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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. It is not his fault if he misses one or two private jokes between the pair of correspondents and their intimate friends: e.g., the allusions to a basket of fruit naïvely and crassly sent to Mary McCarthy (then Mrs. Wilson) by another émigré writer, Mark Aldanov, in the hope of eliciting a grateful review from her intransigent husband. And it is too bad that neither Nabokov nor Karlinsky sets Wilson straight, when he attributes “I do not like thee, Dr. Fell” to Tom Brown’s School Days. With what glee Wilson would have put down anyone who had forgotten that the slightly misquoted line had been paraphrased from Martial by the Restoration wit Thomas Brown!

Though a certain number of excisions are indicated, out of due respect for living personalities, the text remains well seasoned with literary gossip. The editor has introduced it with a suggestive essay, “Dear Volodya, Dear Bunny; or, Affinities and Disagreements.” (Curiously, neither writer ever signs his nickname, and Bunny seldom addresses Volodya as such.) Mr. Karlinsky has taken pains to be tactful and even-handed, and of course he is entirely justified in the assumption that readers need to be told more about the Russian background than about the American.

Moreover, although Wilson’s farranging curiosity even extended to Nabokov’s avocation for butterflies, Russian culture is the theme to which both writers from their divergent angles most commonly animadvert—and not simply to its literature, but to its traditional dueling code or its technique of fornication in taxicabs. Mr. Karlinsky dispels the widespread misconception, shared by Wilson, that Nabokov was an apolitical aesthete, and points to the remarkable chapter on the ideologue Chernyshevsky in The Gift, perhaps the finest of his Russian novels and the least appreciated in English. Wilson never read it; nor did he read the totalitarian nightmare, Invitation to a Beheading; and he disliked the latter’s English counterpart, Bend Sinister.

The interchange had been tested at its very beginning, since To the Finland Station had just appeared; Nabokov’s responding opinions about it, while politely dissenting, were historically and socially informed. His adherence to a tradition of old-fashioned constitutional liberalism, for which his public-spirited father had met with assassination, together with a scorn for reactionary White Russians and an amused fondness for his fellow Americans, is explicitly voiced in Nabokov’s letters. One of them expresses his mixed emotions, decidedly more anti-Nazi than anti-Soviet, at the point when Russia entered the Second World War. On the other hand, Mr. Karlinsky, who did not share the Western experience of the Twenties and Thirties, is somewhat doctrinaire in reproaching Wilson for his fellow-traveling radical phase, minimizing the Sacco-Vanzetti case in the retrospective light of the Gulag archipelago. If the Soviet Union was the god that failed for so many left-wing intellectuals, Wilson was both early and candid in expressing his firsthand disillusionment, and—like André Gide under similar circumstances—he soon became a target for party-liners. Though the disagreements would overshadow the affinities, Mr. Karlinsky could have likened Wilson to Nabokov in their parallel records of prickly integrity.

The span of dates in the title may prove misleading. The volume contains 264 entries, well over half of them from the first seven years of their literary dialogue.5 By the early Fifties, when Nabokov has moved from Cambridge to Ithaca, and Wilson was inheriting a house in upstate New York, they were drifting apart. Wilson could describe Nabokov in 1946 as “one of my closest friends” to his old Princeton mentor, Dean Christian Gauss, and could say directly: “Our conversations have been among the few consolations of my literary life through these last years—when my old friends have been dying, petering out or getting more and more neurotic, and the general state of the world has been so discouraging for what used to be called the humanities.” In his turn, Nabokov could foresee “that we will have many a pleasant tussle and that neither will ever yield a thumb (inch) of terrain (ground).” Nabokov had arrived as a wartime refugee, destitute and virtually unknown, fearing he was “too old to change Conradically,” though he had started to compose in English. Wilson saw this process of transposition as “one of the strangest cases on record”—stranger than Conrad’s, inasmuch as the Polish novelist had not previously written fiction in his native language.

Wilson was still facing his own problems of financial insecurity; but he had an influential network of literary connections; and he was temporarily back at The New Republic, where he could assign reviews. With immediate generosity he became Nabokov’s patron, agent, and editorial adviser, setting up initial contacts with the magazines that would sponsor his stories and sketches, chiefly The Atlantic Monthly and The New Yorker.6 He contributed a sympathetic blurb which warmed up the tepid critical reception of The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, as well as a short but favorable review of the little book on Gogol. But though he kept promising to write an article on Nabokov himself, he published nothing else until his Onegin polemic. Words of appreciation in his letters are always balanced by criticisms and suggested corrections. Yet he continued to further Nabokov’s fortunes, seeking other reviewers where he himself entertained doubts, and putting his hard-won wisdom of the marketplace at the disposal of his less worldly friend.

