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Entries in edmund wilson (5)

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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Wednesday
Aug032011

In Which Vladimir Nabokov Navigates Hell For Lolita

The Great Work

In an atmosphere of great secrecy, I shall show you — when I return east — an amazing book that will be quite ready by then.

Lolita was created once and for all when Vladimir Nabokov decided to transition his novel about an emigre's love of a young girl into the first person from the third person. Even then, it had a terrible time finding someone brave enough to publish its biting satire. Ignored upon first publication, the comic novel was finally given momentum it would never lose when the English novelist Graham Greene named it one of his best books in 1955. 

As the following letters prove, even Nabokov's closest friends, including the critic Edmund Wilson, did not fully understand what had been placed in their care. Perhaps sensing he was missing something, Wilson showed the book to his wife and his ex-wife. They both liked the book considerably more than Edmund. It was eventually published in America by Walter Minton at G.P. Putnam, who had heard about it from his girlfriend, a dancer in the Latin Quarter, and nothing would ever be the same again.

James Mason & Sue Lyon in Stanley Kubrick's "Lolita"Wilson's letter in October of 1953 precipitated Vladimir's first mention of Lolita:

October 23, 1953
Wellfleet, Mass.

Dear Volodya,

I had been wondering what you were up to. We are no longer at Talcottville but back here. After Christmas, we are going to that old Europe, where I have been asked to perform during February at the Seminar of American Studies at Salzburg expect to take in London and Paris on the way.

Here is a story that you ought to be told. Paul Brooks, the head of Houghton Mifflin, is an enthusiastic amateur naturalist. One day he opened his door and found a Polyphemus moth on his doorstep, a male. He was surprised, because, according to him, it was irregular to see one in Boston at that time of year. The moth came into the house, flew through some of the rooms and then departed. The same thing happened the next day and the day after that. After the third visit, Brooks remembered that he had a Polyphemus cocoon. When he went to the box in the drawer where he kept it, he found that a female had emerged. He put her outside on the sundial, and the male at once came and got her. They left him a little note saying that if at any time he should get into trouble with dragons or ogres, he had only to call upon them.

I have had a horrible two weeks of gout, but am over it and am otherwise prospering. I have been working on three major literary projects, but won't describe them, since the results will inevitably reach you.

The only publication that will pay anything much for poetry is the New Yorker. You know about the Atlantic and Harper's. Or do you mean that you want, as you ought, to publish a book of poems? If you do, I'm afraid that you'd have to engage to give them a novel or something, too. Love to Vera. Elena sends love.

Edmund Wilson

young nabokov Vladimir responds from New Mexico, where he reports on the novel's first rejections.

July 30, 1954
Taos, NM

Dear Bunny,

I have been wanting to write you for months but this has been, and still is, and will be for a long while yet, a time of great labors with me. First of all I want to thank you for your book of plays. I still think the Siniy Ogonyochek your best one in the way of harmony and multiple sense. I thought the Diabolic Play extraordinarily amusing and well done. Vera joins me in sending you her thanks and tokens of appreciation. Next, let me tell you I enjoyed hugely your Biblical Essay in the New Yorker and hope there is more to come.

I am now collecting butterflies in New Mexico. A dull series of events led us to rent by wire from Ithaca a house here. We are near a superb canyon where I go for my hunting, and twelve miles from Taos which is a dismal hole full of third-rate painters and faded pansies. The house cost only 250 dollars for the whole summer, and an orchard was thrown in. Unfortunately our Spanish neighbors take all the fruit and a colorful smell of drains pervades what is euphemistically called the patio. The mountains around us, though high enough for my purposes, are not interesting enough for Dmitri to climb. He is with us this summer but may go to the Tetons a little later. How are you spending the summer? Give us news about all of you. Will you be in New York in Mid-September? I have to deliver there on the 14th of Sept a lecture on the Art of Translation at the English Institute.

I have had to lay aside my Eugene Onegin work for other things.

One of them is an edition of Anna Karenina in English with my notes, commentaries, introductions, etc., for Simon and Schuster. They wanted a revision with notes for Part One first, and this I have just completed. With Viking I have signed a contract for my book on Pnin, but will not be able to finish it before the end of the winter.

