The best audience is in the mirror : Pushkin, Nabokov & Wilson
Everyone tells you St Petersburg is beautiful; its grittiness two summers ago came as a surprise – the roughness of taxi drivers fighting for possession of a suitcase, the astonishing traffic jams. We shot into town on the near-empty high–speed train from Helsinki, zipping through a depopulated landscape of clean pale sky, past undulating miles of birch trees. The rackety brawl at the station was unexpected. I was expecting Pushkin’s town to proceed at a quieter, more elegant pace. For this misinformation I blame the Breguet posters, which for years have carried this legend:
A dandy on the boulevards … strolling at leisure until his Breguet, ever vigilant, reminds him it is midday.
The boulevard is the Nevsky Prospekt, the line from Pushkin’s famous novel-poem, Eugene Onegin. The advertisers playing on the long history of the foppish and self-indulgent timepiece (‘Breguet depuis 1775’) to sell their exquisite skeleton watch wouldn’t wish to allude to the actual Onegin story of senseless early death, love wasted and anomie. Not long after his pleasant stroll, our world-weary hero visits his uncle in the country (dying far too slowly for his liking), then for foolish reasons fights a wintry duel, killing his friend the ‘boy poet’ Lenski. This – in one of literature’s great ironies - foreshadowed Pushkin’s own equally senseless death by precisely the same sort of meaningless duel he’d understood so well and had depicted in his great work.
That first tense ride demonstrated that today’s dandy strolling along the Nevsky Prospekt would easily outpace the traffic: eight jammed lanes belching diesel fuel. Despite foul pollution the view remains spectacular: great blocks of granite pavements, magnificent if shabby mansions, glimpses of old bridges, the shimmer of water on canals. There were no cars whatsoever in Russia when I last visited in 1971 with my mother and 72-year-old grandmother: it might as well have been 1871. Nobody could even dream of owning one; transport was by trolley buses, tourists being moved about en masse in ramshackle buses.
We flew to icy, snowed-in Moscow in December for what was meant to be a treat. It was bitter weather, unrelentingly grim from the ride into town past endless concrete blocks of worker housing to the hotel with its sinister policewomen in tatty overalls keeping watch on every landing, its plug-less soap-less baths. No risk of wallowing in decadent Western froth. We’d brought our suitcase of tights and blue jeans to give away; our lovely official guide (vainly hoping we might choose to visit another time) asked if we could bring dress patterns. There were no sewing needles to be had in all Moscow, but she was an optimist by nature, and suffused with joy. (My mother had given her a newly hand-knitted cashmere sweater using the most complex hole-and-corner subterfuges to hand over the gift). There was very little food, no fruit or vegetables. We were always hungry but every morning drank glorious, delicious Cuban coffee. Caviar and vodka appeared at erratic moments. Russians are used to extremes.
From 1703, at the whim of Peter the Great, a brand new city bearing his name was built from scratch opposite the Peter & Paul fortress defending the Neva: mansions, churches, palaces for summer and winter, all the trappings of a court which loved to live well. Peter had travelled in Europe and lived in Holland: he brought in Dutch and German engineers and made sure all the stonemasons in Russia worked for him. The whole magnificence was constructed by conscripts, desperate diseased serfs shackled to stop them escaping. Maybe that is why the city has an undertow of menace. Tsar Peter’s monument in granite and stone, symbol of power and riches, has been looted, bombed, rebuilt. Devastated by Lenin’s Red Terror, survivor of Stalin’s great purges, besieged by the Germans for three desperate years. People ate wallpaper and rats – three million died – and yet despite unimaginable suffering, the city held out.
No wonder the people of this city understand power, and how it is displayed, and the arts of reinvention - and of living well. When we were there, innumerable buildings were being renovated; grand luxe sparkling in the shining windows of designer shops and new restaurants popping up beside damaged paving stones. No shortage of limos, fur coats, and bling. The statues at the Peterhof summer palace are so newly gilded that when the sun comes out you have to shade your eyes. The town is overrun by tourists, and those who live off them, or try to: on the riverboat crossing to the Peterhof, a sad-eyed over-made up woman in her sixties stands at the front of the boat holding up guide books and CDS and maps, her rapid but lengthy spiel in Russian, English and French to no avail, for nobody buys a thing. As for the Hermitage – it’s all you expect, and more, an infinity of stupendous art captured in the flashings of a thousand upheld mobile phones as the sea of cruise ship tourists swells and spills, and relentlessly thrashes by. Rooms of great works remain empty while the line of cruise ship iPhone selfie-takers stretches back and back; everyone wants their moment with the Rembrandts, or the Da Vinci madonnas. Once-peeling windows have been restored and painted, the immense and endless interiors restored.
