An entire book devoted to a pedantic literary tiff that flared fifty years ago? Fear not. The Feud, Alex Beam’s lively post-mortem on the friendship between two titans of twentieth-century literature — Vladimir Nabokov and Edmund Wilson — is a deliciously smart read. Yes, Beam has plenty to say about literature and the passions it arouses. But The Feud is also a spellbinding — and sobering — cautionary tale about how ego and envy can destroy even the most brilliant friendship.
Beam confesses that he burst out laughing when he first heard that Nabokov and Wilson’s quarter-century relationship ran off the rails because of a disagreement over Nabokov’s translation of Alexander Pushkin’s great novel in verse, Eugene Onegin. But, he writes, “Several years into this project, I laugh less now.” The implosion, he soon learned, was about far more than Wilson’s very public takedown of dear Volodya’s colossal, fourteen-year Pushkin project.
The two men met in 1940, when the émigré composer Nicolas Nabokov wrote Wilson to ask if he could help his writer cousin, Vladimir, who, newly arrived from Paris with his Jewish-born wife and son after fleeing the Nazis, was in dire straits. At forty, Nabokov had spent the past twenty years in exile in England, Berlin, Prague, and Paris after his aristocratic Russian family fled the Bolsheviks in 1919. Writing in Russian under the pen name Vladimir Sirin, he had produced nine novels in twelve years.
At forty-five, Wilson was a distinguished literary critic best known for his 1931 collection of essays, Axel’s Castle, in which he championed modernist writers, including James Joyce. He obligingly commissioned reviews from Nabokov at the New Republic, arranged fruitful contacts with editors at The New Yorker and elsewhere, and provided a flattering blurb (“absolutely enchanting”) for Nabokov’s first novel published in English, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight.
The two men delighted in each other’s company, and when they were apart, a legendary, “unashamedly intimate” correspondence flourished between them for two decades. “For many years Wilson and Nabokov could ask each other almost anything,” Beam writes.
They had many similarities: Both were superbly educated, sons of “prominent jurists,” and ladies’ men. Both shared a disdain for academics and Freud. Neither could drive. Both liked magic tricks and loved discussing matters of prosody. Both not only went bald but wrote baldly about sex, for which they faced censorship.
Early on, they were able to “cheerfully disagree” over little things like the pronunciation of nihilist (NIE-hilist versus NEE-hilist) and even big things like Wilson’s infatuation with Lenin and slowness at renouncing Stalin. But the gulf between them widened, especially when Nabokov’s literary star rose after the 1954 publication of Lolita, while Wilson’s fortunes sank. Wilson, who did not share Nabokov’s fondness for puns, found his writing cold and too full of tricks, and declined to review his novels. He loved Nabokov’s memoir, Speak, Memory, but said he couldn’t even finish Lolita.
It didn’t help their relationship when Wilson extolled Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago, which Nabokov scorned. Nabokov repeatedly questioned Wilson’s knowledge of both Russian language and literature, eventually calling him “a hapless flounderer in the language of Pushkin.” The two split further on the great Cold War divide: Nabokov was virulently, unequivocally against Khrushchev’s Soviet Union. Wilson, although he never joined the Communist Party, leaned decidedly Left.
Beam deftly rounds up all the ammunition for their eventual shootout. Nabokov, firing with anything but neutrality from Switzerland, where he retreated after the success of Lolita, does not come off well. He assassinated scores of writers, dead and alive: Dostoyevsky was “third rate,” Henry James “that pale porpoise,” whom he viewed “as a warmed over Turgenev manqué.” His attacks on translators of Russian literature were even harsher. After suffering through several of Nabokov’s anti-Zhivago rants on the telephone, Wilson complained to a mutual friend, “He wants to be the only Russian novelist in existence.”
Although not a Russian scholar, Beam, a columnist and former Moscow correspondent for The Boston Globe, understands Pushkin’s primacy in Russian culture: “To educated Russians, Onegin is simply everything, as if all of Shakespeare’s comedies and tragedies were supercollided into a narrative poem of 5000-plus lines, which many of them can quote at extraordinary length,” he writes. His analysis of this “peripatetic tale,” which follows eighteen months in the life of a “spoiled society rake,” and his explication of the complicated rhyme scheme and iambic tetrameter metrical system Pushkin created for the work — since dubbed the Onegin stanza — are remarkably succinct and clear. (He illustrates his points with Charles Johnston’s 1977 rhyming translation, my personal favorite.) And while he concedes that “Onegin does not sing in translation,” he adds that the English translations “aren’t as awful as Nabokov insisted they were.”
Which brings us to Nabokov’s magnum, madman opus — a hyper-literal, non-rhyming verse translation of Onegin followed by 930 pages of commentary, published by Bollingen in 1964. Spoiler alert: Beam sides with Wilson. “Nota bene,” he warns. “Edmund Wilson knew something about Alexander Pushkin, and about his poetry.” But summing up Wilson’s 6,600-word review, “The Strange Case of Pushkin and Nabokov,” which appeared in the July, 1965 issue of The New York Review of Books, Beam writes, “It remains a classic of its genre, the genre being an overlong, spiteful, stochastically accurate, generally useless but unfailingly amusing hatchet job.”
Beam observes that “the ensuing seven-plus years of malicious rhetoric” — which he tracks doggedly, though never to the point of tedium — followed balletic, duel-like rules and made for good “knocking copy.” Although his own extensive vocabulary includes words like pasquinading and autarky, he agrees with complaints about Nabokov’s “off-putting vocabulary,” including curvate instead of curved, rememorate for remember, and sapajou instead of monkey. He also agrees with Wilson (and others) on another bone of contention, that Pushkin knew enough English to have read — and been directly influenced by — Byron in the original.
Beam, a witty, concise writer with a nose for sharp zingers and an ability to extract highlights without compromising substance, addresses his reader genially. “Are we done? Not quite,” he writes before turning to Nabokov’s most incisive critic, Harvard professor and fellow Russian émigré Alexander Gerschenkron, who lambasted Nabokov in a 10,000-word salvo in Modern Philology for his “inexcusable arrogance” and “lack of generosity.” Nabokov eventually exacted his revenge with thinly disguised versions of his attackers in his novel Ada — a bestseller in its day, though it failed to achieve anything like the impact of Lolita.
Citing “an infectious tendency to ‘go Nabokovian’ when writing about the late, great novelist,” Beam has fun with all this. His book is enlivened by several classic Nabokov puns — “Day Day” for Doubleday, “The Waistline” for T. S. Eliot’s famous poem — and by Wilson biographer Jeffrey Myers’s irresistible quip about the feud: “when Pushkin came to shovekin.” Beam cleverly refers to Wilson’s problems with the IRS as the “sapajou” on his back.
In the end, The Feud acknowledges that Wilson provoked the quarrel with his scathing review but demonstrates that it had been simmering for years. Wilson “discerned a chilly soullessness” in his suddenly successful friend, who belittled him where it hurt most, by questioning his critical chops. The loss of a friendship that had “fed on the oxygen of intellectual discourse” was sad enough; lamentably, the dispute continued past Wilson’s and Nabokov’s deaths, in 1972 and 1977, respectively. Considering which of the two writers is still widely read, you might say that Wilson won the battle, but Nabokov won the war.