Jun 05, 2024, 06:24AM

Vladimir Nabokov, Edmund Wilson, and Who Was Smarter

You, of whom drunk I used to be.

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I just finished a slim, depressing volume called The Feud: Vladimir Nabokov, Edmund Wilson and the End of a Beautiful Friendship. The author, Alex Beam, wrote a pair of novels and used to be Moscow bureau chief for BusinessWeek, so he has a decent non-scholarly background for telling the tale of two litterateurs at odds over the Russian language. Though his book doesn’t draw a moral, it does bring home an ancient truth: no matter how much joy and wisdom the intelligent may derive from their intellects, what they really want is to feel smart, and feeling smart means feeling smarter than. The results, as with Nabokov and Wilson, can render them far smaller than they realize. This is a story of men pissing from a great height when they don’t know the wind is blowing.

Nabokov and Wilson had been friends for a quarter of a century; a warm friendship, if increasingly a tense one. Wilson couldn’t finish Lolita and told Nabokov so, and he admired Boris Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago, which the very anti-Communist Nabokov would call “pro-Bolshevist and historically false.” In 1959 Nabokov decided that his books wouldn’t carry any publicity quotes from Wilson. But the break came in the mid-1960s, when Nabokov published his translation of Alexander Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, a novel-length classic of Russian poetry; to this he attached several volumes of heavily researched commentary. Wilson pointed out a number of flaws and supposed flaws in Nabokov’s work, doing so publicly, at length, and with an absence of charity. Nabokov answered back once and then again, the second time being a doozy. A famous commotion was underway. Editorials and letters to the editor sprouted in highbrow publications, great names said their piece, and so matters rolled on until the 1960s were almost done.

Does pochuya mean smelling or does it mean sniffing? Could Pushkin read Byron in English or did he have to settle for French translation? Does the Russian language have just one adjective that’s a monosyllable (zloi, evil) or does it have several adjectives that are monosyllables? The safest thing to say about these questions is that nobody cared except Wilson, Nabokov, and a scattering of professors, graduate students, and translators. But these and similar topics were what the argument was about, and the conflict spread from The New York Review of Books to neighboring publications because editors knew that readers liked the spectacle. They liked hearing about “Mr. Nabokov’s insolently imperious tone” and his “hissing and shrieking,” they liked hearing about Wilson’s “long and hopeless infatuation with the Russian language” and his “pompous aplomb and peevish ignorance.”

Everyone knows the climate of these exchanges. It’s the same climate that causes the less gifted to get out the word “screed.” The more gifted display greater resources, but the point is always to swank, swank like hell, and to do so out of anger. Using fancy language as a staircase, the combatants scramble ever higher, trying to sound and feel smarter than the other guy. You’d think that, from their point of view, it would be enough to have the goods and lay them out. If Wilson is wrong about the meaning of vse, just show how and never mind the stomping and snorting. Perhaps some combatants do play it that way and we don’t hear about them. But some of our finest minds, and I expect Nabokov and Wilson qualify, fall into the same game as the screed people. The aim is secondarily to show who’s right and primarily to show who’s smart. That’s what the high-heels prose style is all about. Meanwhile the rest of us get to watch them carry on, and they may seem brilliant, but they don’t seem intelligent. People never do when they’re pulling each other’s hair.

Who was right, Wilson or Nabokov? On various individual points we amateurs can get some idea. (Pushkin read English, and apparently Nabokov was a bit odd for saying otherwise.) But overall? I could read every word in the exchange and still wouldn’t know. We’re left with two other angles. Who had to sit down and shut up? And who behaved worse? Going by Beam’s account, Nabokov did badly on one and two, which is not to say that Wilson did a whole lot better.

The man Nabokov couldn’t answer turned out to be a professor of economics at Harvard. A fellow Russian emigree and the possessor of quite a fastball in English, Alexander Gerschenkron published 10,000 words in Modern Philology that pinpointed faults in Nabokov’s scholarship and took him to task for bad behavior. For once Nabokov had no reply to make. Wilson wrote Gerschenkron to congratulate him, and Nabokov “quietly” (meaning without credit, I suppose) changed the next edition of Onegin to correct all the mistakes this new combatant had listed. A few years later he tried getting his own back by combining Gerschenkron’s name with that of another Harvard bête noire, producing a “Dr. Gerschizhevsky” who bumbled his way along in Nabokov’s novel Ada. A “small man’s revenge,” Gerschenkron said.

As someone who loved Speak, Memory as a boy and who is still dazzled by Nabokov’s dazzling prose, as someone grateful for the picture given in Brian Boyd’s Nabokov: The American Years of an affable genius who was playful with students and respectful toward handymen, bellboys, and other service personnel, I’m depressed by the behavior on display in Feud. Nabokov’s famous sneers at mighty reputations may be one thing—go ahead and kick at a mountain, especially if it belongs to somebody dead (Dostoevsky, Freud, James, Conrad, and so many others). It’s another thing when a professor translating Onegin writes to ask when Nabokov’s version will come out and gets back a letter’s worth of piss-elegant abuse. That happened to Walter Arndt, whose Onegin went on to win a prize from the same foundation that published Nabokov’s.