Our new and very hip hotel had muscled strongmen loitering outside to keep out the wrong types. Inside was ultra-cool international-style décor and staff to match. Identikit gorgeous six-foot blondes slowly turned to admire their polished reflections in acres of glass. When we ordered house wine at The Terrace – a new chic place with views over the city - a magnificently leonine waitress stalked the length of the restaurant not without some personal risk (those heels, the gaps in the decking) to bark that house wine meant bad wine – no good. We were commanded to order something at £50 a bottle (available from Ocado at £6.99). The new wave is ruthless, determined to make money and fast, twenty-first century style. In Helsinki where we’d just spent a few days, the brightest receptionist was a part-time student from St. Petersburg. The 18-year old explained in flawless English that in Finland hard work was rewarded. There was no point studying in St Petersburg and hoping for a good job, she said, if you didn’t have connections.
In short, nothing here has changed. Pushkin had terrific connections – everyone up to and including the Emperor said they loved him (though every man in St Petersburg was also desperate to sleep with the beautiful, flighty Mrs Pushkin) and that didn’t save him from the idiocy of duelling with his wife’s most ardent and pushy admirer. He insisted on facing his adversary even though he believed her to be innocent. ‘I love your beautiful face,’ he wrote in one of the tender letters the widow kept, ‘But your soul is yet more beautiful.’
Pushkin’s duel was completely avoidable as well as being illegal. It took place on the icy evening of January 27, 1837, near the banks of the frozen Neva ‘in a small thicket of pines sheltered from the road and the view of coachmen or occasional passers by’. The snow was knee deep, so the seconds flattened it into a lane about a yard wide and the necessary twenty paces long. The other duellist was Pushkin’s new brother-in-law Georges D’Anthes. All St Petersburg had observed his fevered courtship of Pushkin’s exquisite wife Natalia, culminating, weirdly, in D’Anthes marrying her elder sister. An anonymous and poisonous letter declaring Pushkin ‘elected to the Grand Master of the Order of Cuckolds’ then made the rounds of St Petersburg (such poisonous missives – in the French everyone spoke then - were fashionable at the time.) Though certain of his wife’s virtue, the great poet – the most famous in Russia – insisted on calling the odious D’Anthes out. The bullet aimed at D’Anthes wounded him in the arm. It was seemingly deflected by the button attaching his trousers to his suspenders. Later, the whisper would circulate that the murderer of the great poet was wearing armour under his shirt.
Pushkin was carried home: his first words to his distraught wife were ‘Calm down, none of this is your fault.’ It took him two days to die, in excruciating pain. All Russia wept; all St Petersburg crammed into the narrow hallway of his flat Naberezhnaya Reki Moyki 12, to say their farewells. Aged only 24, the great beauty Natalia Nokilaevna Goncharova Pushkina became a widow, with four small children, the youngest seven and a half months. His widow would remarry seven years later.
On our third day in St Petersburg we lunched in the empty Pushkinn (yes, really) restaurant and inn, its walls decorated with pictures of cannon, on the quiet embankment at Molkaya 14. Two streets behind from the Nevsky Prospekt, the Pushkinn overlooks the canal and is next door to the poet’s flat/museum at no. 10. Over dumplings, and potato pancakes and sour cream pancakes – calorific excess counterpointed by ‘Everybody loves the sunshine’ on continuous play – we ate too much, waiting for the museum to open. The menu at the Pushkinn is heavy work: borsch pork cutlets stuffed with garlic, cabbage cakes, cheese balls, and roasted Half of the Cock mingle with Google-translated Stories of the 19th Century, a biography of the poet and appropriate quotes. ‘The stomach of an enlightened person has the best quality of a good heart: sensitivity and appreciation”. Others, more enlightened and less greedy might have chosen the slightly healthier sounding ‘Salad The Tale of the GoldenFish of Mr Pushkin’ featuring dried red fish, fresh vegetables and celery’. Pushkinalia abounds in this corner of St Petersburg. Around the corner at Wolf & Beranger café litteraire - where Pushkin ate his last lunch – a tableau vivant of the man at his desk looks appropriately vulpine and awfully sad.
The modest yellow-painted museum created around the flat in 1925 – this building quite separate from the National Pushkin Museum - is practically next door. There was nobody in the ticket booth, just long-legged be-jeaned Russian schoolchildren milling around. Cruise ships don’t come here and few foreigners; we found no English literature in the little shop. We opted for the 250 rouble audio guide in English. As we shuffled round in our blue plastic overshoes, a chap with a gentle Northern accent took us from place to place. Up two flights of stairs: through hallway, dining room, bedroom, sitting room looking onto the canal – the large children’s nursery overlooking the courtyard – back to the little front room where the death mask lies - every room is immaculate. No gold leaf or marble, it’s an elegant bourgeois apartment, not particularly big. The Northern voice is perfectly sure that Pushkin’s wife Natalia was indeed faithful to him; that a plot by the Emperor against Pushkin eventually succeeded. It was Tsar Alexandr – grief-stricken if perhaps also conniving - who had his study closed and sealed. Grief ensured that his desk remained preserved exactly as he left it, or so they say.
