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.

Both men benefited by their long association, Nabokov probably more than Wilson because he was not only the more generous but also the more receptive personality; also, it must be said, Wilson had, in the material sense, more to give. When Nabokov arrived in New York in 1940 he was virtually unknown outside émigré Russian circles, but Wilson had been for years an important critical voice, and had a well-deserved reputation as a defender and expositor of new writing. Axel’s Castle had long been famous; To the Finland Station appeared in 1940; there was also the novel I thought of Daisy, and a large body of periodical writing. But it was probably not because he had read much of this writing that Nabokov approached Wilson almost as soon as he arrived in America. He had reason to believe that Wilson could find him work. Wilson had never read Nabokov either, but did as he was asked – became Nabokov’s agent, in fact: he put reviewing his way, helped him place his stories, and later got him grants. He was at this time engaged in a serious study of Russian, and of course Nabokov was helpful. They collaborated on a translation of Pushkin’s Mozart and Salieri. Nabokov read To the Finland Station – as one might expect, not without pain; he particularly disliked the account of Lenin as basically a rather nice man. Wilson, a full year after Nabokov entered his life, read The Real Life of Sebastian Knight and found it ravishing.

At his best, Wilson was almost the perfect man of letters, the model reviewer, for he read indefatigably, was susceptible to talent, and had a useful vein of pedantry. These qualities made him especially valuable to Nabokov: who else that had a first-hand acquaintance with Russian literature and at once recognised the merit of Sebastian Knight could also be depended upon to correct the Russian’s already virtuoso English prose? But Wilson’s virtues had their corresponding defects. Though his passion for reading and for language did not abate, he grew less receptive, a bit cranky even. His standards, schematically described in a piece called ‘The Literary Worker’s Polonius’ of 1935, were very exacting. He thought, quite rightly, that good reviewing was done by people who also did more exacting or creative kinds of writing, and did them well, but the strain of doing all this himself proved very great, and eventually he lost touch.

This shows in his dealings with Nabokov. Early in the correspondence he warned Nabokov against punning in English, which betrays a certain failure to understand the kind of writer he was dealing with. Having read so much about Russia, and especially about the Revolution and its antecedents, he could not accept that Nabokov knew more, or that he was right about the partiality of Wilson’s sources, and about his relative ignorance of the history of Russian liberalism. Wilson concluded that Nabokov was an innocent in politics, and ought to keep off the subject. Nabokov concluded that Wilson was not only the victim of Soviet propaganda but a man with an even greater problem, a mistaken view of art and literature, which he wrongly took to be important in proportion to its social and political implications.

Each thought the rightness of his views self-evident: Nabokov maintained this with serious gaiety, Wilson with stubbornness. An instance of the latter is the critic’s attitude to what he regarded as abuse of language: he had no time for arguments about evidence of usage, and treated writers who misused such words as crucial, massive, kudos, deceptively simple, based on and so forth much in the manner of Ben Jonson, who liked the idea of giving them emetics to make them vomit the bad language. I once wrote that a man taking such a line should be particularly careful himself, citing a passage in which Wilson announced that J.W. Krutch ‘gives some evidence of being attainted with’ some tendency or other. Wilson wrote me a chilly letter claiming that his usage was supported by OED, which does indeed give instances, but puts his sense in a tertiary category and offers no example after a dubious one of 1856. But Wilson didn’t give up easily. He certainly didn’t with Nabokov.

The virtue of this is, of course, that when he praised something he clearly meant what he said. The tone of this correspondence is set by him – kind, friendly, ruthless. Bend Sinister is no good: it is politically naive, and ‘doesn’t move with that Pushkinian rapidity that I have always admired in your writings’. Nabokov replies with a patient sermon on Wilson’s political blindness – ‘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’ – and a lot of teasing about the critic not having read the book. As for Lolita (to which he had contributed by sending Nabokov an inspiring study by Havelock Ellis of a Russian nymphet-hunter), Wilson had absolutely no time for it. Mr Karlinsky assures us that he remained silent on Pale Fire and found Ada unreadable.

