The Feud: Vladimir Nabokov, Edmund Wilson, and the End of a Beautiful Friendship
by Alex Beam (Pantheon, $27)
“I’ve rarely come across a book as entertaining as this one, or as hugely sad,” said Jay Parini in TheDailyBeast.com. When Vladimir Nabokov and Edmund Wilson ended their singular friendship, they ended it singularly badly. For 15 years, the two 20th-century literary giants had been near soul mates, as Wilson helped Nabokov get his footing in American intellectual circles. But resentments steeped over the next decade and exploded publicly in 1965, when Wilson, writing for The New York Review of Books, savaged Nabokov’s translation of a revered book-length poem by Alexander Pushkin. As we witness the volley of insults that followed, it’s “hard to imagine two bigger egos in such dubious battle,” and it all makes great reading.
The friendship had never been one between equals, said Dominic Green in The Wall Street Journal. At first, the advantage lay with Wilson, who was one of the country’s leading intellectuals in 1940, when Nabokov arrived from Europe as a financially strapped refugee and Wilson reached out to him. That summer, Wilson initiated “one of the great literary correspondences of the 20th century.” Though the two writers differed in their politics, “a shared delight for language” comes through in their letters. But then the power balance shifted, as Wilson’s star faded and the 1955 publication of Lolita earned Nabokov levels of praise and wealth that had eluded his onetime benefactor.
Author Alex Beam has “wicked fun” with the pair’s falling-out, said Laura Miller in Slate.com. After Wilson published his 6,000- word hatchet job on Nabokov’s Pushkin translation, the two former friends tore each other apart over such petty matters as whether a Russian word should be translated as “sniffing” or “smelling.” Wilson called Nabokov out for his nearly innate nastiness; Nabokov responded by mocking Wilson’s attempts to speak Russian. “You could wring your hands over the misguided senselessness of it all, but it’s saner to follow Beam’s lead and learn to laugh.”