It seems then a significant aberration that, having done so much to aid Nabokov personally and professionally, Wilson was never wholeheartedly enthusiastic about his writing, especially in view of the bypaths and sideshows upon which he himself was sometimes willing to focus attention. The author of Memoirs of Hecate County seems to have been frankly put off by the manuscript of Lolita, whose author regarded it as his “best thing in English,” albeit Wilson liked it “less than anything of yours I have read.” As for the pyrotechnical Pale Fire, it gets no mention whatsoever, and Wilson confessed that he could not finish Ada. No one could have foreseen how a succès de scandale would precipitate Nabokov’s recognition, but to Wilson that turning point must have seemed peculiarly ironic. His reciprocal interest, and it was keen, had been of the kind he took in his informants as a reporter. What better tutor could there have been than Nabokov for his own persistent forays into the Russian language and its literature? As a student, Wilson was intrepid; he was not too embarrassed to ask the most elementary questions, to make his fastidious interlocutor wince at solecisms, to theorize prematurely, or to toss up “a salad of mistakes” in quasi-Russian doggerel, which evoked “a nasty letter” now fortunately lost.

Nonetheless, original acquaintance had been sealed by collaboration, when Wilson prefaced and polished Nabokov’s translation of Pushkin’s playlet, Mozart and Salieri, and it was brought out as a joint undertaking. A book produced by the same division of labor, illustrating and discussing various Russian writers, was likewise contemplated. Indeed Nabokov once proposed, as he gravitated toward Evgeni Onegin, that he and Wilson should “write together a scholarly prose translation…with copious notes.” Wilson had done a free translation into rhythmic prose of Pushkin’s “Bronze Horseman,” which Nabokov approved. Nabokov translated three stanzas of Onegin, observing both rhyme and meter; Wilson praised them, and advised him against continuing a project of such length; but Nabokov felt increasingly preoccupied and ultimately obsessed by the challenge to his unprecedented situation. No single writer had ever been so adept in both Russian and English as himself. Naturally he was impatient with the ineptitudes of such precursors as Oliver Elton and the Yarmolinskys. Yet his own perceptive grasp of Russia’s great novel in verse, along with his conscious ambivalence as a poet between two worlds, consecrated his monumental commitment to an attitude of the utmost austerity—as if to confirm the occlusion of the linguistic barriers.

Wilson would be warranted in accusing Nabokov of condemning himself to wear a hair shirt. Obviously balking at the dictatorship of rhyme, which is more stringent in English because of its relative scarcity and which therefore fosters jingling interpolations, Nabokov proclaimed “a new method” based on “scientific thinking.” His highest aspirations, he would admit at other times, were merely to supply a student’s pony, compromising less and less between an iambic lilt and the Russian word order. In his quest for literalism he ransacked the dictionaries, intermingling slang with archaisms, and was so concerned with lexical approximations that he sacrificed the sense of context and continuity. We are reminded of Ben Jonson’s comment on the synthetic diction of The Faerie Queene: “Spenser writ no language.” The pity of it was that Walter Arndt had preceded Nabokov by a year or so with a readable and reasonably faithful version of Evgeni Onegin which nimbly preserved the verse forms, and that Nabokov—instead of drawing upon his stylistic skills to eclipse his predecessor—sought to crush him with a high-handed review.7 The irony becomes all the sharper if one has noticed that the concluding paragraph of The Gift accords with a perfect Onegin stanza, and that it has been formally and precisely translated in the English rendering.

Pasternak, since he had been working from English to Russian, was admittedly faced with an easier task. Yet Pushkin calls, like Shakespeare, for supple mediation rather than a rigid interposition in the name of some unattainable equivalence:

As much as the author, the translator must confine himself to a vocabulary which is natural to him and avoid the literary artifice involved in stylization. Like the original text, the translation must create an impression of life and not of verbiage.8

Conversely and perversely, Nabokov kept pressing further in the opposite direction, bringing out a flatter new edition a decade afterward, where revision meant “defowlerization” plus a “correlative lexicon” of key words. The lavish set of four volumes, sponsored by the Bollingen Foundation, includes—besides a Russian text in facsimile—more than a thousand pages of commentary and appendices, both prosodic and genealogical. These belong among the curiosities of scholarship as well as literature, not unlike Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy. Nabokov was “at heart a pedant,” he had confided to Wilson; after all, he had spent most of his American years on university campuses; and his Pushkinian commentator is, inter alia, a persona in the satiric vein of Kinbote and Pnin. One of the stubbornest bees in his scholarly bonnet is the repeated insistence that, despite much evidence to the contrary, Pushkin was unfamiliar with English and consequently dependent on French translations—which Nabokov dug for with the dedicated drudgery of an MLA researcher. Wilson would explain this quirk in terms of psychological rivalry: Pushkin might surpass Nabokov on the home ground of Russian poetry, but not in the mastery of a second tongue.

