A Contest Between Conjurors

The Nabokov-Wilson Letters: Correspondence Between Vladimir Nabokov and Edmund Wilson, 1940-1971

edited, annotated, and with an introductory essay by Simon Karlinsky
Harper & Row, 346 pp., $15.00

In the nostalgic evocations of his “autobiography revisited,” Speak, Memory, Vladimir Nabokov neatly characterized the external pattern of his uprooted career as a Hegelian triad. Its thesis comprised the first two decades, indelibly Russian. Its antithesis, during a little more than the next twenty years, had been his postrevolutionary expatriation in Western Europe. His roughly equal period in the United States (1940-1960), where he became not only a citizen but a writer in English, would be a synthesis as yet unchronicled. Toward the end of his last seventeen years, passed mainly in Switzerland, he envisaged a dialectical sequel, Speak On, Memory, which would cover his American sojourn, including his friendship with Edmund Wilson.

It may well serve the best interests of equity that, while lacking such a personal deposition, we now have the full two-sided documentation (with a few occasional lacunae) for this quickening and pungent episode of our recent literary history. There Wilson’s central position has long been established by his own writings, and is being reinforced by the posthumous publication of his letters and diaries and notebooks. Nabokov’s course, by contrast, has been meteoric and unpredictable, an elusive presence between engagements with other worlds.

Monuments are being erected to him in his adopted country, however, more hastily and indiscriminately than he might have preferred—to judge from his own review of a far-fetched monograph on his use of symbols.1 He did have gracious words for contributors to a Festschrift on the occasion of his seventieth birthday.2 He not only welcomed interviewers to his retreat at Montreux; he firmly set the tone and substance of those interviews, and considered them worthy of reprinting in Strong Opinions (1973). To his subsequent regret, he encouraged the biographical lucubrations of Andrew Field, repudiated by his son at a memorial symposium.3 At the latest meeting of the Modern Language Association, inevitably, a special section was devoted to “New Directions in Nabokov Criticism.” And we may now subscribe to The Vladimir Nabokov Research Newsletter, whose first issue informs us that there are already some twenty books and nearly forty doctoral dissertations, along with the scores of essays and articles pertaining to his works.4 More and more these activities are coming to resemble the academic cult of Ezra Pound, and tending to parody the master they study. Even as brashness raises the pitch of the Poundians, so archness tinges the inflection of the Nabokovians.

Yet such reservations by no means apply to the present editor, Simon Karlinsky. He has validated his credentials as an articulate and knowledgeable interpreter of Russian literature at the University of California (Berkeley), and is jointly responsible for the best collection in English of Chekhov’s letters. Since this new correspondence bristles with Cyrillic quotations, involving frequent mistakes by Wilson and corrections by Nabokov, it is important that the editing should be in expert professional hands, and Professor Karlinsky’s purview is broad enough to provide informative and helpful annotation for the numerous other matters that were bound to arise.…

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