The novel I had been working at for almost five years has been promptly turned down by the two publishers (Viking and S. & S.) I showed it to. They say it will strike readers as pornographic. I have now sent it to New Directions but it is unlikely they will take it. I consider this novel to be my best thing in English, and though the theme and situation are decidedly sensuous, its art is pure and its fun riotous. I would love you to glance at it some time. Pat Covici said we would all go to jail if the thing were published. I feel rather depressed about this fiasco. Another thing that has left me quite limp and hysterical is my Russian version of Conclusive Evidence which is appearing serially in the Novyi Zhurnal and will be published by the Chekhov firm in the fall.

Please, write me. Best love from both of us to Elena.

Yours,

V.

August 9, 1954
Talcottville, NY

Dear Volodya:

By all means, send me your book. I'd love to see it, and if nobody else is doing it, I'll try to get my publisher, Straus, to. I agree about Taos, but used to love the Jemez mountains have you been there?

I expect to go to New York rather early in September, but don't expect to be there as late as the 14th. Isn't there any chance that you could come over here? It isn't so terribly far from Ithaca about an hour's drive north of Utica. Elena and the children will leave on the 3rd, but I'll probably stay here till the Tuesday after Labor Day. It's been far too long since we've seen you.

I read your note to the Russian version of your memoirs and made some comparisons with the English text. There was something about it I was going to say to you, but haven't the book here and can't remember what it was. I'm still going to read your complete works, but thought I might not see them in perspective without some more intimate knowledge of the Bible. There are going to be two more of those articles.

Love from all our family to yours. Do try to come to see us here.

As ever,

EW

September 9, 1954
Ithaca, New York

Dear Bunny,

We had to leave Taos very suddenly. Vera fell ill (liver trouble) and the diagnosis reached by an Albuquerque doctor was so frightening that we all three made a dash for New York. The doctors there, however, after a thorough examination, pronounced Vera welland we are now back in Ithaca.

Thanks for your nice letter and for writing F. & S. about the thing. It is still in Laughlin's large hands. I am very anxious for you to read it, it is by far my best English work.

I shall be in N.Y.C. on the 14th of this month to talk on Problems of Translation (Onegin in English) at the English Institute, Columbia Univ. This has been a hectic hash of a summer. Vera's illness and some other unexpected expenses have left me in a pitiful state of destitution and debt.

Yours,

V.

at 802 East Seneca Street in Ithaca This 1954 letter from Wilson contains his first reaction to Lolita.

November 30, 1954
Wellfleet, Mass.

Dear Volodya:

Roger Straus lent me the MS of your book, and I read it when I was in New York though rather hastily, because I had to give it back, and I have waited to write you about it till I could get some other opinions. I also had Elena and Mary read it. I enclose Mary's reactions from a letter to me, which she says I may quote to you. Elena seems to have liked the book better than either Mary or I partly, I think, because she has seen America from the foreigner's point of view and understands how it looks to your hero. The little girl, for example, seems quite all right to her, though rather implausible to me.

I am afraid that you will never get the book published by anybody except perhaps Laughlin. I have, however, written about it to a man named Weldon Kees, a poet, who has just written me that he is associated with a new publishing venture in California, and that they want to bring out books of a kind that might otherwise not be published. I have also talked about it to Jason Epstein at Doubleday. It seems that, when they wiped out your part of the advance on that Russian book we were going to do, there was some sort of understanding that you would eventually submit a novel. Did you ever send them anything? I also suggested that he might be interested in your translation of Onegin for his paperback Anchor series. This has been a huge success, and I have been making money out of the two books of mine they have published. They would give you a big advance, but, as a paperback, the book might never get reviewed. To me, this doesn't matter a bit, and I am going to give them a collection of my essays on Russian subjects. If I were you, I'd send Epstein the Onegin when you finish it. He's a highly intelligent boy, very well read and with a good deal of taste.

