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The Nabokov-Wilson Letters

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

These letters, in their abundance and style, are the tangible remains of a protracted love-hate relationship between two remarkable modern literary personages: Edmund Wilson, the rooted American, who was primarily a critic, and Vladimir Nabokov, the uprooted exile from Russia, who was primarily a novelist--in a language not his own. The two thought they understood one another; both had a great deal of professional pride and both were inclined to be polyglot; both also wore the masks of their growing eminence. Their letters can be read as a continuing pas de deux, a ballet of "upmanship" that has its comic side if one thinks of two impatient irritable irascible portly figures cavorting on a stage; but this also has its saddening side, for they had great talents in their different fields which might have been better used than in this often trivial and pedantic controversy. There are some 250 letters in which we may be diverted by Wilson's correcting Nabokov's occasionally baroque English or Nabokov's grand seigneur way of correcting Wilson's Russian--and yet both showing a great measure of warmth and affection for each other. It was inevitable that an explosion should occur sooner or later. This came after Lolita and Nabokov's heavily annotated translation of Pushkin. Wilson disliked the novel; and he disliked Nabokov's way of considering himself (as he said in a review) "unique and incomparable and that everybody else … is an oaf and an ignoramus … usually with implications that he is a low class person and a ridiculous personality." The fireworks lasted a long time--in magazines, in correspondence columns, and ultimately in their books.

Their differences lay deeper than in their interminable discussion of Anglo- Russian prosody, their splashing about in trochees, iambs, anapests and amphibrachs. Wilson had accepted--what Nabokov could never accept--the historical fact of the Russian revolution of 1917. Nabokov, cast into the vortex of modern history by that revolution, made a wanderer in Berlin, Paris, New York, lived in nostalgic memories of the Old Russia, where life had seemed benign to the small upper middle class in that vast continent of illiteracy. He could not accept Wilson's probing into the human side of Lenin and Trotsky. To Nabokov they were simply ogres. Wilson could weigh them in the scale of the world's revolutionaries, as we might, with Cromwell, or Castro, Robespierre or, even at this moment, Khomeini. He pleaded guilty to having over-romanticized Lenin in To the Finland Station from the then-existing sources. But Wilson was mainly preoccupied, as he put it, with "the writing and acting of history." Nabokov confined himself to the writing (and perhaps at moments the living) of fiction. Wilson admired the poetry in Nabokov and his storytelling gifts; but he could not accept the "lost world side" of the imaginative emigre. This made Nabokov seem to Wilson ahistorical and apolitical.

The world knows that outside his novels Nabokov was a lover of butterflies, what is called by the awkward word "lepidopterology." He chased their evanescence and their iridescence in many parts of the world, seeking the rarest specimens, even as he chased rare words. In one of his letters, Wilson pointedly asks how Nabokov could "study butterflies from the point of view of their habitat and … pretend

that it is possible to write about human beings and leave out of account all questions of society and environment." That expressed the core of their differences. Behind the screen of delicate acrimony that descended when they discussed how to render Pushkin, there remained this great divergence and each took a different road. Nabokov was in reality of the party of art for art--and he was an artist. Wilson aspired to art too--like Sainte-Beuve he tried to write novels, poetry, plays--but he was too analytical, too critical. This enabled him to see around Nabokov, but he could not perhaps feel sufficiently the extent to which butterflies and nymphets--the world in miniatures--enabled Nabokov to escape from many of the humiliating realities he had encountered in his struggle for survival.

And then Wilson did not like Nabokov's novels, certainly not a political novel like Bend Sinister about a mythical dictator. "You are disinterested in these matters," Wilson writes, "and have never taken the trouble to understand them." Wilson adds, "an artist may not take politics seriously, but if he deals with such matters at all, he ought to know what it is all about." We find Wilson's opinion supported by an English political commentator, Harold Nicolson, who deplored Nabokov's failure in his memoirs to make known "the political realities of prerevolutionary Russia."

We are given a glimpse in this correspondence of the pre-revolutionary Russia of Nabokov's memories, but one hesitates to use the word "realities." He casts a kind of glamor over the land in which his father, an outstanding liberal who was assassinated, played an enlightened role. "A freedom-loving Russian," Nabokov writes to Wilson,

“had incomparably more possibility and means of expressing himself than at any time during Lenin's and Stalin's regime. He was protected by law. There were fearless and independent judges in Russia: The Russian sud [legal system] after the Alexander reforms was a magnificent institution, not only on paper. Periodicals of various tendencies and political parties of all possible kinds, legally or illegally, flourished and all parties were represented in the Dumas [parliaments]. Public opinion was always liberal and progressive.”

These tinted remarks, so at odds with the history books and eyewitnesses, are prefaced by Nabokov's saying that this existed "despite the inept and barbarous" rule of the czars. "Barbarous" is a strong word; and the reference to "legally and illegally" suggests some kind of diminution of the democratic picture Nabokov paints. The novelist seemed to believe that exile in Siberia under the czar was pleasanter than any camp Stalin could devise. For Wilson, however, the question was not one of comparing tyrannies. He was concerned with the meaning of revolution, and with what makes history happen.

Simon Karlinsky, the editor of these letters, is professor of Slavonic literature and languages at Berkeley. He has written a preface in which he takes the side of Nabokov against Wilson where history is concerned; and he seems, in the tears he sheds for the czar, quite as blind to the nature of history as his literary model. Or shall we say that he is a linguist who is politically naive: to tell us that Nabokov had a "ringside" seat at the Russian Revolution is to stretch our credibility; and while he pleads impartiality, he chides Wilson, in his lengthy footnotes, for not listening to Nabokov's eloquence; or for forgetting he has told a certain story before; but when Nabokov forgets, he is silent. His logic seems dubious when he wonders why Wilson, who gave Nabokov a certain stimulus to write Lolita, later didn't like the novel. These may be small matters, but they illustrate the rather unimaginative editing of these letters. Absent from the book is the "connective tissue" between groups of letters which might have told us where the two men stood in their careers, and the literary-historical background of their sympathies and differences.

Karlinsky sees more similarities than differences. What is clear to the reader is that in spite of their intellectual ballet, they took genuine pleasure in each other's minds. Wilson began by giving Nabokov a great deal of support; he put him into touch with editors and publishers; he helped him obtain a Guggenheim fellowship; he tried to get him placed in universities. Both enjoyed what Wilson called their "intellectual romps"--but Wilson consistently felt that Nabokov's fiction contained an excess of "humiliation"--Schadenfreude--of mankind. He speculated that this stemmed from the cruelties Nabokov had experienced as a proud and indeed arrogant Russian liberal, humiliated by history. He had been thrust into a life role of second-class citizenry as a man without a country, who had asserted himself (and found freedom) by the sheer force of his genius. But the struggle had been bitter and hard.

And so the ballet goes on--Wilson and Nabokov argue about the pronunciation of nihilist--or "neehilist"--or whether Merimee really knew Russian or Turgenev English. The correspondence is often a battleground of vanity, pedantry and artistic egotism. It testifies also to the high ideals of art and literature by which both lived; and to their dedication to words, as to an altar of the gods.

Leon Edel, editor of Edmund Wilson's papers and biographer of Henry James, is author of a book on the Bloomsbury group to be published this summer by Lippincott.

By Leon Edel