A former Moscow correspondent chronicles one of the most famous literary spats of the 20th century.
In 1939, the composer Nicolas Nabokov rented a house on Cape Cod across the street from Edmund Wilson, the Russophile editor of the New Republic, and asked for a favor: could he help his cousin, Vladimir, recently arrived from St. Petersburg, secure some reviewing gigs? Wilson obliged. He and Vladimir became friends, even though Wilson failed to convince the younger man—whom Boston Globe columnist Beam (American Crucifixion: The Murder of Joseph Smith and the Fate of the Mormon Church, 2014, etc.) calls “the twentieth century’s Trickster King”—to abandon his love of puns and anagrams. After two decades of friendship, however, Wilson wrote a “generally useless but unfailingly amusing hatchet job” about Nabokov’s massive four-volume translation of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin. Years of public bickering followed. Beam does an excellent job of depicting the growing strain between the two men, brought on in part by the huge success of Lolita compared to Wilson’s own attempt at a salacious novel, Memoirs of Hecate County. The pages devoted to the back and forth among Nabokov, Wilson, and other luminaries who weighed in on the Onegin contretemps are great fun. But the flippant tone of Beam’s writing—note the book’s subtitle—may rankle some readers. Nabokov was “a quick-on-the-uptake student at the Edmund Wilson Academy of Not Taking Sh*t from Publishers.” Spendthrift Wilson and money “were never destined to share a taxicab.” Nabokov fans are “deep-dish Nabokovians.” When Wilson argued about Russian prosody, he “revisited Gerundistan.” After he quotes Nabokov’s dismissal of lesser Onegin translations, Beam reprimands him with, “But really, Vladimir.” Prose that calls attention to itself didn’t always serve Nabokov well, and it doesn’t work here, either.
A well-researched account of a literary dust-up marred by superficial writing.