Now, about your novel: I like it less than anything else of yours I have read. The short story that it grew out of was interesting, but I don't think the subject can stand this very extended treatment. Nasty subjects may make fine books; but I don't feel you have got away with this. It isn't merely that the characters and the situation are repulsive in themselves, but that, presented on this scale, they seem quite unreal. The various goings-on and the climax at the end have, for me, the same fault as the climaxes of Bend Sinister and Laughter in the Dark: they become too absurd to be horrible or tragic, yet remain too unpleasant to be funny. I think, too, that in this book there is-what is unusual with you-too much background, description of places, etc. This is one thing that makes me agree with Roger Straus in feeling that the second half drags. I agree with Mary that the cleverness sometimes becomes tiresome, though I don't think I agree with her about the "haziness." (I have suggested a few minor corrections on the MS.)

I wish I could like the book better. I am sorry that we see so little of you. We're going to be in New York for a week beginning December 15. If you're coming on for the holidays, let us know. We'll probably be staying at the Algonquin, but if we're not, you can reach me at the New Yorker office.

As ever,

EW

Wilson passed along a few notes from his ex-wife Mary McCarthy about her impressions of the novel.

About Vladimir's book I think I have a midway position. I say think because I didn't quite finish it; I was three-quarters through the second volume when we had to leave. At Roger Straus' instructions, I left it at the Chelsea for Philip Rahv to pick up he may run some of the first part in PR. I don't agree with you that the second volume was boring. Mystifying, rather, it seemed to me; I felt it had escaped into some elaborate allegory or series of symbols that I couldn't grasp.

Bowden suggests that the nymphet is a symbol of America, in the clutches of the middle-aged European (Vladimir); hence all the descriptions of motels and other U.S. phenomenology (I liked this part, by the way). But there seems to be some more concrete symbolism, in the second volume; you felt all the characters had a kite of meaning tugging at them from above, in Vladimir's enigmatic empyrean. What about that pursuer, for instance? I thought maybe I'd find the answer if I finished it is there one?

On the other hand, I thought the writing was terribly sloppy all through, perhaps worse in the second volume. It was full of what teachers call haziness, and all Vladimir's hollowest jokes and puns. I almost wondered whether this wasn't deliberate part of the idea.

Edmund Wilson's fourth wife, Elena, had a more impressive reaction to the novel.

November 30, 1954
Wellfleet, Mass.

Dear Vladimir:

The little girl seems very real and accurate and her attractiveness and seductiveness are absolutely plausible. The hero's disgust of grown-up women is not very different, for example, from Gide's, the difference being that Gide is smug about it and your hero is made to go through hell. The suburban, hotel, motel descriptions are just terribly funny.

I don't see why the novel should be any more shocking than all the now commonplace "etudes of other unpleasant moeurs." These peculiar tastes are surely as prevalent even if they haven't been written about as often. Why shouldn't the book be published in England, or certainly in France and then come back here in a somewhat expurgated form and be read greedily?

Unfortunately, my opinion is very unimportant. We would love to see you soon. Please give my love to Vera.

In other words, I couldn't put the book down and think it is very important.

Elena

February 19, 1955
Ithaca, New York

Dear Elena and Bunny,

Belatedly but with perfectly preserved warmth I now want to thank you for your letters Elena's was especially charming.

Doubleday has of course returned the MS and I have now shipped it to France. I suppose it will be finally published by some shady firm with a Viennese-Dream name e.g., "Silo."

(I did show Doubleday not one book but at least two or three the last I can remember was Bend Sinister for Permabooks, on their request, when a man of the name of McKay or something like it was in charge; before Epstein took over.)

I have been completely immersed in Onegin during these last months. I have finished the translation of the text and of all variants I could find, but the commentaries are voluminous and their arrangement in readable form will take me many months. Doubleday was not interested in publishing the thing in the form I want it to appear in, with the notes running to at least 400 pages, and the Russian text en regard. I have found all kinds of sensational analogies, etc., in English and French literatures, and have solved the mystery of the master motto.

Bunny, I liked very much your Palestine essay. It is one of your best pieces.

This has been, and still is, a difficult winter for us. My financial woes have not been allayed by my concentrating on Lolita and Onegin. My novel about the Russian professor Pnin is progressing very slowly. Another chapter has been bought by the New Yorker.

Dmitri is finishing Harvard this spring. Our plans for the summer are extremely hazy. I am taking a semi-sabbatical next spring semester. Vera and I miss you.

