- - Sunday, January 22, 2017



By Alex Beam

Pantheon Books, $26.95, 201 pages, illustrated

This is one of those books that in the end is more interesting for what it tells us about human nature in general and the fragility of even the most passionate of friendships than about the eponymous feud and its participants. No one in his right mind could deny that the American critic Edmund Wilson and the Russian migr novelist Vladimir Nabokov were fascinating human beings and important literary figures, but neither appears to his best advantage in this detailed account of the decline and fall of their mutual admiration society by Alex Beam, a former Moscow bureau chief for Business Week.

The occasion for this celebrated falling out was Wilson’s published criticism of Nabokov’s overblown, self-indulgent, mannered translation of the “famously untranslatable” verse novel “Eugene Onegin,” the masterwork of Russia’s most esteemed poet. That an American could have the chutzpah to criticize not just a writer whose native tongue was Russian but who was acknowledged to be more attuned to the nuances of languages tells you a lot about Wilson’s ego and daring. Unfortunately for him — but not for the readers in sundry journals who enjoyed the spectacle of two literary lions tearing at each other red in tooth and claw — his adversary was a match for him, and perhaps more so, in both.

I doubt if anyone aside from the two principals involved cared about the substance of Wilson’s critique, the arcana of which is explored, perhaps more than necessary, in this book. The objections raised and the defenses offered are at times so ludicrous that readers are probably more inclined to laugh than weep.

Nabokov was famously ludic and inevitably he cannot help at times being playful, but the purpose of it is to hurt, to wound, like the boxer he was. Wilson was no athlete, but it is interesting that his former wife, Mary McCarthy, made a character based on him in one of her novels a former practitioner of the manly art. McCarthy found him to be a bully who actually hit her during their stormy marriage and there is certainly a bullying quality to his attack on the “Onegin” translation.

But Wilson could be a loyal friend, as he was in good times and bad to his contemporary F. Scott Fitzgerald, and he was a warm, steadfast mentor and supporter in many ways, practical as well as emotional, to the immigrant Nabokov. They really enjoyed one another’s company and corresponding. Each liked to push the envelope as much as possible when it came to sex in their writings. “Edmund was always in a state of joy when Vladimir appeared,” Mr. Beam quotes McCarthy as saying, “They had an absolute ball together. He loved him.” And there is every reason to believe that it was mutual.

But when Mr. Beam writes that “Wilson had a prickly disposition,” it is an understatement and, in somewhat different manifestations, it may have been matched by Nabokov‘s. One difference which I think accounts for Wilson’s being the aggressor in the feud is his heavy drinking. Even at a time when there was a lot of enthusiastic alcohol consumption — and particularly among writers — he was a champion. Now turning on friends is not a quality unique to alcoholics. Few would deny, though, based on personal experience or reading about such literary contemporaries of Wilson’s as Fitzgerald or Hemingway and their cruelty to former buddies that it is at the least a more common occurrence among such folk.

The other big difference between the two feuding writers was their attitude towards communism. As one driven from his homeland by the Soviets, Nabokov’s hostility was unremitting and he grew increasingly conservative. Mr. Beam rightly notes, “Wilson’s observation that ‘you feel in the Soviet Union that you are living at the moral top of the world, where the light never really goes out’ would haunt him for the rest of his life. Only later — much later — did he temper his enthusiasm for Things Soviet. He never fully surrendered his admiration for Lenin, for which Nabokov attacked him on first acquaintance.”

I suspect that this simmered throughout the years of needy and genuine friendship in Nabokov and this festering difference and the feelings it engendered in both men may well have made the sundering of their friendship inevitable, despite everything that nourished it.

Mr. Beam prefaces his tale of a relationship gone horribly sour with a quotation from the sage Dr. Samuel Johnson’s “The Uncertainty of Friendship”:

“Life has no pleasure higher or nobler than friendship. It is painful to consider that this sublime enjoyment may be impaired or destroyed by innumerable causes, and that there is no human possession of which the duration is less certain.”

What makes “The Feud” such a sad book to read is that this friendship which did indeed confer in its heyday such “sublime enjoyment” should have been willfully hacked to death. For how could such an attack not have dealt a fatal blow, even in the unlikely event of there not being an equally brutal reaction?

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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