Friday, December 3, 2010

Wilson and Nabokov

Nabokov’s letters to Edmund Wilson--published in the book Dear Bunny, Dear Volodya: The Nabokov-Wilson Letters, 1940- 1971--are wonderful to behold. They remind us of the genius of both men. In his American phase, Nabokov was busily translating, annotating, lecturing, analyzing, promoting, butterfly collecting, and writing. His work was prodigious. Although he was now writing in a second language, Nabokov wrote an enormous quantity of short stories, novels, poems, commentaries, letters, lectures, translations of Russian classics, and scientific treatises on butterflies and moths. Wilson, in addition to his work as an editor, was equally busy writing poetry, prose, history, translations, lectures, letters, and literary criticism. Together, the two opinionated men seemed to be capable of debating almost every aspect of global, or at least Western, literary culture.

Their letters demonstrate that both men felt extremely comfortable with American, French, German, British, and Russian literary history. Wilson, literary editor of the New Yorker, sometime husband of Mary McCarthy, knew almost every major intellectual of the Atlantic seaboard, including the Caribbean. Not content with translating European modernism for an American public, he ventured directly into the Russian revolutionary project, producing his masterpiece, To the Finland Station, in the midst of dozens of other major and minor literary projects.

Perhaps the greatest compliment to Wilson, is the respect with which Nabokov addressed him in their letters. At first, Nabokov’s fondness for Wilson seems to be linked, at least in some small measure, with the concrete commercial favors Wilson did him throughout their long acquaintance. For instance, Wilson recommended Nabokov for university appointments, suggested him as a translator whenever the occasion arose, collaborated on projects with Nabokov, reviewed his books, provided him with literary introductions, critiqued his English, or made suggestions regarding Nabokov’s many literary contracts.

Over time, the balance of power shifted but Nabokov revealed his ongoing respect for Wilson by his continued intellectual engagement with the man, despite ideological differences. Neither man pulled his punches on the subject of political ideology. For Nabokov, Wilson fundamentally misread the Revolution, which had nothing to recommend it. According to Nabokov, whose father had once served as a high ranking official in the Provisional Government, the Bolsheviks had put an end not just to the reactionary aristocracy but also to a very vibrant and viable liberal political tradition that had included parliamentary democracy, a respect for dissenting opinions and human rights, and an independent judiciary.

Wilson agreed with Nabokov that Stalin was a tyrant, but did not agree with the proposition that Lenin’s original project was debased and despotic. Moreover, Wilson thought that Nabokov’s biased refusal to acknowledge the positive aspects of the revolutionary tradition in Europe led him to underrate the importance aspect of the social dimension of literature. I think perhaps that Wilson was on to something though Nabokov’s privileged position in today’s literary canon suggests that Wilson effectively lost both the historical and the literary debate with his Russian interlocutor.

One sympathizes with Nabokov during the 1940s and 1950s. Americans didn’t always take him seriously, thinking that his claim to represent a middle ground between Bolshevism and White Reaction was untenable if not insincere. It reminds one of how bisexuality is treated today. People don’t tend to believe that one can adopt a middle ground between gay and straight. Surely the bisexual is merely covering his tracts, pretending to be something more reasonable than gay? Why, people sometimes ask, doesn’t the bisexual just get it over with and say that he isn’t attracted to women at all? Nabokov repeatedly faced intolerance and disbelief over his claim to be neither tsarist nor Marxist. Why hide things? It was obvious that he hated the Bolsheviks. What could this mean if not a love for the Ancien Regime? At any rate, while we’re on the subject of sexuality, it’s interesting to note that it was Wilson who turned Nabokov on to a fascinating “true confession” of an irredeemable pederast that surely formed the genesis of perhaps his finest English novel, Lolita.

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