V

1955 corrections to the manuscript of LolitaIn this letter, Nabokov finally lashes out at his friend for not understanding his finest work.

November 24, 1955

Dear Bunny,

It was a pleasure seeing you but our meeting was much too brief. Rahv, who had offered to print parts of my little Lolita in the Partisan, has changed his mind upon the advice of a lawyer. It depresses me to think that this pure and austere work may be treated by some flippant critic as a pornographic stunt. This danger is the more real to me since I realize that even you neither understand nor wish to understand the texture of this intricate and unusual production.

Our plans are to spend some six weeks of my sabbatical half-year in Cambridge, arriving there early in February, after which we shall probably drive to California, and return to Cornell in September. We are looking forward to seeing you and Elena in Cambridge.

We regret so much not having been able to join you in Boston for Thanksgiving.

Yours ever,

V.

This is the second in a series. You can find the first part here.

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Wednesday
Jul272011

In Which Vladimir Nabokov Did Not Care For William Faulkner

Lethal Arrangements

When he answered Vladimir Nabokov's first letter on November 12th of 1940, Edmund Wilson resembled many American intellectuals during the early days of the Cold War: his sympathies lay with the Soviet Union. Since he had never experienced the oppression of the Soviet regime firsthand, Wilson's ideas were necessarily absurd and fantastic. You would think that meeting someone who fled from those restrictions would at least slightly alter his worldview. The fact that this person was Vladimir Nabokov would seem to increase the likeliness of his conversion. Yet some men are more easily captivated by ideas than people, and the ones that drew Edmund Wilson were akin to a virulent disease.

Their relationship, as encapsulated by the letters included here, was direct, honest, and sometimes incendiary. Nabokov was better at taking criticism from people who didn't deserve to empty his bedpan than any writer of his talent. Most geniuses live in the thrall of their dominance - Nabokov had to suspect he was the greatest artist of his generation, but he never behaved that way. He may have felt Wilson misguided, but he tried his best to accommodate an ignorant American socialist who was kind to him and his family and a shitheel to everyone else.

December 24, 1945

Dear Bunny,

There are several reasons why Hamlet, even in the hideous garbled versions current on the stage, should be attractive both to the caviar eater and the groundling:

(1) everybody likes to see a ghost on the stage;

(2) kings and queens are also attractive;

(3) the number and variety of lethal arrangements are unsurpassed and thus most pleasing-

(a) murder by mistake,

(b) poison (in dumb show),

(c) suicide,

(d) bathing and tree climbing casualty,

(e) duel,

(f) again poison-

and other attractions backstage. Incidentally it has never occurred to critics to note that Hamlet does kill the king in the middle of the play; that it turns out to be Polonius does not alter the fact of Hamlet having gone and done it. Anthology of murder.

We somehow hoped that you would come here these days. I am working furiously at my novel (and very anxious to show you a couple of new chapters). I detest Plato, I loathe Lacedaemon and all Perfect States. I weigh 195 pounds.

cordially yours,

V. Nabokov

Wilson had sent some drawings of butterflies to Nabokov, and this letter followed.

March 24, 1946

Dear Bunny,

Many thanks for the lepidoptera: most of them belong to Ebriosus ebruis but there is a good sprinkling of the form vinolentus. At least one seems to be an authentic A. luna seen through a glass (of gin) darkly; the person who drew these insects possessed the following attributes:

1) was not an entomologist;

2) was vaguely aware of the fact that a lepidopteron has four, and not two, wings;

3) in the same vague groping way was more familiar (very comparatively, of course) with moths (Heterocera) than butterflies (Rhopalocera);

4) the latter suggests that at one time he may have spent the month of June (for the luna lurking at the back of his mind occurs only in early summer) in a country-house in New York state; warm dark fluffy nights.

5) He was not a smoker since the empty Regent cigarette box with the sketches would have contained a few crumbs of tobacco if he had been using its contents just before; it had been lying about and he just picked it up. (in margin:) The reasoning here is uh-uh.

6) May have been together with a lady: she lent him the scissors to cut out of the cigarette wrapping paper the specimen of Vino gravis; the scissors were small pointed scissors (because an attempt was made, but not pursued, to cut out one of the months on the paper napkin).

