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Tuesday
Sep202011

« In Which Vladimir Nabokov Says It All »

The Life We've Been Living

The correspondence of Vladimir Nabokov and the critic Edmund Wilson had sputtered over the latter's inability to appreciate some of Nabokov's work. But Edmund still wanted Vladimir as his friend, and by the spring of 1950, illness had affected both men to the point where a skilled correspondent in the ways of the U.S. mail became not only desirable, but a panacea to pain. Wilson continued his wayward criticism; Nabokov composed the first version of his memoir Speak, Memory, then titled Conclusive Evidence. Even as they aged, both men were gifted with a literary curiosity that belied their years. In these letters, a conciliatory tone is struck so that both can educate the other in the particular unappreciated pleasures of the Western canon. The relationship would splinter and fracture in the coming decade, but for now both had one ear open.

Nabokov was preparing a course and asked for Wilson's help; the two argued over the literary worth of Robert Louis Stevenson.

May 15, 1950

Dear Bunny,

Awfully grateful to you for the books. Scott's piece is admirable. His French seemed to me quite good though Vera says she detected a few wrong tenses but then Frenchmen make mistakes too. The whole thing is very funny and successful. For one instant I had the wild hope that the big Con was French.

I am in the middle of Bleak House going slowly because of the many notes I must make for class-discussion. Great stuff. I think I told you once that my father had read every word Dickens wrote. Perhaps his reading to us aloud, on rainy evenings in the country, Great Expectations (in English, of course) when I was a boy of twelve or thirteen, prevented me mentally from re-reading Dickens later on. I have obtained Mansfield Park and I think I shall use it too in my course. Thanks for these most useful suggestions. You approach Stevenson from the wrong side. Of course Treasure Island is poor stuff. The one masterpiece he wrote is the first-rate and permanent Jekyll and Hyde. I hope you have enjoyed Cardinal Spellman's poem dedicated to an Alfred E. Smith Memorial Hospital. It ends:

                     ... and we
as brothers must within these troubled waters
protect, maintain AI's heritage and ours
devotedly in service to our fellow men?

I have to go to Boston to have six lower teeth extracted. My plan is to go thither (Tyдa) Sunday the 28th, grunt at the dentist's (a wonderful Swiss, Dr. Favre) Monday and Tuesday and perhaps Thursday (the 31st), then mumble back, toothless, to Ithaca to correct examination papers and return to Boston by car with Vera on the 6th or 7th to have a denture put in; then we shall stay there till the 11th and fetch Dmitri in New Hampshire on the 12th to go back to Ithaca through Albany, near which, at a place called Karner, in some pine-barrens, on lupines, a little blue butterfly I have described and named ought to be out. Would it be possible to fit a meeting with you into this scheme?

Было бцоно in this sense should be understood as было вйдно слдующее a kind of collective adjectival noun is implied; thus neuter. But it is a good question as I say to my pet students.

My method of composing is quite different from Flaubert's. I shall explain it to you at length some day. Now I must go to room 178 to analyse "The Lady With the Dog" in English, translating from the Russian text and indulging in most brilliant technicalities that are quite lost on my students.

It may just happen that I shall have to shift the whole Boston affair to after the 12th. Keeping up this exchange of letters is like keeping up a diary you know what I mean but please do not give up, I love your letters.

V.

with his son

Nabokov shows some of his usual frustration with Wilson as they continue to banter about Western literature.

June 3, 1950

Dear Volodya:

(1) It is impossible to use automobile gracefully in iambic verse at all. You would have to have anapests or dactyls. The line you wrote is something that would be stumbled over by any native of the English-speaking world, and it demonstrates the fallacy of your stress theory. As I was trying to explain to you some time ago, even the last syllable of a word like imagination had through Milton and I don't know how much later a stress that had to be treated with respect:

"Guiding the fiery-wheeled throne,
The Cherub Contemplation"
                          Il Penseroso

Today it is always slurred: "the first imagination of Christendom" is a blank-verse line of Yeats and more the kind of thing you mean, but your method of approaching such a line leads you into errors about English metrics. "Imagination," I take it, has only one stress that counts, but this is not the case with the two long words of the line above. The last syllable of Christendom is extremely important to the structure of the line. So is the first syllable of automobile, and you have spoilt your line by disregarding it.

