'The Feud' celebrates the bad behavior of illustrious literary figures
What began as a warm friendship between Vladimir Nabokov and Edmund Wilson eventually flamed into a feud.
Within the large category of books that should have been magazine articles, Alex Beam’s The Feud: Vladimir Nabokov, Edmund Wilson, and the End of a Beautiful Friendship is one of the more enjoyable. It’s a gossipy rehashing of the peevishness and pettiness that marked the dissolution of a friendship between two gifted egomaniacs. Beam takes great pleasure in recounting the venomous literary insults and ill-controlled bile of Nabokov and Wilson, both of whom made the dubious decision to prioritize their own pride above their friendship and the truth.
What we are meant to learn from this spectacle is less clear. If the point is that humans, even or perhaps especially those with erudition and literary talent, are capable of supreme illogic and stubbornness, an article would have sufficed. If the point is not to establish so much as delight in this human tendency, a glance at Twitter would gratify the same impulse. The tacit premise of the book seems to be that the bad behavior of illustrious literary figures is somehow especially notable and fascinating.
The two men began corresponding in 1940, after Vladimir’s cousin Nicolas, a composer, asked Wilson if he might help his cousin. Nabokov had fled Europe for America and was looking for work. Wilson, enamored with all things Russian ever since a trip to the Soviet Union a few years before, was happy to oblige. Soon he was assigning Nabokov book reviews for The New Republic and connecting him with editors at The New Yorker.
They gradually became close friends: “You are one of the very few people in the world whom I keenly miss when I do not see them,” Nabokov wrote Wilson in 1948. The samples from their correspondence that Beam includes show lively intellectual exchange as well as a strong current of competition. They debated things like the correct pronunciation of the word “nihilist.” Wilson scolded Nabokov for using too many silly puns in his writing. Nabokov teased Wilson for his highly imperfect pronunciation of the Russian language.
Nabokov was initially the less successful of the two. In 1940, Wilson was a prominent and well-connected literary critic, while Nabokov was an obscure émigré who had published some fiction in Russian. Over the next few decades, their positions slowly reversed. Though Wilson considered himself a good novelist, he never wrote a novel as commercially or critically successful as Nabokov’s 1958 "Lolita," which sold 100,000 hardcover copies in three weeks. Nabokov is still beloved by literati around the world, whereas Wilson is often mistaken for a sociobiologist of the same last name.
There were various simmering grievances that finally flamed into a feud. Wilson had not bothered to finish reading the manuscript of "Lolita," despite the fact that Nabokov was keen to earn his approval of the book. Wilson did, however, warmly praise Boris Pasternak’s novel "Doctor Zhivago," a book Nabokov resented and considered overwrought. There were also political tensions – Wilson had a naïve liberal admiration for the Soviet Union, while Nabokov loathed the repressive regime so much that he supported the Vietnam War for its allegedly anti-communist purpose.
The immediate cause of conflict, however, was Wilson’s 1965 review of Nabokov’s translation of Pushkin’s poem "Eugene Onegin." Nabokov’s translation was enormous and eccentric, in Beam’s words, “a doorstop composed of unequal parts hubris, genius, philological research carried to proctological extremes, heedless and needless provocation, often but not always informed by an exquisite literary sensibility.” The book was 1,895 pages spread across four volumes. The translation occupied only 257 pages; the rest was dedicated to commentary and notes.
Wilson’s review accused Nabokov of using pretentiously obscure vocabulary, committing glaring grammatical errors in both English and Russian, and generally butchering a poem widely considered a classic of Russian literature. The review, perhaps inspired by Nabokov’s example, stretched on for nearly 7,000 angry words. Nabokov, of course, replied with a furious 4,500 word screed of his own. The debate played out in the pages of prominent magazines and as it intensified and devolved their friendship was ruined.
Beam is a deft and droll narrator of all the sordid details, and he does capture the folly and vanity that characterize public literary feuds. But devoting an entire book to the subject, even a short one, feels voyeuristic and trivial. Some things are best forgotten.