The best account…of Nabokov’s Onegin” to emerge from its controversial reception, Wilson acknowledged, was a review-article by the late Alexander Gerschenkron of Harvard, a learned economic historian who was furthermore an impassioned devotee of poetry in many languages. Picking his well-informed way between the brilliant intuitions and the crotchety preconceptions of Nabokov’s criticism, Gerschenkron gave him ample credit for “a mass of solid learning.” His conclusion was that the “translation can and should be studied, but…it cannot be read.”9 Thus he lent authority to the judgment that Wilson was, in any case, fully qualified to make for himself on the question of the poem’s readability. But Wilson, when he broached the issue of prosody, went out on a limb which had too often been shaken by the gusts of earlier exchanges. Coming to it via the quantitative cadences of the Greco-Latin classics, he overemphasized the conventional regularity of Russian verse, and invidiously contrasted this with English versification in its substitutions and variations. Nabokov had argued for flexibility by scanning, tabulating, and diagramming selected passages. But it had taken nine years for Wilson to learn, from his wife’s cousin Gleb Struve, the principle of one-stressper-word in Russian metrics.

In a letter addressed to me from Montreux on November 1, 1963, Nabokov wrote that his forthcoming “work on Eugene Onegin…crackles with contempt for mediocrity and stupidity.” This made it clear that, while he was reconstructing a masterpiece according to his lights, he was incidentally resolved to flail about him—and not solely at other interpreters. The letters to Wilson crackle with such obiter putdowns. T.S. Eliot is “a fraud and a fake,” Thomas Mann “that quack,” Dostoevsky third-rate, Stendhal worthless, Gorki worth C+, Goethe a vulgarian, while D.H. Lawrence and Sherwood Anderson are “both complete mediocrities artistically.” These disparagements may have helped to buoy up Nabokov’s spirits in the days of obscure endeavor, but they reverberate harshly now. Wilson vainly tried to attract him to Henry James, whom he thought charming but impotent, to André Malraux, whose French he criticized, to William Faulkner, whose stale romanticism blended Victor Hugo with Harriet Beecher Stowe; and the novels of Pasternak and Solzhenitsyn were barely mentionable. Wilson’s one success was to convert Nabokov, for all his prejudice against women writers, to an admiration for Jane Austen. Both were strongly interested in Proust, Joyce, Kafka, and Jean Genet. Nabokov was more open to newer talents: Beckett, Robbe-Grillet, Raymond Queneau.

The differences in taste were between a brisk humanist, whose interests ranged from Biblical exegesis to Indian tribal dances, and a mandarin artist, who inserted chess problems into his elegant volume of English poems. A mutual propensity for wordplay stimulated the two to some of their liveliest interactions. From his first letter, Wilson tried to curb Nabokov’s “lamentable weakness for punning”; but Nabokov had a better ear for languages and poetry in general; and Wilson scored a triumph by demonstrating that the French adjective, fastidieux, is a faux ami of the English “fastidious.” Both delighted in puzzles, hoaxes, and leg-pulls of all sorts. Wilson performed his parlor magic for young Dmitri Nabokov, and earned Vladimir’s salute as a “fellow magician.” One of Nabokov’s earliest Russian stories was called “The Magician,” and he movingly compares himself—exiled from his native language—to a vagrant conjuror in “An Evening of Russian Poetry” and again in “On a Book Entitled Lolita.” If Wilson found Sebastian Knight “absolutely enchanting,” that was more than a cliché; for, to Nabokov, “the great writer is first of all an enchanter.” Again, on an ominously competitive note: “I loved your article on magic though I think you might have mentioned the leading Russian Wizard who so completely mystified the Cape Cod Enchanter.”