(2) As for the street and the moon that Chekhov, in a mood of masochism all too common in Russian literature, has made the victims of the verb instead of, as they should be, its dominators: you have given me two distinct explanations neither of which can justify the construction. The truth is that this is one of the grotesque anomalies so rife in Russian grammar. I propose, when our enlightened proconsuls have to come to the rescue of that unfortunate country, in my role of Secretary for Colonial Culture, to exterminate such absurdities by making indulgence in them punishable by imprisonment.

(3) About Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde: I tried reading that to Reuel, too, and it, too, seemed to me thin. Though it is on a bigger scale, I don't really like it as well as Poe's William Wilson, which I imagine must have suggested it. I even prefer Dorian Gray. I don't know what is involved here. People sometimes have infatuations for second-rate foreign authors that mean something different to them than they do to their countrymen. I don't understand your admiring Jekyll and disliking "The Black Monk" and "Viy", the last of which seems to me the greatest story of the horrible supernatural I have ever read. By the way, I think "The Lady With the Dog" rather overrated. I think it owes its popularity the Soviets have lately got out a special illustrated edition to its being the only one of these later stories of Chekhov's that has any hint of a love affair not frustrated without respite or putrefying in triteness. "The Archbishop", which I've just read, is a masterpiece.

I am getting rather tired of all these topics and think we ought to start something new. Let me know about your movements. Our definite plan now is to be in Boston the 15th and go on that afternoonElena to St. Paul's; Rosalind, Reuel and I to Utica, on our way to Talcottville, all probably getting back Sunday. We'd love to have you anytime. Good luck with your teeth.

EW

Edmund, Elena, Reuel, and Helen Miranda Wilson photographed by Sylvia Saimi in 1950 Nabokov seems to be repaying a previous slight with his analysis of Wilson's literary memoir of the 40s, Classics and Commercials. In any case, he does not seem to have thought much of the book.

November 18, 1950

Dear Edmund,

it is only today that I have a moment to thank you for your book (Vera joins me) but "better late than never, as said the woman who missed her train" (an old Russian chestnut).

There are lots of things in it that are superb, especially the attacks and the fun. As with most good critics, your war-crying voice is better than your hymn singing one. Some day you will recall with astonishment and regret your soft spot for Faulkner (and Eliot, and H. James). Your bit on Gogol and me contains various things (added? changed?) that I do not seem to remember having seen in the original version. I protest against the last line. Conrad knew how to handle readymade English better than I; but I know better the other kind. He never sinks to the depths of my solecisms, but neither does he scale my verbal peaks.

I want to make my mid-term report on the two books you suggested I should discuss with my students. In connection with Mansfield Park I had them read the works mentioned by the characters in the novelthe two first cantos of the "Lay of the Last Minstrel," Cowper's "The Task," passages from King Henry the Eighth, Crabbe's tale "The Parting Hour," bits of Johnson's The Idler, Browne's address to "A Pipe of Tobacco" (Imitation of Pope), Sterne's Sentimental Journey (the whole "gate-and-no-key" passage comes from thereand the starling) and of course Lovers' Vows in Mrs. Inchbald's inimitable translation (a scream).

In discussing Bleak House, I completely ignored all sociological and historical implications, and unravelled a number of fascinating thematic lines (the "fog theme," the "bird theme," etc.) and the three main props of the structurethe crime-mystery theme (the weakest), the child-misery theme and the lawsuit-chancery one (the best). I think I had more fun than my class.

I am worried about Roman. I wonder whether he has quite recovered from his heart attack.

It is fairly probable that I shall visit New York some time in the beginning of next year. I want to see you very much. Vera and I send Elena and you our best love.

V.

Wilson's home in Talcottville

Changes at The New Yorker and Nabokov's desire to secure a Guggenheim to work on his translation of Eugene Onegin are the subject of this Wilson letter.