So the two men grew apart. The surprising thing is that, given their temperamental differences, they remained so close for so long. Nabokov’s critical remarks rarely resemble Wilson’s; his judgments on authors are decisive but hardly ever justified by argument. There is a long list of manifest frauds and charlatans, headed by Dostoevsky and Freud. Eliot is a fake, Mann no better. In one letter, out of compassion for Wilson, he explains in some detail why Malraux is a rotten writer; but Lawrence he simply jeers away, and when Wilson put him on to Faulkner he wrote back incredulously: ‘Are you pulling my leg?’ However, Wilson did convert him to Mansfield Park, and they shared an admiration for Proust, Joyce, Sterne, Chekhov and Zazie dans le Métro, which must be the most Nabokovian of French novels, acceptable to Wilson, perhaps, because it is the French language that gets knocked around in it.

Wilson insisted on the importance of giving a fair account of a book before you passed judgment, and Nabokov had perhaps a certain aristocratic disdain for such journeyman patience. He was totally committed to a play-theory of art, which he held with the utmost seriousness, even relating it to his entomological observations. A loquacious author, he has left us in little doubt either as to the nature of the theory or the conviction with which he held it: but in his letters it sometimes crops up in forms which Wilson, though he liked a joke himself and was an amateur conjuror, may well have thought a shade irresponsible. ‘The longer I live the more I become convinced that the only thing that matters in literature is the (more or less irrational) shamanstvo (magic) of a book, i.e., that the good writer is first of all an enchanter. But one must not let things tumble out of one’s sleeves all the time as Malraux does.’ Wilson kept his conjuring for parties; and of course it is still worth asking whether Pale Fire and Ada really are vindications of such views, or whether they are evidence of a fatal self-indulgence. Nabokov gave Wilson early warning that at forty-plus he was not going to change himself ‘Conradically’, and the later works must have struck Wilson as confirming his original doubts about puns and playfulness.

The final or virtually final breach came when neither perhaps had much more to offer the other. Wilson’s Russian had benefited; he had been corrected on various other matters, such as the method of fighting duels in Pushkin’s day and the accentuation of Russian verse, and he had enjoyed the generous and delightful mind of a very exotic, staggeringly gifted writer. Nabokov’s gains were also considerable: struggling to make a living, to get himself known in a strange country, he had found the man who could best help him. He entered with alacrity into this learned and amusing correspondence, matching Wilson’s candour as well as his good will. But the time was up, and when Wilson published first his disparagements of Nabokov’s monumental Eugene Onegin and later, in Upstate, a sneer at his linguistic vanity, Nabokov, I think understandably, seems to have felt that his old friend had gone too far – perhaps, even, that his honour had been hurt. I’m glad this crisis was so long delayed, for the book of their letters is full of ingenuity and learning, and testimony that the passion for literature can possess vastly dissimilar personalities. The collection is well edited by Mr Karlinsky, who has a lot of Russian to translate, yet translates the French as well. One small point: he says Eleanor Marx-Aveling’s translation of Madame Bovary came out in a limited Swiss edition in 1938, but it was published in 1886, and has been in the Everyman Library for half a century.

The collection edited by Peter Quennell has some attractive photographs and two good essays, by John Bayley and Martin Amis. For the rest, there is a lot of laborious exegesis, which might have amused the recipient of the tribute, and a thought-provoking piece by Alfred Appel Jr, who knew Nabokov well and is steeped in his work. The thought provoked is that the effect of such immersion can be disastrous: Mr Appel’s prose proves the point that there are major writers by whom it is fatal to be subdued. He is so full of twitchy jokes that I can’t decide whether he really thinks Conrad wrote a book called The Negro of the ‘Narcissus’, or whether this is a recondite jest. Dmitri Nabokov’s elegiac piece has more legitimately the colours of his father. But as Nabokov said in a lecture quoted by his son as epigraph, ‘the manner dies with the matter, the world with the individual,’ and the rare specimen that flew into Wilson’s net in 1940, a great mimic itself, is not a fit subject for mimicry.