Wilson, in launching their catastrophic duel, said Nabokov had it coming because he’d habitually denounce any rival translator as “an oaf and an ignoramus, incompetent as a linguist and scholar, usually with the implication that he is also a low-class person and a ridiculous personality.” Boyd’s American Years takes issue with that and says Nabokov “commended” some Onegin translators for their work. If so, Nabokov made a great deal more noise when he was uncommending. After Arndt won his prize, Nabokov warned the readers of The New York Review of Books against the “pitiless and irresponsible paraphrast” and his “monstrous undertaking,” and so on. Wilson noted this attack when he spoke up a year later. Boyd says Wilson kicked off his criticisms with a “personal attack,” which is true. But Wilson’s personal attack made a fair point.

Putting to one side the battle over pochuya and zloi (and vles and netu and yo), there’s the matter of whether the Nabokov Onegin is any good. Wilson and others considered it too strange and contorted (Wilson: “disastrous… a bald and awkward language which has nothing in common with Pushkin”). Boyd’s American Years emphasizes that the translation was designed for non-Russians who were reading Onegin in the original. The syntax coiled and ran backward (“you, of whom drunk I used to be,” “Of a constricting rank/the ways how fast she has adopted”) in order to match Pushkin’s work line by line, and Nabokov left his version unrhymed so that word choice wouldn’t be distorted. Ideally the translation and the original would’ve been published side by side in the same book, with the reader glancing from one to the other. But Nabokov’s project had already grown to mammoth size, and Boyd speculates that he wanted to get it between covers before other researchers came upon the findings unveiled in his commentary.

Boyd, who’s favorably inclined toward Nabokov, tells us that “through all four volumes of his Eugene Onegin runs a plea for the specific and the individual, and for the effort needed to perceive them both.” As with syntax, Nabokov would reproduce Pushkin’s diction as accurately as possible and never mind what readers thought a poem should sound like. If so, Pushkin was forever stumping his fellow Russians with archaic and out-of-the-way terms. Some Nabokov word choices were Latinate and overblown, such as rememorating and curvate. Others were apparently Anglo-Saxon and forbiddingly squat, such as stuss and scrab. Still others appear to have been his own babytalk: dit for song (ditty), naggy for horse. Then there was the simple word “pal.” Nabokov translated the book’s close this way: “Whoever you be, O my reader/Friend, foe—I wish with you/To part at present as a pal.” That caused as much confusion as anything else.

Wilson said it wasn’t a translator’s business to send readers looking for the Oxford English Dictionary. Boyd wrote, as of 1991, that the Nabokov Onegin regularly had its spine worn out by undeterred students, and today the translation remains easily available. Then again so does Arndt’s and so do several others. For his part, Beam doesn’t try to decide the worth of Nabokov’s project. His Feud recaps the high and low points of the battle and leaves it at that. His writing is brisk and down to earth, with a liveliness that’s sometimes perky and sometimes jittery. I rather liked “bibliorthopedic,” a context-dependent play on Wilson’s “perversepedantic” and the workout the fellows were giving the “tired spines” of their dictionaries, and there’s the straight-out home run of calling Cornell the “Moosejaw of the Ivy League.” On the other hand, “revisit Gerundistan” seems the long way around to saying the men were back to the sniffing-versus-smelling debate, and a reference to Robert Lowell’s “patrician paw” is unduly tough about the shape of Lowell’s hand, which I expect was like anybody else’s.

The over-caffeination shows up with a bigger problem. Modernist poets can get away with obscurity, but journalists should always be clear. Beam’s clear the great majority of the time, which is almost enough but not quite. He lists three points of contention between the ex-friends and writes, “Wilson is overextending himself here, to put it gently. But, in the manner of Napoleon’s favorite generals, he presses forward, nothing loath. Toujours l’audace!” It’s odd that Napoleon shows up; more to the point, the second disputed item is whether Russian has more than one single-syllable adjective, and a few pages later Beam tells us, “It is an inconvenient truth that there are several one-syllable adjectives in Russian, but we move on.” That’s what the audaciously overextended Wilson had been saying.

A sentence notable for “eminentos” and “roiled Sargasso” (a Sargasso Sea is by definition not roiled) also makes it sound like Anthony Burgess entered into the Nabokov-Wilson fight, when actually he gave his thoughts on Nabokov’s Onegin before the fight began. Similar confusion is created by this: “To Nabokov’s great delight—and to Wilson’s apparent chagrin—Onegin-related brushfires kept flaring up in unexpected places.” There follows an exchange in the Times Literary Supplement between Nabokov and Babette Deutsch, a fellow Onegin translator whom he had disrespected. A footnote in Boyd’s American Years dates the exchange to January and April of 1965; Wilson’s first attack on the translation appeared in July.

The book’s title and subtitle, possibly imposed by an editor, are a bit off. The Nabokov-Wilson collision is the chief item on display, and that collision marked the death of their friendship, but the book’s real topic is the fuss made in print over the Nabokov Onegin, a fuss that is traced from before Wilson’s intervention until well after. The friendship’s end is present but doesn’t get quite the attention it might; reading Boyd’s American Years, it’s a surprise to learn that Wilson tried to jolly Nabokov by sending Christmas cards, one of them poignantly reading: “I’m sorry our controversy has come to an end. I have rarely enjoyed anything so much.” Nabokov’s replies were stiff.

It may be that nobody can say why the fight happened. But we can guess. In doing so, I’ll build on the analysis presented at the start of this article. Wilson had a habit of being blunt about his friends’ supposed intellectual shortcomings; Nabokov tended to vaunt and preen himself about his talents. Add a couple of decades and watch the tensions grow. Each great man found his greatness chafing against the other’s, and then the occasion arose to settle matters in print. Who was smarter? But we all know the answer to that one: neither.


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