In their game of words and wits the tension mounted between the rival prestidigitators. Forced to put on his tricks in a foreign land, it had seemed fortunate for Nabokov that the leading critic there knew Russian as well as Wilson did. Reading his remark about Nabokov in an interview—“He and I disagree on everything in literature except Pushkin”—we are retrospectively confounded by the precariousness of the link.10 Eight years before the controversy erupted, after an argumentative visit to Ithaca, Wilson thanked his host by warning him that he would be reviewing Nabokov’s Onegin. In the same letter he teased Nabokov over his newly won popularity:

I hope that Lolita, as a study of amorous paternity and delinquent girlhood, will touch the American public to the point of making your fortune. If you can get her married to Pnin in Alaska and bring them home to life tenure and the American way of life in some comfortable Middle Western university, you may be able to compete in popularity with Marjorie Morningstar and be lecturing on young people’s problems from Bangor to San Diego.

Genus irritable vatum! For his part, Nabokov had made no secret of their increasing divergence. He was stirred to serious reflections (though not without a pun) by some of Wilson’s brief and hasty comments introducing a paperback selection of Chekhov’s tales:

You can well imagine how strongly I disapprove of your preface. Do you really think that Chehov is Chehov because he wrote about “social phenomena,” “readjustments of a new industrial middle class,” “kulaks” and “rising serfs” (which sounds like the seas)? I thought he wrote of the kind of things that gentle King Lear proposed to discuss in prison with his daughter.

After the break and six following years of silence, on learning of what was to be Wilson’s long terminal illness, Nabokov was moved to recall their meeting of minds with a friendly note. Wilson’s reply, though not unfriendly, was as pugnacious as ever. He served notice that he was revising and reprinting the Onegin review, and also urged his correspondent not to take offense at a passage from his diary appearing in Upstate, which related to the Ithaca visit.11 Predictably Nabokov flared up at what he deemed an invasion of privacy, and fired off a protest to The New York Times, thereby publicly declaring an end to communication.12 Wilson’s last word had been a postscript to his final letter, characteristically questioning a date in Speak, Memory. It was a faltering gesture of one-upmanship, since the point was readily explainable by the discrepancy between the Julian and Gregorian calendars—a symbolic discrepancy, in this unique conjunction.

Letters

137 Bunnys October 25, 1979

  1. 1

    Vladimir Nabokov, “Rowe’s Symbols.” The New York Review of Books, XVII, 5 (October 7, 1971), p.8.

  2. 2

    For Vladimir Nabokov on His Seventieth Birthday, ed. Alfred Appel, Jr. and Charles Newman, TriQuarterly, 17 (Winter, 1970).

  3. 3

    In Memoriam: Vladimir Nabokov, 1899-1977 (McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1977), p. 41.

  4. 4

    The Vladimir Nabokov Research News Letter, 1 (Fall 1978), published at the University of Kansas, p. 3.

  5. 5

    Edmund Wilson, Letters on Literature and Politics, ed. Elena Wilson (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1977), contains texts of, or excerpts from, about a dozen letters from Wilson to Nabokov.

  6. 6

    As it happened—in spite of Mr. Karlinsky’s account—it was not Wilson who put Nabokov into contact with James Laughlin of New Directions, the publisher of his first American books (see “Prospero’s Progress,” Time, XCIII, 21, May 23, 1969, p. 91). Later on Wilson would play an advisory part in disengaging Nabokov from Laughlin’s list.

  7. 7

    Vladimir Nabokov, “Pounding the Clavichord,” The New York Review of Books, II 6 (April 30, 1964), pp. 14-16, followed by Professor Arndt’s response, “Goading the Pony,” pp. 16-18. An admirable translation, somewhat indebted to Nabokov’s but observing the prosodic scheme, has recently been published by the British poet-diplomat, Charles Johnston (The Viking Press, 1978).

  8. 8

    Boris Pasternak, I Remember: Sketches for an Autobiography, with an essay on “Translating Shakespeare” translated by Manya Harari (Pantheon, 1959), p. 125.

  9. 9

    Alexander Gerschenkron, “A Manufactured Monument?” Modern Philology, LXIII, 4 (May 1966), pp. 247, 340.

  10. 10

    See “Lolita’s Creator—Author Nabokov, a ‘Cosmic Joker,”’ Newsweek, LIX, 26 (June 25, 1962), p. 54.

  11. 11

    Wilson’s original review-article, “The Strange Case of Pushkin and Nabokov,” The New York Review of Books, IV, 12 (July 15, 1965), pp. 3-6, was followed by two exchanges of letters between Nabokov and Wilson, ibid. (August 26, 1965, pp. 25-26; January 20, 1966, p. 30; and February 17, 1966, p. 29), plus Nabokov’s “Reply to My Critics” in Encounter, XXVI, 2 (February 1966), pp. 80-89.

  12. 12

    Letters,” New York Times Book Review (November 7, 1971), p. 49.

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