January 18, 1951

Dear Volodya:

I recommended you warmly for a Guggenheim, but I wish you had given them some other project it seems to me a pity for you to spend a lot of time on Onegin when you ought to be writing your own books.

I corrected my description of the duel in the English edition of the The Triple Thinkers which is just about to come out. It is clear, however, that Pushkin means Onegin to take a certain advantage of Lensky.

We have been leading a most monotonous but rather pleasant and productive life up here. I have been working on a gigantic book containing ninety-two of my articles, mostly written in the twenties and thirties, which has been turning into a sort of volume of literary memoirs. We are going to Boston tomorrow for a long-postponed holiday. At the end of this month, we hope to get to New York for February and March. We're very glad you're coming to Cambridge and shall see you there later on.

Nobody seems to know at The New Yorker what is going to happen now that Ross is dead. I am afraid it may deteriorate instead of taking a new lease on life.

What do you think of Colette? I've been reading her a little for the first time and really don't like it much. The books about Cheri repel me. Have I expounded to you my theory of the role in Russian literature of the decisive step and the fixed gaze? If not, I will do so sometime.

I should like to see the review that Harold Nicolson did of your book. I suppose you saw the thing in the New Yorker.

As ever,

EW

Edmund Wilson's mother had died earlier in the week, and he approached her passing in the same blindly analytic fashion he approached literature. A clerihew is a four line biographical poem with a specific AABB rhyme scene.

February 7, 1951

Dear Volodya:

Thank you for your letter. My mother was nearly eighty-six, was completely deaf, nearly blind and so arthritic that she could hardly stand up. But it was impressive to see how well she kept up and how keen she still managed to be. When she died, she had a moment before been having coffee and joking with Rosalind and her nurse. That morning she had asked Rosalind about her beaux and said, "I suppose they're a lot of writers. Don't marry one or you'll never have any money."

That story about the Blue Light in the Times was not entirely true. The Theater Guild denied it, but, so far as I know, the denial was not published. We had differences on several points, but there was never any question of doing the whole of the printed text. It looks now as if the original people were going to do it April 1, in conjunction with ANTA (if you know what that is). I am much better pleased, for the Guild is old and gaga.

I hope that you will have the publishers send me a copy of your book. You should have them put me on the publicity list, so that you will not have to supply the copy yourself. And please have it sent to the New York address-which, it turns out, is c/o Mrs. Moise, instead of Mrs. Lloyd.

I have been reading with great enjoyment the earlier series of Gogol's Ukrainian Evenings, I have the impression, from the contemptuous way in which you discuss these in your Gogol book, that you have not read them since childhood.

Did you get the Russian clerihew I sent you? If it is off the track, I wish you would let me know. Clerihews, of course, run to lines of any length and are doggerel like Ogden Nash.

Love to Vera. Is there no chance of your getting to New York during the spring vacation?

As ever,

EW

March 10, 1951

Dear Bunny,

No I conscientiously reread those Gogol tales (as explicitly stated in my book on G.) and found them exactly as I thought they were on the strength of old impressions. I also remember I had reread them in 1932 or 1933 for an article on Gogol in Russian which I still use for my Russian courses.

In my European fiction class I have finished lecturing on Anna Karenin and "The Death of John, son of Elijah" (joke) and am proceeding to draw a most fascinating comparison between Jekyll and Hyde and "Metamorphosis," with the latter winning.

After that: Chehov, Proust and parts of Joyce. The Moncrieff translation of Proust is awful, almost as awful as the translations of Anna and Emma but in a way still more exasperating because Mr. Moncrieff a son petit style a lui which he airs.

Did you get the two copies of Conclusive Evidence, one with a dedicace? Perhaps, whenever you have the occasion to bother about it, you will send the Wellfleet copy back to me. Did you get my nasty letter about your nasty Russian verse? Will you be in New York at the end of May? Vera and I will be there at that date for a reason and an event which I have been asked not to divulge until mentioned in the papers but which, I suspect, you know of.

