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Nabokov & Wilson

In response to:

Visiting Malraux and Nabokov from the August 14, 1986 issue

To the Editors:

With regard to the excerpt from Edmund Wilson’s diaries concerning my father Vladimir Nabokov (“Visiting Nabokov and Malraux,” [NYR, August 14]): I do not wish to belabor the late Bunny Wilson, who for years was Father’s friend and who, during my childhood, regaled me with his ingenious legerdemain. Nonetheless, certain unjust and vaguely Salierian assertions of Wilson’s must be refuted.

When substantially the same comments appeared in Wilson’s book Upstate, Vladimir Nabokov could defend himself. Now he no longer can, so I must speak for him.

Nabokov never said Russian and English verse were “basically the same.” What he did was try to explain Russian prosody to Wilson—who was knowledgeable on many matters but whose Russian was very weak—by using English examples for illustration only. He said (see The Nabokov-Wilson Letters) he had no intention of “forcing alien rhythms” on English. He claimed, with excessive modesty, that he had only a “nodding acquaintance” with English versification, but said he was “quite, quite sure that Russian versification can be explained better to an English poet by the vague similarities between it and English versification than by the blatant differences [italics mine] between the two languages.” And to associate anything Nabokov said about prosody with his father’s anglophile feelings is absurd.

It is equally absurd to ascribe to Nabokov “frequent mistakes” in English, French, and Russian. Occasionally, and sometimes in jest, Nabokov would stress a spoken word in an unorthodox way, much in the manner of the “comically garbled words” he had exchanged with his father (see Speak, Memory), and there was some good-natured kidding between us on that subject too. He occasionally committed verbal or graphic typos (as we all do). But he wrote superbly in all three languages, and devoted great effort to correcting the slips of his translators.

The qualities of Nabokov’s English are known to all who have read him. His one short story written in French, when recently republished in that language, was praised by Paris critics as a model of French style (while Wilson once insisted that derrière was a feminine noun).

Nabokov’s Russian was and is acclaimed for its precision and originality; now even the Soviets, according to a recent press release, cannot resist the temptation of “returning him” to their readers. And Véra Nabokov is fortunately still with us to deny emphatically that she could ever have seriously said, as Wilson affirms, that Father often erred in his native tongue.

Finally, there resurfaces in Wilson’s piece the canard concerning Nabokov’s alleged Schadenfreude (gloating over others’ misfortunes) and “something in him rather nasty.” To perceive Nabokov’s compassion for those who have been wronged by fate or by their fellow men one has only to read, for instance, the novels Pnin, Bend Sinister, or Invitation to a Beheading; Nabokov’s short stories; his poems; or his plays.

And, after many years of close acquaintance, I can attest that Father was always gentle, caring, and even-tempered, and that there is not a nasty ash in his urn. But perhaps Wilson (who admitted that the sight of a lady’s heel piercing a freshly fed kitten gave him a sexual tingle) knew Nabokov better than Mother and I.

Dmitri Nabokov

Montreux, Switzerland

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