literary endeavors seriously. It’s hard to imagine anyone with a higher status as a man of letters at the time than Wilson, who was in a position to commission reviews and introduce this Russian genius to the English-speaking world. He showed immense generosity, opening doors at the leading periodicals, making it possible for Nabokov to hope that he might actually earn a living as a writer in his newly adopted country.

As Beam notes, Wilson was a bon vivant: “He liked to socialize, and enjoyed dining, drinking, discussing anything and everything with the Nabokovs and with his wife of the moment—the already famous, and young, and beautiful novelist Mary McCarthy.” The families got together over Thanksgiving in 1941 at Wilson’s home on Cape Cod. McCarthy later recalled that Wilson and Nabokov “had a ball together.” It was a joyous new friendship for both men, who met less often than they wrote letters.

And did they write letters! Their correspondence is enviably witty. They discussed everything that mattered to them, and they had great fun, deeply aware that in the other they had found a ripe audience for their particular kinds of exhaustive learning. Indeed, Beam quotes a bilingual limerick that Wilson wrote for his new friend, making allusions to his fascination with butterflies. Of course, Nabokov responded with his own dazzling and pun-filled verse. Back and forth, they luxuriated in their shared knowledge, a sense of intellectual fizz. Opening a letter was for them like popping a cork on a fine bottle of champagne.

Had Nabokov remained an unsung hero of high art, a refined if at times pedantic scholar and specialist in butterflies, I suspect the friendship would have remained quite beautiful to the end. But these terribly sensitive and bright men seemed on opposite trajectories. Wilson’s best days were behind him, and he would never quite match his early ferocity and freshness. Alcohol played a part in this decline, which is obvious to anyone who has read the work carefully. By contrast, Nabokov blossomed in English, his fourth language (after Russian, German, and French). With Lolita, completed in 1954, he rose to amazing heights of fame (and notoriety).

Nabokov hoped for enthusiasm about his book when he sent a manuscript to Wilson, but his American friend and benefactor disliked the book. “It isn’t merely that the characters and the situation are repulsive in themselves, but that, presented on this scale, they seem quite unreal,” he wrote, including a note from his wife, Mary, who said the book was “terribly sloppy throughout.” The critics, of course, largely disagreed, and Lolita rose and still keeps rising. It’s a masterpiece of world literature, despite its creepy subject. It made Nabokov very rich, and he never again worried about a publisher for his work. “Hurricane Lolita,” says Beam, “swept across Europe, America, and the world, changing the Nabokovs’ lives forever.” It also changed the nature of this literary friendship, although the catastrophe lay ahead.

The public feud began with a review of Nabokov’s translation of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin in The New York Review of Books in the midsummer of 1965. Anyone who knows Pushkin’s book-length poem will know two things at the least: it is a landmark in Russian literature, the equivalent of, say, Paradise Lost in English. And it’s famously beyond translation. (My old Dartmouth colleague and good friend Walter Arndt published what remains the best English version in 1963, although it still doesn’t come to life as poetry.) Needless to say, Wilson lunged vengefully at Nabokov, publishing a review that must be read in its entirety. As Beam says, “It remains a classic of its genre, the genre being overlong, spiteful, stochastically accurate, generally useless but unfailingly amusing hatchet job.”

This was the first explosion, followed by many small blasts from either side, as they conducted a public feud in the letters columns of the New York Review, with a good deal of kibitzing by a variety of other scholars. Wilson had had the temerity to question Nabokov’s command of Russian, despite his own less-than-perfect grasp of Russian, as Nabokov would gleefully point out. The fact remains, of course, that few people now read the Nabokov translation, which is painfully stilted and doesn’t pass the only test that matters with a work of verse translation: Is it poetry in English? It’s not, and Wilson knew it wasn’t. But he delighted in digging into fine linguistic details, engaging the Russian author on his home turf.

The feud more or less concluded in print with Nabokov’s massive “Reply to my Critics,” which appeared in Encounter in February 1966. Stephen Spender, the editor, understood that he had an opportunity, and he gave Nabokov his head. The article of 4,500 words got personal, as Nabokov recalls listening to Wilson as he read aloud from Pushkin. Wilson did this “with great gusto, garbling every second word and turning Pushkin’s iambic line into a kind of spastic anapest with a lot of jaw-twisting haws and rather endearing little barks that utterly jumbled the rhythm.” He then cut through Wilson’s faulty grasp of Russian, delighting in this demolition job.

Wilson replied a couple of times, in thousand-word letters to The New York Review, but it was over now, except for private bickering and a disguised allusion to Wilson in Nabokov’s Ada. The “beautiful friendship” ended, and it was sad, as Nabokov notes after Wilson’s death, when he reread some of their letters and reflected on “the early radiant era” of their friendship, as revealed in that correspondence.

The Feud comes to us at a particularly good time. As we enter into the era of Trumped-down literacy, when “the life of the mind” seems almost like a quaint idea, it’s somehow thrilling to imagine a world where great intellects clashed, taking language seriously, meaning what they said, and being able to back their assertions with genuine knowledge.