Yours,

V.

the Nabokov family estate in Vyra

Perhaps sensing the combative and annoyed tone of Nabokov's previous letters, Wilson lavishes praise after his first reading of Speak, Memory.

March 19, 1951

Dear Volodya:

Elena was so delighted with your book that she swore she was going to write you a letter, to which I was going to add my own comment, but as she hasn't got around to this, I must let you know my opinion; which I know you have been nervously awaiting. This is that Conclusive Evidence is a wonderful production. The effectiveness and beauty of the material have really been raised to a higher power (in the sense of being cubed) by the pieces appearing in a book and in the proper order. I reread the whole thing with avidity, except for the final one that deals with parks and perambulators, the only one I do not care much for (though Elena particularly likes it). I don't approve of the title, which is uninteresting in itself-and what is the conclusive evidence? Against the Bolsheviks?

I have received only the inscribed copy. The other will be in Wellfleet. I hope that you will have both of them put down to publicity, in which case you won't be charged with them. I am a practicing critic, and I want to send the other one to Mario Praz in Rome, who writes about American and English books in one of the papers there.

We're going back to Wellfleet early in May. I know nothing about the event that is bringing you on at that time. Is there no chance of your coming to the Cape?

I did not get your nasty letter and am still awaiting enlightenment which I think you owe me in return for my inestimable services in straightening you out about English metrics.

I have been fascinated by von Frisch on bees about whom you first told me. 

I have only looked into the Moncrieff translation of Proust. What struck me was that he had turned Proust's lugubriousness into something lighter and brighter and English.

As ever,

EW

A little flattery goes a long way, leaving Nabokov to subtly apologize for his remarks about Wilson's Tolstoy clerihew in a letter than did not survive.

March 24, 1951

Dear Bunny,

It may sound foolish (in the light of what I always have felt toward criticism of my work), but your letter did give me a twinge of pleasure. I would dearly have liked to get Elena's letter and, please, thank her for me for her kind and subtle attitude toward Conclusive Evidence. Title: I tried to find the most impersonal title imaginable, and as such it is a success. But I agree with you that it does not render the spirit of the book. I had toyed with, at first, Speak, Mnemosyne or Rainbow Edge but nobody knew who Mnemosyne was (or how to pronounce her), nor did R. E. suggest the glass edge "The Prismatic Bezel" (of Sebastian Knight fame).

A British publisher Gollancz, do you know the firm? wants the book and dislikes the title. If Green (the first page of his Nothing is wonderful with your intonation, I hope) had not used so many monosyllables for the titles, I would have thrown hIim "Clues" (or "Mothing"!).

Several things have happened to me recently. Karpovich, head of the Russian Department at Harvard, will be away next spring term and has suggested I replace him in the Russian Literature courses, so that we shall probably transfer our activities to Cambridge (of which I am thinking with great warmth at udder-conscious and udderly boring Cornell) in January. Another pleasant aspect of this is that we will be much nearer to you in space. We are terribly keen to come to the Cape.

Life, a magazine, wants to take photographs of me catching butterflies, and of rare butterflies on flowers or mud, and I am doing my best to give it a strictly scientific twistnothing of the kind has ever been done with rare Western species, some of which I have described myself so they are sending a photographer to be with me, for a week or so, in some productive locality in S.W. Colorado or Arizona (Dmitri is in a great singing voice today, booming French from La Juive, and in a minute he is driving me to the soccer field for some practice and coaching) in July they do not quite understand what is going to happen.

I thought you had some secret influence or something, suggesting my name que sais-je? in the matter of the American Academy that is giving me a ceremonious award on the 25th May. I know nothing whatsoever about that institution and at first confused it with a Mark Twain horror that almost obtained my name in the past; but I am told this is the real thing. I am asked not to divulge this news until it appears in the gazettes.

Love to both of you from us both.

V

P.S. I suppose you will find in Wellfleet my letter about your poem. I took it apart, viciously. It is a salad of mistakes.

You can find the first part of this series here and the second part here.

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