7) There is a faint smudge of lipstick on the lid of the box.

8) He had not been eating when he started to sketch - because the first one (the pseudo luna) was drawn on the paper napkin when it was still folded.

9) He was not a painter but may have been a writer; this is however not suggested by the presence of a fountain pen; quite possibly he borrowed the pen from the lady.

10) The whole thing may have started from a curlicue; but the further development was conscious.

11) There is a cherteniata or diablotins strain in the general aspects of the moths.

12) Was under the impression that a moth's body is all belly: he segmented it from tip to top; this may mean that he believed in the stomach rather more than in the heart: e.g., he would be apt to explain this or that action on material, and not sentimental, grounds.

13) The lady was doing the talking.

Well, Watson, that's about all. I am eagerly looking forward to seeing you! Your book is causing quite a "sensation" among my literary friends here. Neither am I attracted by Marion Bloom's "smellow melons" or Albertine's "bonnes grosses joues", but I gladly follow Rodolphe ("Avancons! Du courage!") as he leads Emma to her golden doom in the bracken. I mean, it was in that purely physiological sense that I criticized your hero's prouesses.

Lovingly yours,

V.

Nabokov had sent along a draft of his dystopian novel to Wilson.

January 30, 1947

Dear Vladimir:

I was rather disappointed in Bend Sinister, about which I had some doubts when I was reading the parts you showed me, and I will give you my opinion, for what it is worth. Other people may very well think otherwise: I know, for example, that Allen Tate is tremendously excited about it - he told me that he considered it "a great book." But I feel that, though it is crammed with good things - brilliant writing and amusing satire - it is not one of your greatest successes. First of all, it seems to me that it suffers from the same weakness as the play about the dictator.

You aren't good at this kind of subject, which involves questions of politics and social change, because you are totally uninterested in these matters and have never taken the trouble to understand them. For you, a dictator like Toad is simply a vulgar and odious person who bullies serious and superior people like Krug. You have no idea why or how the Toad was able to put himself over, or what his revolution implies. And this makes your picture of such happenings rather unsatisfactory. Now don't tell me that the real artist has nothing to do with the issues of politics. 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. Nobody could be more contemplative or cooler or more intent on pure art than Walter Pater, whose Gaston de Latour I have just been reading; but I declare that he has a great deal more insight into the struggle between Catholicism and Protestantism that was raging in the sixteenth century than you have into the conflicts of the twentieth.

I think, too, that your invented country has not served you particularly well. Your strength lies so much in precise observation that, in combining German and Slavic, you have produced something that does not seem real - especially as one has always to compare it with the hideous contemporary reality. Beside the actual Nazi Germany and the actual Stalinist Russia, the adventures of your unfortunate professor have the air of an unpleasant burlesque. I never believed in him much from the beginning, was never moved by the wife and son; but I thought you were going eventually to turn him inside out, take the whole thing apart and show that our ideas of injustice and tragedy were purely subjective or something of the sort. (I'm sorry that you gave up the idea of having your hero confront his maker.) As it is, what you are left with on your hands is a satire on events so terrible they really can't be satirized - because in order to satirize anything you have to make it worse than it is.

Another thing, Bend Sinister is (with the exception of that play) the only thing of yours that has seemed to me to have longueurs. It doesn't move with the Puskinian rapidity that I have always admired in your writing. I know that you have been aiming here at a denser texture of prose than in a thing like Sebastian Knight, and some of the writing is very remarkable, but there are moments,-don't send me an infernal machine! - when I am reminded of Thomas Mann.

You have certainly improved it a lot, though, since the manuscript I saw. I expect to reread it when I get the book and find much that I didn't appreciate. By the way I see that I was wrong in changing the gender of derriere in the proof - for some reason, I always think of it as feminine. One thing I believe I forgot to correct is the girl's saying that the man has "a regular sense of humor." This is impossible. She would have to say either that he had a wonderful sense of humor or that he was a regular card (I don't believe you want regular here at all).

