Frank Kermode on a falling-out of literary friends

Frank Kermode

  • The Nabokov-Wilson Letters, 1940-1971 edited by Simon Karlinsky
    Weidenfeld, 346 pp, £12.50, October 1979, ISBN 0 297 77580 4
  • Vladimir Nabokov: A Tribute edited by Peter Quennell
    Weidenfeld, 139 pp, £6.95

These letters are a partial record of a literary friendship; and they offer more than the usual pleasure to be had from eavesdropping on the talk of eminent writers. Nabokov and Wilson had a few specific common interests, the most important of which was a passion for language as the stuff of literature: but in temperament and formation they were almost wholly different. ‘Literature’ was, as an idea, venerated by both parties, but they could rarely agree about what good literature was. Since both men were honourably committed to speaking their minds on the subject, they criticised each other with an increasing freedom. A friendship which survived thirty years of plain dealing was ended when Wilson finally overstepped the generous limit.

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