Book review: The Feud – when literary titans Vladimir Nabokov and Edmund Wilson clashed

Among infamous literary spats, the animosity between Vladimir Nabokov and Edmund Wilson eclipsed them all. The Feud by Alex Beam burrows into a simmering war of words.

Russian author Vladimir Nabokov, in the late 1960s. He came to literary blows with US writer Edmund Wilson over his translation of Russian countryman Alexander Pushkin's novel Eugene Onegin. Interfoto  / Alamy Stock Photo.
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As might be expected with a literary spat, words speak louder than actions. There are exceptions: Leo Tolstoy challenged Ivan Turgenev to a duel; Mario Vargas Llosa punched Gabriel García Márquez in a Mexican cinema; Norman Mailer floored Gore Vidal at a New York party (leading Vidal to famously quip, “Once again, words fail Norman Mailer”). But for the most part, arguments are conducted on paper, and the pen is far mightier than the sword.

In November 1997, one such war of words played out between Salman Rushdie and John le Carré in a very public arena – the letters page of a national newspaper. Rushdie threw the first punch. Writing to The Guardian in response to le Carré's recent complaint of being branded an anti-Semite, Rushdie offered little sympathy, informing readers that le Carré had "joined forces with my assailants" over The Satanic Verses. Le Carré promptly retaliated, stating that Rushdie's "way with the truth is as self-serving as ever".

Then the gloves came off, with Rushdie calling le Carré a “pompous ass”, and le Carré accusing Rushdie of “self-canonisation”. The back-and-forth exchange raged for five consecutive days. Fifteen years later they buried the hatchet.

That dispute was a mere tiff compared with another contretemps of the last century. The fight between Vladimir Nabokov and Edmund Wilson was bigger because it was a clash between two literary titans, arguably the most celebrated in their respective fields. It was also dirtier and nastier, more personal and prolonged, a war of attrition with the express aim of grinding down the opponent and at the very least ruining a reputation. Finally, unlike the Rushdie-le Carré scrap, the Nabokov-Wilson brawl killed a strong friendship that had endured for 25 years.

Curiously, until now, no sole book has covered the bloody affair. Instead we have had to make do with chapters in full-scale biographies or sections in books, covering correspondence between the two men. Author and Boston Globe columnist Alex Beam has stepped forward and seized an opportunity. The Feud: Vladimir Nabokov, Edmund Wilson and the End of a Beautiful Friendship is a relentlessly absorbing account of a sorry saga which stemmed from a difference of opinion, accelerated into a battle of egos and culminated in bitter loss for both adversaries.

Beam begins with a meeting of two great minds. In 1940, Wilson was the unrivalled kingpin of American letters. Well-educated, well-read but also well-connected, Wilson as an accomplished writer and critic knew who was who in the New York publishing scene. When a friend asked him to help find work for Nabokov, an impecunious Russian émigré who had recently arrived in the United States after years of exile in Europe, Wilson, an ardent Russophile, reached out.

The pair hit it off immediately. Soon Wilson was opening doors for Nabokov, giving him his big break at The New Republic and introducing him to editors. People paid heed to Wilson: this was America's pre-eminent literary tastemaker and talent-spotter, the man who promoted the careers of F Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, who was among the first to champion James Joyce. Nabokov's career took off and his dedicated mentor became a loyal friend.

During the 1940s and 50s, both men consolidated their friendship – or, as Beam has it, "infatuation" – through letters. Dear Volodya, wrote Wilson; Dear Bunny, replied Nabokov. The pair traded gossip, linguistic riddles, opinions and nyeprilichnuyu literaturu – "indecent literature" written in Russian. "You are one of the very few people in the world whom I keenly miss when I do not see them," Nabokov wrote to Wilson in 1948, returning a pair of borrowed socks.

However, this golden period was sporadically blighted by intense disagreements. Nabokov railed against Wilson's pro-Soviet views (in his 1938 essay "Marxism and Literature", Wilson claimed that Lenin and Trotsky were two of the greatest Russian writers of the early 20th century); Wilson, increasingly disillusioned by US politics, watched as Nabokov cheered on America during the Cold War. It didn't help that after the phenomenal success of Lolita – a book Wilson could only read half of – Nabokov went from struggling author to global superstar.