About the New Yorker: I'll take up it with them. Wallace Shawn, not Mrs. White, is the person to talk to about it. The thing to do is for you to write him a letter, and I'll speak to him about it when I call him up again. I think it is a good idea. Hamilton Basso and I now do one review apiece a month, but I still owe them several from my last year's contract, so for awhile things won't look much different,.

Is it Nicholas who is doing the broadcasting? I didn't know he was back from Europe.

Before giving up Henry James, try the long novel called The Princess Casamassima and the first volume of his autobiography, A Small Boy and Others. These represent two departments of his work which you may not yet have sampled.

We are living up here in Wellfleet. The days become rather monotonous, but we are quietly working for civilization. Nina is staying in the house with us till Paul gets back from China. We don't expect to get to New York till sometime late in March. I'm still working on my book about my trip to Europe. By the time it comes out next fall, it will be deliriously out of date.

Yes: I'm completely finished with Laughlin - wrote him long ago, when he asked me to do some favor, telling him what I thought of his practices. I regard it as a calamity that he is bringing out a book of your stories. Do try to have Holt take it over.

I wish that, when you write me, you wouldn't transliterate your Russian, as it is more trouble for me that way. I always have to put it back before I can make out what it is.

Love to Vera. I hope she will forgive me for not liking Professor Krug as well as some of your other creations.

As ever,

EW

Nabokov responds to some of Wilson's corrections on the novel's manuscript, and fires back.

February 9, 1947

Dear Bunny,

Spasibo za pismo i zamechania - sorry, I thought I was giving you little informal lessons of Russian by inserting those Russian words - but apparently my method was wrong.

The point of L'egorgerai-je ou non (To be or not to be) is, of course, the well-known hypothesis that what Hamlet meant by the first words of his soliliquoy was: "Is my killing of the king to be or not to be?"

"Cries on havoc" is correct - it is so in Shakespeare.

"Ghostly apes," etc., is of course not supposed to sound like Shakespeare. The meter is not of his time.

"Lower and belowed" is meant to illustrate a common German mistake ("w" for "v") when printing propaganda in English.

"Recurved" is extensively used in zoological works ("Krug in the larval stage...") Look up, for instance, "ibex" in Webster.

"Froonerism" is a combination of a Freudian lapsus lingui and a spoonerism.

I too had my doubts as to whether you would appreciate the atmosphere of my book, - especially when you praised Malraux. In historical and political matters you are partisan of a certain interpretation which you regard as absolute. This means that we will have many a pleasant tussle and that neither will ever yield a thumb (inch) of terrain (ground).

I am writing another book which, I hope, you will like better.

Vera joins me in sending you our love.

Yours

V.

edmund

In this letter, Nabokov finally responds to Wilson's contentions about his political background.

February 23, 1948

Dear Bunny,

You naively compare my (and the "old Liberals'") attitude towards the Soviet regime (sensu lato) to that of a "ruined and humiliated" American southerner towards the "wicked" North. You must know me and "Russian Liberals" very little if you fail to realize the amusement and contempt with which I regard Russian emigres whose "hatred" of the Bolsheviks is based on a sense of financial loss or class degringolade. It is preposterous (though quite in line with Soviet writings on the subject) to postulate any material interest at the bottom of a Russian Liberal's (or Democrat's or Socialist's) rejection of the Soviet regime.

I really must draw your attention to the fact that my position in regard to Lenin's or Stalin's regime is shared not only by Constitutional Democrats, but also by the Social Revolutionaries and various socialist groupings, and that Russian culture was built by liberal thinkers and writers which I think rather spoils your neat simile of "North and South." To spoil it completely I may add that the rather local and special difference between the North and South is much more comparable to that between first cousins, between say, Hitlerism (Southern race prejudice) and the Soviet regime, than it is to the gap existing between fundamentally different systems of thought (totalitarianism and liberalism).

Incidental but very important: the term "intelligentsia" as used in America (for instance, by Rahv in The Partisan is not used in the same sense as it was used in Russia. Intelligentsia is curiously restricted here to avant-garde writers and artists. In old Russia it also included doctors, lawyers, scientists, etc., as well as people belonging to any class or profession. In fact a typical Russian intelligent would look askance at an avant-garde poet. The main features of the Russian intelligentsia (from Belinsky to Bunakov) were: the spirit of self-sacrifice, intense participation in political causes or political thought, intense sympathy for the underdog of any nationality, fanatical integrity, tragic inability to sink to compromise, true spirit of international responsibility...

