The Nabokov-Wilson Letters

ph_0111206476-Wilson_E.jpg Edmund Wilson Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Simon Karlinsky’s edition of the correspondence of Vladimir Nabokov and Edmund Wilson is both a major literary event and a historical document of real importance. These letters, the fruits of a close relationship of a quarter of a century, would have been prized in any form, but the reading public is additionally fortunate to have them make their appearance in an exemplary edition, filled with useful notes and prefaced by an excellent Introduction.

These two intelligent and influential literary figures were to affect greatly the course of American publishing by each publishing works that tested the limits of censorship, and both widened the American consciousness by bringing to writers and readers of the United States whole spheres of literature whose existence was almost unknown before their efforts. Their long interchange tells how, on a day-by-day basis, a major novelist and perhaps the best-known American critic carried out this work.

The friendship of Wilson and Nabokov had a late beginning: both men were over forty when they became acquainted, and each had already attained a considerable eminence in literary matters. Although Vladimir Nabokov had reached an international audience who held him in high esteem, his fame was severely limited, restricted largely to members of the Russian émigré community. The son of an important political figure in czarist Russia, Nabokov was in his early life well-educated and comfortably upper-class. His father had been one of the founders of the Constitutional Democratic Party, one of the strongest of the pre-revolutionary groups opposed to the Czar, a party which worked for social reform and civil rights from 1905 on. Almost immediately after the Bolsheviks overthrew the Provisional Government, the Constitutional Democrats were outlawed, and arrests of their members began. In 1919, Nabokov’s father took his family into exile, where the elder Nabokov was assassinated by right-wing fanatics within a few years.

The society into which his father brought Nabokov, however, was intellectually and culturally rich. Literature in the Russian language was stimulated and preserved outside Soviety influence by lectures, readings, journals, and publishing houses in the large European cities into which the Russian exiles had been dispersed, yet the writers who, like Nabokov, came to prominence in these circles were almost unknown outside the émigré culture. Nabokov’s novels in Russian during this time brought him into the first rank of the émigré writers of his generation; Karlinsky considers his novel The Gift (1937-1938) among the greatest novels in Russian in the twentieth century. Some of Nabokov’s novels had already been translated into English, French, and German when he left for the United States in 1940.

Nevertheless, as Karlinsky points out, when Nabokov arrived in America, he was all but unknown in this country, and his status as a member of an émigré family placed him on the wrong side of the prejudice of left-leaning American intellectuals who suspected any enemy of the Soviet Union. It was therefore fortunate that Nabokov was introduced to Edmund Wilson, but in another sense there meeting seems to have been fated, for Wilson was not only at the center of the American literary establishment, but was also one of the very few who had not only traveled in Russia, but was familiar with its language and acquainted with its literature as well.

In the 1920’s and 1930’s, Edmund Wilson had established his own reputation as a literary figure of several talents and powerful influence. In and out of love with Edna St. Vincent Millay, confidant of John Dos Passos, college friend of F. Scott Fitzgerald, sometime visitor at the Algonquin Round Table, editor at different times of The New Republic and Vanity Fair, drama critic, playwright, author of Axel’s Castle (1931), and novelist—it is hard to find a figure of literary importance in France, Great Britain, or the United States between the World Wars who was not spoken to, associated with, or written about by Edmund Wilson. Nor is it an exaggeration to say that Wilson had changed the taste in fiction of the American literati: he had shown the importance of the French Symbolist movement and its relationship to writers such as T. S. Eliot, James Joyce, and Gertrude Stein.

In the 1930’s, Wilson also interested himself in politics, and, like many American intellectuals of the period, swung to the left. He studied Marxism, and, in 1935, received a Guggenheim Fellowship to travel in the Soviet Union. He published his impressions of the trip in Travels in Two Democracies (1936), and his research...

(The entire section is 1919 words.)