At one point, Beam argues that the relationship was doomed from the outset, for in many ways the two men were contradictory people: “Wilson the erudite literalist and Nabokov the ludist, the fantasist, the trickster king. The opposites attracted, and then they didn’t.”

But before they drifted apart they collided, and all because of a poem. Alexander Pushkin was Nabokov's favourite Russian writer. Wilson primarily learned Russian so as to read Pushkin. Both revered his beautiful, rambling verse novel, Eugene Onegin. After bemoaning the lack of adequate English translations, Nabokov decided to tackle it himself. It was a challenge. Eight years in the making, it finally appeared in 1964, all four volumes and 1,895 pages of it. Its commentary, which Beam calls a mixture of "genius and madness in uneven proportions", covered 930 pages.

In a poem entitled On Translating 'Eugene Onegin', Nabokov insisted there was method in that madness: through his "stratagem" he had transformed Pushkin's untranslatable stanzas "Into my honest roadside prose – / All thorn, but cousin to your rose." Most critics saw only an abundance of scraggly weeds. One described the result as a "voluminous compilation of fact and prejudice". Another condemned "the implacably Nazistic Nabokov" for his "catastrophic" rendering.

But it was Wilson's 6,600-word no-holds-barred takedown in The New York Review of Books that counted. Savagely and systematically, Wilson drew attention to broken English, flat writing, Russian language inaccuracies and that "tedious and interminable appendix". Most of all he mocked Nabokov's obscure vocabulary – producement, familistic, rummers, shippon and scrab. Beam steps in and asks why Nabokov should translate "bliss" as "mollitude", "remember" as "rememorate", "curved as "curvate" and, hilariously, "monkeys" as "sapajous"? (Clive James would later write: Nabokov "makes Pushkin sound like a Scrabble buff".)

Nabokov read the critique, digested it, then called the magazine’s founder: “Please reserve space in next issue for my thunder.” Thus began a near decade of vituperative broadsides in print. Attack led to counterattack. Different publications played host to each fresh skirmish. Writers and readers picked a side and joined the fray. Incredibly, Wilson’s harshest words came Nabokov’s way in September 1972 – in a posthumous collection of essays three months after Wilson had died. Nabokov died in 1977.

From fiery fallout through each heated exchange, Beam stays balanced, finding fault and petty one-upmanship on either side, and labelling the whole imbroglio as “achingly serious and gloriously silly”. He underscores Nabokov’s mean streak, singling out many examples of his bloated self-worth and waspish denunciation of other writers, scholars and critics. He accuses Wilson of “overextending himself” when professing a superior knowledge of Russian grammar. Both are guilty of employing recondite words. “One’s heart goes out to the tired spines of the reference works in the two men’s respective homes, clearly in need of bibliorthopedic intervention.”

This kind of sentence prevents The Feud from being overly-scholarly. Beam is playful, chatty, familiar; his lively narrative resembles a lecture delivered over a coffee table rather than a lectern. "Wilson and money were never destined to share a taxi-cab," he observes. Nabokov was "a literary rock star". The corrosive, friendship-severing hatchet-job was akin to "the yawning, massive load of boiling pitch that inevitably ends up scalding the grinning fiend pouring the hot oil over the battlement as much as it harms the intended victim".

A scroll through the book's endnotes and acknowledgements reveals that Beam has clearly done his research. However, he omits mention of two telling Nabokov interviews, one conducted while he was at work on Onegin, the other after its publication. In the first, collected in Nabokov's non-fiction miscellany Strong Opinions (1973), he admits that his translation is "honest and clumsy, ponderous and slavishly faithful". In the second, from The Paris Review in 1967, he says that Wilson made a fool of himself for having "the audacity of questioning my understanding of Eugene Onegin". It would appear that the only person equipped, or allowed, to pass judgment on Nabokov's work was Nabokov himself.

Was Wilson too scathing? Was Nabokov too thin-skinned? Beam leaves those questions for his reader to decide. What he does, though, throughout his compelling book, is strikingly portray two brilliant but flawed men, and remind us that a rock-solid friendship can be eroded or destroyed by the combined forces of ego, envy and wounded pride.

Malcolm Forbes is a regular contributor to The Review and is a freelance writer based in Edinburgh.