But of course people who read Trotsky for information anent Russian culture cannot be expected to know all this. I have also a hunch that general idea that avant-garde literature and art were having a wonderful time under Lenin and Trotsky is mainly due to Eisenstadt films - "montage" - things like that - and great big drops of sweat rolling down rough cheeks. The fact that pre-Revolution Futurists joined the party has also contributed to the kind of (quite false) avant-garde atmosphere which the American intellectual associates with the Bolshevik Revolution.

I do not want to be personal, but here is how I explain your attitude: in the ardent period of life you and the other American intellectuals of the twenties regarded with enthusiasm and sympathy Lenin's regime which seemed to you from afar an exciting fulfillment of your progressive dreams. Quite possibly, had the position been reversed, Russian avant-garde young writers (living, say, in an Americoid Russia) would have regarded the burning of the White House with similar enthusiasm and sympathy. Your concept of pre-Soviet Russia, of her history and social development came to you through a pro-Soviet prism.

When later on (i.e., at a time coinciding with Stalin's ascension) improved information, a more mature judgment and the pressure of inescapable facts dampened your enthusiasm and dried your sympathy, you somehow did not bother to check you preconceived notions in regard to old Russia while, on the other hand, the glamor of Lenin's reign retained for you the emotional iridescence which your optimism, idealism and youth had provided.

What you now see as a change for the worse ("Stalinism") in the regime is really a change for the better in knowledge on your part. The thunderclap of administrative purges woke you up (something that the moans in Solovki or at the Lubianka had not been able to do) since they affected men on whose shoulders St. Lenin's hand had lain. You (or Dos Passos, or Rahv) will mention with horror the names of Ezhov and Yagoda - but what about Urtisky and Dzerzhinsky?

I am now going to state a few things which I think are true and which I don't think you can refute. Under the Tsars (despite the inept and barbarous character of their rule) a freedom-loving Russian had incomparably more possibility and means of expressing himself than at any time during Lenin's and Stalin's regime. He was protected by the law. There were fearless and independent judges in Russia. The Russian sud 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. Public opinion was always liberal and progressive.

Under the Soviets, from the very start, the only protection a dissenter could hope for was dependent on government whims, not laws. No parties except the one in power could exist. Your Alymovs are specters bobbing in the wake of a foreign tourist. Bureaucracy, a direct descendant of party discipline, took over immediately. Public opinion disintegrated. The intelligentsia ceased to exist. Any changes that took place between November 1919 and now have been changes in the decor which more or less screens an unchanging black abyss of oppression and terror.

I think I shall eventually polish this letter and publish it somewhere.

Yours,

V

Wilson admired Faulkner's Light in August, telling Nabokov he found it "remarkable." His correspondent could not agree.

November 21, 1948

Dear Bunny,

I have carefully read Faulkner's Light in August, which you so kindly sent me, and it has in no way altered the low (to put it mildly) opinion I have of his work and other (innumerable) books in the same strain. I detest these puffs of stale romanticism, coming all the way up from Marlinksy and V. Hugo - you remember the latter’s horrible combination of starkness and hyperbole - l’homme regardait le giblet, le giblet regardait l’homme.

Faulkner’s beloved romanticism and quite impossible biblical rumblings and “starkness” (which is not starkness at all but skeletonized triteness), and all the rest of the bombast seem to me so offensive that I can only explain his popularity in France by the fact that all her own popular writers (Malraux included) of recent years have also had their fling at l’homme marchait, la nuit etait sombre. The book you sent me is one of the tritest and most tedious examples of a trite and tedious genre. The plot and those extravagant “deep” conversations affect me as bad movies do, or the worst plays and stories of Lenid Adreyev, with whom Faulkner has a kind of fatal affinity.

