Saturday, December 17, 2016

End of a Beautiful Friendship by Alex Beam

How did we travel from “Dear Bunny” (Edmund Wilson) and “Dear Volodya” (Vladimir Nabokov) to Please Lose My Address and By the Way I’m Removing Your Blurbs from All My Books?

“A black cat came between us – Boris Pasternak’s ‘Doctor Zhivago,’” is how Nabokov explained the rift  in his “death interview” with Alden Whitman, the obituary writer for The New York Times.

Lolita dominated the American best-seller lists well into the fall of 1958, until Doctor Zhivago displaced it at the number-one spot in the fiction list. Both books lingered near the top of the list for more than a year, creating yet another curious battleground for Nabokov the novelist and Wilson the critic [they both enjoyed vigorous repartee].

Nabokov and Pasternak knew about each other. Russian literature was too small a playing field, and their talents were too large, for them to be strangers. Nabakov often hailed Pasternak as a great poet, “a kind of masculine Emily Dickinson,” albeit one whose style had some rough edges. When the first manuscripts of Doctor Zhivago surfaced in the West, a friend suggested the ideal translator to Pasternak: “a poet, who is completely bilingual: Vladimir Nabokov.” “That won’t work,” Pasternak replied. “He’s too jealous of my wretched position in this country to do it properly.”

This is a hard comment to parse, because Pasternak has been suffering from censorship and torment through the decades of Joseph Stalin’s rule. He may have had an insight that almost no one shared: that Nabokov would have traded places with him, just to replant his roots in Russian soil.

Nabokov’s conduct vis-à-vis Pasternak and Zhivago was erratic and disgraceful. Aesthetically, he didn’t like the book. One could argue that it was a big, sprawling mess, chronicling the stories of storm-tossed characters pin-balling around the canvas of early-twentieth-century Russia and Soviet history. Dr. Yuri Zhivago is a poet hiding from history; his mistress, Lara, is the ineffable soul of Russia; Strelnikov is the self-invented servant of the dialectic; Victor Komarovsky, memorably played by Rod Steiger in the David Lean movie, is a Dostoyevskian titan of evil and manipulation –or is he?

 It’s a wonderful melodrama about events that Nabokov couldn’t stand to see distorted and stylized. He thought the book was a saccharine, jerry-built overview of a period of Soviet history best remembered for mass terror and government induced famines. “Dreary conventional stuff . . .trashy, melodramatic, false and inept” were opinions he tried to keep to himself for much of 1958, not only because it was unseemly to sully a competitor, but also because he knew Pasternak was going through hell in Moscow. The Soviet cultural authorities denounced him as a “pig” and worse.

Nabokov, over time, became unhinged on the this subject. Whether he saw himself as a more deserving Nobel candidate (probably). Whether he resented sharing literary stage center with a fellow Russian whom he regarded as a lesser talent (possibly), or whether he simply thought Zhivago was a bad book (definitely), he began suggesting that Zhivago – far from being a courageous assertion of literary freedom in a prison society – was a piece of Soviet propaganda artfully transplanted to the West.

“Any intelligent Russian would see . . . that the book is pro-Bolshevist and historically false, if only because it ignores the Liberal Revolution of spring 1917, wrote Nabokov’s wife Vera to her friend Elena Levin. Nabokov went so far as to suggest that Pasternak’s mistress, Olga Ivinshaya, had written the manuscript. She was an accomplished editor and translator but she would have been generally unavailable to help with Zhivago because in 1950 she began a five-year sentence in the gulag. It was Nabokov and the vestigial Stalinist stooges inside the USSR who pushed the ugly Ivinskaya theory. Nabokov likewise suspected Alexander Solzhenitsyn was a KGB cat’s-paw, until the USSR expelled him in 1974.

Did Nabokov have a mean streak? Definitely, and it became more pronounced as he aged. Where did it come from? His first biographer, Andrew field, who felt the razor’s edge of Nabokov’s scorn, thought Nabokov was deeply influenced by his literature teacher at the Tenishev school, the Symbolist poet and cynic V.V. Gippius. Gippius was the only schoolteacher whom Nabokov mentioned in his memoirs. Another Tenishev student, the famous poet Osip Mandelstam, recalled that Gippius taught “literary malice, “ a literary posture,” Field writes, “which to a certain extent [Nabokov] has never abandoned.” “There is something bestial about the portrait of Gippius,” the scholar Clarence Brown wrote in his biography of Mandelstam: “Paradoxically the love of literature was nurtured in his students by a man who hated literature, who say in the length and breadth of its history an ample field for the spitefulness of his nature.”

