The Feud is the deliciously ironic (and sad) tale of how two literary giants destroyed their friendship in a fit of mutual pique and egomania.
In 1940, Edmund Wilson was the undisputed big dog of American letters. Vladimir Nabokov was a near-penniless Russian exile seeking asylum in the States. Wilson became a mentor to Nabokov, introducing him to every editor of note, assigning him book reviews for The New Republic, engineering a Guggenheim Fellowship. Their intimate friendship blossomed over a shared interest in all things Russian, ruffled a bit by political disagreements. But then came the worldwide best-selling novel Lolita, and the tables were turned. Suddenly Nabokov was the big (and very rich) dog. The feud finally erupted in full when Nabokov published his hugely footnoted and virtually unreadable literal translation of Pushkin’s famously untranslatable verse novel, Eugene Onegin. Wilson attacked his friend’s translation with hammer and tongs in The New York Review of Books. Nabokov counterattacked. Back and forth the increasingly aggressive letters flew, until the narcissism of small differences reduced their friendship to ashes.
Alex Beam has fashioned this clash of literary titans into a delightful and irresistible book—a comic contretemps of a very high order and a poignant demonstration of the fragility of even the deepest of friendships.
(With black-and-white illustrations throughout)
In this intriguing and melancholy chronicle, Boston Globe columnist Beam (Gracefully Insane) traces the rise and fall of the friendship between Edmund Wilson and Vladimir Nabokov. The two men met in 1940, when Nabokov's cousin pleaded with Wilson, an eminent critic and writer, to help Nabokov, a recent migr from Russia to the U.S. Among other things, Wilson commissioned reviews from Nabokov, helped him secure a Guggenheim Fellowship, and introduced him to prominent editors. Over the years, the two spent holidays together with their families, exchanged affectionate correspondence, and even collaborated on a translation of Alexander Pushkin's Mozart and Salieri. By the time Wilson died in 1972, it had all fallen apart. The main cause was Wilson's scathing review of Nabokov's 1,895-page, hyperquirky translation of Pushkin's Eugene Onegin (one of his many criticisms was Nabokov's choosing the obscure term "sapajous" over the logical translation choice, "monkeys"), which began a protracted war of words between the two. Beam's book evokes the strangely satisfying sensation of witnessing smart people bickering over seemingly small matters. It also provides a fascinating behind-the-scenes glimpse, full of anecdotal ephemera, of how Wilson and Nabokov interacted and why. But the more lasting sensation is the bittersweetness of this portrait of a fallen friendship at its height, Nabokov wrote to Wilson, "You are one of the few people in the world whom I keenly miss when I do not see them."