Alex Beam's brilliant book The Feud: Vladimir Nabokov, Edmund Wilson, and the End of a Beautiful Friendship charts the rise and fall of the friendship of the two writers. Among the public barbs in the New York Review of Books and arguments about whether to translate a word in Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin as "sapajous" or "monkeys," the two extremely opinionated men had many opinions about sex.
Many factors contributed to the bitter unraveling of the quarter-century-long friendship-bromance between Vladimir Nabokov and Edmund Wilson. For instance, professional jealousy; Nabokov, whose cousin Nicolas had begged Wilson to help the near-penniless Vladimir when he arrived in America in 1940, eventually became richer and more famous than Wilson. Politically, the two men diverged over time, with Nabokov indulging a xenophobic Nixon-philia, while Wilson sported a “McGovern for President” button during the final month of his life, in 1972.
The two men famously—and fatuously—wrangled over the niceties of Russian language, and specifically over Nabokov’s half-mad, half-brilliant translation of Alexander Pushkin’s novel in verse, Eugene Onegin. And they quarreled about sex.
Both Nabokov and Wilson were avid practitioners. As a successful, handsome young writer and poet who played a mean game of tennis, Nabokov cut a broad swathe through young womanhood during his university years at Cambridge, and while living as a Russian emigre in Germany, France and England. (“A German girl met by chance in the Grunewald; a French girl for four nights in 1933; a tragic woman with exquisite eyes; a former student who had propositioned him; and three or four other meaningless encounters,” were among his conquests, according to his wife’s biographer Stacy Schiff.) Married by age 25, Nabokov waxed uxorious for fifty-two years. The exception was a brief, tempestuous affair with a fiery-eyed Russian poet and part-time dog groomer, Irina Guadanini.
Wilson also loved women and he loved making love to women. He married four attractive women. His third wife was the vivacious, head-turning Mary McCarthy, and his fourth wife Elena, eleven years his junior, was an aristocratic European beauty. Wilson’s famous “Journals,” published posthumously, contain numerous detailed descriptions of lovemaking with McCarthy next to Cape Cod kettle ponds near their home in Wellfleet, Massachusetts, or of caressing Elena in hotels rooms during their European jaunts.
Sex was a subject the two men could talk and joke about. Wilson wrote a clever little limerick about Vladimir “stroking a butterfly’s femur”, and he often brought Nabokov erotic books as house presents. In 1957, for instance, he took the French novel, Histoire d’O along on a visit to the Nabokovs in Ithaca, New York, where the novelist was teaching at Cornell. “[Nabokov] agreed with me,” Wilson recorded in his journal, “that, trashy though it is, it exercises a certain hypnotic effect.” Vera Nabokova frowned on the two men’s tittering enjoyment of nyeprilichnaya literatura (indecent literature) and made sure that Wilson took the book with him when he left: “She does not like my bringing him pornographic books,” Wilson remembered. “She said with disgust that we had been giggling like schoolboys.”
In 1948, Wilson sent Nabokov “Confession Sexuelle d’un Russe du Sud,” a 100-page study that Havelock Ellis had appended to the sixth volume of the French edition of his Studies of Sexual Psychology. The purportedly authentic memoir recounted the sexual odyssey of a young, wealthy Ukrainian man with a weakness for young girls. Sidetracked by his sexual compulsion, the narrator rights himself as a young man and obtains an engineering degree and a respectable fiancée in Italy. Alas, during a business trip to Naples, he dips his toe in the city’s pool of underage prostitutes, and sees his marital prospects disappear.
We know that Nabokov read the Ellis tale, because he referred to it twice, once in Speak, Memory and a second time, in greater detail, when he translated and reedited Speak, Memory as Drugiye Berega [Other Shores], into Russian. According to this undated note in his papers, Wilson seems to have thought that by sending Nabokov the Ellis study, he had inspired Lolita:
It lately occurred to me that I have not been sending you the nyeprilichnuyu literaturu with which I used to supply you, and which no doubt inspired Lolita, so I am enclosing this in my Christmas packet.” [Emphasis added]It lately occurred to me that I have not been sending you the nyeprilichnuyu literaturu with which I used to supply you, and which no doubt inspired Lolita, so I am enclosing this in my Christmas packet.” [Emphasis added]
Wilson’s false claim to have inspired Lolita – Nabokov had been working on version of the story since the 1930s -- is especially ironical, given that he hated the book. “I like it less than anything else of yours that I have read,” he bluntly informed Nabokov in 1954. At the time, Nabokov was desperate to hear praise for what looked like an unpublishable novel. Like so much in the men’s fraught relationship, there was a context here. Nabokov didn’t think much of Wilson’s attempt at writing a “sexy” book, the 1946 Memoirs of Hecate County. Until the New York Supreme Court banned its sale, Hecate was quite a hit, especially with Wilson himself, who later called it his “favorite among my books.”
Here is the kind of prose that passed for bawdy in 1946:
Not only were her thighs perfect columns, but all that lay between them was impressively beautiful, too, with an aesthetic value that I had never found there before. The mount was of a classical femininity: round and smooth and plump; the fleece, if not quite golden, was blond and curly and soft, and the portals were a deep tender rose.
Nabokov told Wilson that Hecate was “wonderful,” but he was unsparing about the sex scenes: “The reader . . . derives no kick from the hero’s love-making,” he wrote to Wilson. “I should have as soon tried to open a sardine can with my penis. The result is remarkably chaste, despite the frankness.” Wilson responded, unconvincingly: “You sound as if I had made an unsuccessful attempt to write something like Fanny Hill. The frozen and unsatisfactory character of the sexual relations is a very important part of the central theme of the book—indicated by the title—which I’m not sure that you have grasped.”
The rest is literary history. Four years after sending Lolita to his disdainful friends, Nabokov published his nymphet’s tale in the United States. G.P. Putnam’s sold 100,000 copies in three weeks. Hurricane Lolita (from Nabokov’s Pale Fire, ll. 679–680; “It was a year of tempests, Hurricane / Lolita swept from Florida to Maine”) swept across America, Europe and the world, changing the Nabokovs’ lives forever. Overnight, they were rich, and promptly abandoned Cornell and Ithaca to live in the Montreux Palace Hotel overlooking Lake Geneva.
“Lo” changed their relations with Edmund Wilson, too. Wilson acknowledged to Nabokov that the “rampancy of Lolita . . . seems to have opened the door to other wantons,” expressing his hope that Hecate County would became a bestseller, too, when it reappeared in 1959. But Hecate flopped in the post-Peyton Place (1956) publishing world, while the genuinely transgressive Lolita continued to soar, over new countries and over new continents.Wilson could be forgiven for thinking: There but for the errant grace of God go I.