I imagine that this kind of thing (white trash, velvety Negroes, those bloodhounds out of Uncle Tom’s Cabin melodramas, steadily baying through thousands of swampy books) may be necessary in a social sense, but it is not literature, just as the thousands of stories and novels about downtrodden peasants and fierce ispravniki in Russia, or mystical adventures with the narod (1850-1880), although socially effective and ethically admirable, were not literature. I simply cannot believe that you, with all your knowledge and taste, are not made to squirm by such things as the dialogues between the “positive” characters in Faulkner (and especially those absolutely ghastly italics). Do you not see that despite the difference in landscape, etc., it is essentially Jean Valjean stealing the candlesticks from the good man of God all over again? The villain is definitely Byronic. The book’s pseudo-religious rhythm I simply cannot stand - a phoney gloom which also spoils Mauriac’s work. Has la grace descended upon Faulkner too? Maybe you are just pulling my leg when you advise me to read him, or impotent Henry James or Rev. Eliot?

I am very much looking forward to our Russian book. We ought to plan the volume more definitely.

Sincerely yours

V

November 9, 1949

Dear Bunny,

I did not write you before my book (the autobiographic one) is taking a lot of my time. I was always told that Russian words had only one stress-accent. I am sure I also mentioned in the course of our correspondence that long English words tend to double the accent (though perhaps more so in American speech than in British). I don't see the point of the "-ion" affair, but anyway it is not unlike the change of -ie endings to -'e in corresponding Russian nouns, such as zhelanie to zhelan'e. Ponder this. We shall continue the discussion - of which I seem to be getting the better - when at last I come to you or you to me.

A story about my first love adventure is going to appear soon in the New Yorker, but another piece, on my student days, had to be withdrawn because they wanted me to revise certain passages (that readers might have found offensive or at least surprising) about Lenin and tsarist Russia. It is much the same kind of harmless stuff I once wrote you about Leninism, etc. Sad.

I have still about fifty pages of the book, and my little motor is running sweetly. I am afraid you will not care for the thing but I have to get it off my chest.

Down with Faulkner!

yours,

V


edmund wilson with mary mccarthAlthough they could not come to terms on their appreciation of Faulkner, Wilson attempted to sway Vladimir's opinion on other English language authors in this excerpt from a letter dated May 9, 1950. You can get a pretty specific idea of Wilson's view on women from the following:

(3) I've just been examining the early text of Madame Bovary that was published last year. It is impressive and to me a little surprising to see how Flaubert worked. The most marvellous passages in the finished version are often quite flat in this one, and even rather inept. It is startling to see the distance (in the scene where Charles Bovary, as a boy, looks wistfully out the window at Rouen)... It is as if he first assembled his data and then at a given point turned on the music and magic. I am especially interested in this because it is more or less my own method. You, I imagine, are more likely to start with the words themselves.

(4) You are mistaken about Jane Austen. I think you ought to read Mansfield Park. Her greatness is due precisely to the fact that her attitude towards her work is like that of a man, that is, of an artist, and quite unlike that of the typical woman novelist, who exploits her feminine day-dreams. Jane Austen approaches her material in a very objective way. Each of her books is a study of a different type of woman, whom Jane Austen can see all around. She wants, not to express her longings, but to make something perfect that will stand. She is, in my opinion, one of the half-dozen greatest English writers (the others being Shakespeare, Milton, Swift, Keats and Dickens). Stevenson is second-rate. I don't know why you admire him so much - though he has done some rather fine short stories. I tried reading to Henry and Reuel a couple of summers ago one of the only books of Stevenson I had ever liked, The New Arabian Nights, but completely failed to interest them in it. It surprised me to find that these stories were the thinnest kind of verbalizing and that the characters had not even a fairy-tale existence. Sherlock Holmes, which we had just been reading and which was partly derived from The New Arabian Nights, seems a solid creation besides them. I didn't like Treasure Island even as a child.

EW

You can find more of Vladimir Nabokov on This Recording here.

"Redemption (ft. Robert Owens)" - Icicle (mp3)

"Nausea" - Icicle (mp3)

"Dreadnought (ft. SPMC)" - Icicle (mp3)

"Step Forward (ft. Robert Owens)" - Icicle (mp3)

Summer Reading

from Dayna Evans

from Kara VanderBijl

from Jane Hu

from Andrew Zornoza

from Barbara Galletly

from Dick Cheney

from Karina Wolf

from Alex Carnevale