By contrast, Wilson embraced Zhivago fervently. His lengthy laudatory review in The New Yorker, “Dr. Life and is Guardian Angel,”: placed Zhivago solidly in the firmament of great works of literature. After some lengthy throat-clearing in which he berated Zhivago’s translators for multiple errors and misconceptions of the Russian language, ( not for the last time he seized the wrong end of the language stick),  Wilson finally arrived at his point of departure. Zhivago “is one of the great books of our time,”: he declared. “It is not really a book about Russia,” he continued. “It’s main theme is death and resurrection . . . the author never departed from his Christian ideal of taking every individual seriously as a soul which must be respected.” Wilson jauntily compared Pasternak with Pushkin, Gogol, Tolstoy, and James Joyce, and finished his piece with a peroration seldom seen in book reviews then or since:.

Zhivago will, I believe, come to stand as one of the great events in man’s literary and moral history. Nobody could have written it in a totalitarian state and turned it loose on the world who did not have the courage of a genius. May his guardian angel be with him! His book is a great act of faith and art and in the human spirit.

Wilson waxed full-tilt mystical on Zhivago, doubling down on his questionable premise that the novel was a profoundly Christian work, pregnant with religious symbolism, for example, ‘the five barless windows in the house in Siberia are the five wounds of Jesus.” He went even further in Encounter magazine, alleging that “the more one studies Doctor Zhivago, the more one comes to realize that it is studded with symbols and significant puns, that there is something in it of Finnegan’s Wake, and something of the cabalistic Zohar, which discovers a whole system of hidden meaning in the text of the Hebrew Bible”

Pasternak, who was born Jewish and attended Russian Orthodox services, just shrugged when he read Wilson’s Encounter article. “Whoever has seen such symbols in Doctor Zhivago,” he wrote to Max Hayward, “has not read my novel.”

The Zhivago contretempts cast a chill over the Nabokov-Wilson relationship.  The bad relations were exacerbated when Nabokov published and annotated English version of Pushkin’s ‘Eugene Onegin,” which Wilson pilloried in the New York Review. . .*

It became clear over time that the two men were very different writers. Wilson took literature seriously, sometimes too seriously. In his fiction his seriousness of purpose betrayed him. One would have welcomed some Nabokovian levity in Hecate County, for instance, but there was none. Yet Nabokov’s “deep-lying inhumanity, or, more precisely, unhumanity” – the eminent critic George Steiner’s phrase- must have worn Wilson down. He always believed that writing had a purpose, and many of his purposes testified to his sense of justice and his ever-inquiring mind. He publicized the downtrodden Harlan County coal miners in 1931 and campaigned for Native American rights at least a decade before their plight gained national attention. Patriotic Gore reassessed the blithely accepted foundation myths of the Civil War. The Scrolls from the Dead Sea, his groundbreaking popularization of the Old and New Testament apocrypha, anticipated the vast, proto-academic Jesus industry of the final quarter of the twentieth century.

Contrast these outings with Nabokov’s declaration: “My books are blessed by a total lack of social significance.”

Where Nabokov was concerned, Wilson appreciated the prose but not the poetry, figuratively speaking. He enjoyed Speak, Memory and portions of Nabokov’s early work, such as Sebastian Knight. But he tired quickly of the gaming, the frippery, the language tricks, the difficult allusions. He seems not to have read the finished version of Bend Sinister, and he abandoned Lolita half-way through. He dismissed Pale Fire and Ada with a snap of his fingers. I find it hard to believe that he read those book, either. [ exactly my experience with Nabokov- J.S.]  As for Eugene Onegin, Wilson simply recognized that it was not a good translation.

Wilson was in excellent company. This is V.S. Naipaul speaking, but it could just as well be Wilson: “What is [Nabokov’s] style? It’s bogus, calling attention to itself. Americans do that. All those beautiful sentences. What are they for?”. . .

After Wilson died, Vera Nabokov wrote a letter to his widow, Elena, “I would like to tell you how find Vladimir has always been of Edmund despite the unfortunate turn in their relations. We always think of Edmund in terms of past friendships and affection; not of the so unnecessary hostilities in recent years. Two years later, when Elena was assembling the men’s letters for publication, Vladimir wrote her: “I need not tell you what agony it was rereading the exchanges belonging to the early radiant era of our correspondence.”

* Alex Beam's characterization of Edmund Wilson's review of Vladimir Nabovok's annotated translation of Pushkin's "Eugene Onegin' (in the New York Review, 7/65):
"A classic of its genre, the genre being overlong, spiteful, stochastically accurate, generally useless, but unfailingly amusing hatchet job, 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."

1 comment:

  1. "The good reader is aware that the quest for real life, real people, and so forth is a meaningless process when speaking of books," Nabokov said. "In a book, the reality of a person, or object, or a circumstance depends exclusively on the world of that particular book" Even a history book.