What holds a long-term friendship together is as mysterious as what sustains a lengthy marriage. The underpinnings are invisible to outsiders, who aren’t privy to the jealousy and passion and dependency and repressed desire that often hold sway. Boston Globe writer Alex Beam tries valiantly to examine such a relationship in his new book, “The Feud,” about the critic Edmund Wilson and the novelist Vladimir Nabokov, but he seems thwarted by his own congenial evenhandedness that avoids the dark clouds and hidden spaces that can fuel intense friendships.
Wilson and Nabokov became close friends after Wilson found him work writing for the New Yorker and the New Republic, where Wilson was already embedded. Nabokov had spent years in exile after escaping Russia when the Bolsheviks destroyed his idyllic childhood, which he wrote about in “Speak, Memory.” The two men seemed to enjoy each other’s company, even while needling each other over petty disagreements. Nabokov was exasperated by Wilson’s fondness for Lenin and Russia, which Nabokov detested. For Nabokov, the “Leninist reality” would always be “a pail of milk of human kindness with a dead rat at the bottom.” Wilson found Nabokov’s proclivity for punning intolerable and told him so repeatedly.
Their childhood experiences and subsequent world views differed wildly. Nabokov hated Freud and was suspicious of anyone who claimed to decode the tragedy of human existence by espousing theories about sexuality and early development. He revered his mother, and he had great love for his father, who was assassinated when he was 22. Edmund Wilson, on the other hand, was the only child of a critical and neglectful mother, who berated him for his inability to make enough money.
Wilson became a chronic drinker and womanizer and married four times while producing an enormous output of books and criticism. Nabokov remained married to the same woman throughout his life but was also unfaithful. Both men revered the creative life and loved magic tricks and puzzles. Neither learned to drive.
Unfortunately, Beam struggles to integrate these details into an engaging narrative about their friendship and its demise. He seems averse to the psychological inquiry required to penetrate the turbulence that engulfed both men, and he relies too heavily on reasoning that ignores the mysterious stirrings of the heart. He seems at times exasperated by his own flailing efforts, asking at one point, “So how does a friendship pass from genuine intimacy to loathing? From the borrowing of socks to the rewriting of personal histories?” The reader feels left in the dark as to the essential zeitgeist that ignited their friendship and destroyed it years later.
Beam speculates that the trigger for their contention was Wilson’s savage review of Nabokov’s translation of Pushkin’s “Eugene Onegin” in the New York Review of Books. Nabokov had spent a decade on it, but Wilson found it unreadable and said so in his critique. Nabokov never forgave him. But one senses it was never as simple as that; there were other forces at play. Beam hints that perhaps Wilson tired of Nabokov, who was known to have a mean streak. Wilson had grown disappointed in Nabokov’s recent works, particularly “Lolita,” which catapulted Nabokov to immense wealth and international fame. Beam wonders if perhaps Wilson was jealous of Nabokov’s enormous success, which Wilson never achieved. He considers the possibility that Nabokov may have grown uncomfortable with Wilson, who knew him at the start of his literary life when he was needy of Wilson’s assistance.
Beam believes Wilson’s most egregious transgression was assuming he understood the forces that shaped Nabokov, a presumption Nabokov found repellent. Wilson had concluded that his friend possessed a “chilly soullessness” from the aftereffects of his father’s assassination and his own lengthy exile in Europe after being ousted by the Bolsheviks. Nabokov dismissed Wilson’s analysis as “figments of his warped fancy.” Their differences as they aged seem to grow more pronounced. Wilson was proud of the fact that he took literature seriously and had a sense of social justice, while Nabokov boasted, “My books are blessed by a total lack of social significance.”
Beam’s assessments are intellectually plausible, but the reader can’t help but feel that the keenest insights have been left unexplored. Beam’s narrative style has an ingrained distance that makes it difficult to imagine what an afternoon spent with Nabokov and Wilson might have sounded like — or even to care about their relationship.
In contrast, Brian Boyd, who wrote a highly praised biography of Nabokov, seems intuitively to have grasped the terrain he needed to travel to reach more complex truths. Boyd explained his biographical technique in chasing down the essential Nabokov in a revealing interview: “I try to tease out Nabokov’s consistency while also highlighting his variety. I sometimes show the hard lone toil of the artist and the scholar (in this case, me too), and how it relies on or resists the work of others. I show how obsessions, Nabokov’s and mine, need not preclude multiplicity and surprise.” Boyd explains that his pursuit of Nabokov involved “wielding a variety of nets, in different seasons and terrains, panting with effort while he flutters free.”
Boyd’s emotional openness to the hidden complexities and contradictions buried within all of us, including himself, set the template for his probing analysis of Nabokov. Beam doesn’t quite get there.
Elaine Margolin is a writer and critic in New York.
By Alex Beam
Pantheon. 224 pp. $26.95