In 1837 as Pushkin lay dying, the tragic news ripped through the town. All day visitors and well-wishers crowded in, filling that small room where, today, the death mask flanks a most beautiful portrait of the dying man and little old ladies sit in the corner doing Sudoku. A plan of the flat lies on the dining room table. Our Northern friend described in his measured way exactly where the screens were placed to keep the drawing room private from this grieving mob. That voice, carefully resonant with something between respect and feeling, elicits both. Nobody was loved more – and nobody could save him, though many tried. It says something for his character that this was his 30th duel, duelling being strictly forbidden, indeed punishable by death.
That morning Pushkin rose early in a good mood and worked all day, sitting on the chair where he had written Eugen Onegin. He set off in the late afternoon, in good spirits apparently, leaving the last letter he had written that morning on his desk. It lies there still next to the ink well a friend gave him, the charming black boy in gold trousers leaning on an anchor – an allusion to his African ancestry. (Pushkin mocked himself and his dark looks in his self-portraits, witty and comic sketches on show downstairs.) Here, framed, is the waistcoat he was wearing when shot with its speckled bloodstains; blood marks remain on the leather sofa where he lay. Our guide Maya said that the furniture was in fact rented, but all was preserved by order of the Tsar. Three walking sticks lean against a chair; one contains a button Pushkin claimed came from the coat of Alexander the Great. The study is beautiful, lined with thousands of treasured books: ‘Say good bye to my friends,’ said the dying man.
What we take in is the barest palimpsest of what he is, and was. No translation can quite convey Pushkin. Nevertheless there’s something of his aura in the objects: his clothes, Natalia’s bronze corsage and coral bracelet, the red glasses and jug he used to travel with. For this much-looted city it’s extraordinary; consider how few artefacts survive in Britain of his contemporary Jane Austen (1775-1817). According to the ever-eloquent Clive James, Pushkin was ‘ a suicide hot-head, an indefatigable tail-chaser, a prolific spender of other people’s money, a ranting imperialist, a gambler who could never rest until he lost, and altogether a prime candidate for perdition.’ This may well all be true. What you feel, though, looking at the Hannibal inkstand, the rented furniture, the notes of his debts, is his youth, his touchiness, his consciousness of his errors, his intransigence in compounding them. His desperation is still somehow on show – continual poverty, constant worry – the tension between the life of the mind, friends, hope, work and the misery of owing more than you can ever repay. This is why this musée des objets cirés - the little toys in the children’s room particularly fake – is nevertheless so touching. There’s something incredibly sad about these objects. We believe them.
Once dead, Pushkin’s situation improved beyond his wildest imaginings: his debts forgiven, his widow awarded a handsome stipend by the Tsar. Now his wealth is boundless: he lives forever in the Russian imagination and in the epitaph he wrote for himself, which every schoolchild knows:
I have built a monument/taller than that of Alexander’s tower.
Or, in the thick biro lettering of our guide Maya:
A monument I’ve raised, not built with hands
And common folk shall keep the path well trodden
To where it unsubdued and towering stands
Higher than Alexander’s column
(translation by Avril Pyman)
She sweetly gave us this (alongside her sketch of said monument and a rather smudgy profile view of Pushkin) on our last day.
Vladimir Nabokov lectured on Eugen Onegin in America, and realised that no good translation of his work existed. He subsequently spent ten years making one himself. In a Playboy interview of 1964, Nabokov said ‘My translation is of course a literal one, a crib, a pony. And to the fidelity of transposal I have sacrificed everything: elegance, euphony, clarity, good taste, modern usage and even grammar.’ He asks readers to ‘use this work of mine as a pony – go away and learn Russian and read the original for yourself’. As if. This most erudite and learned of men, French-speaking (like his hero) and English speaking, and Russian in his heart and soul, gets away with these things, because when he writes he treats the reader as his intellectual equal. That’s his magic trick, every time he opens his dazzling mind to us. His seductive art is to let us imagine that we can understand. Sometimes we think we do (Lolita); sometimes (Ada or Ardour) it’s just too hard.
We came across the Nabokov version of Eugen Onegin in St Petersburg entirely by chance. The house of the Nabokovs where Vladimir was born in 1899 is at Bolshaya Morskaya 47, practically next door to the Pushkin museum. Having stumbled upon it, we went in to look around. The old family home was given by Dimitri, Vera and Vladimir’s only son, to the university of St Petersburg and on the day we were there was staffed by a green-eyed student full of enthusiasm and charm. It’s shabby and small – only the first floor of the house (library, hall and green drawing room) form the museum and these rooms are still being restored; the floors above contain faceless, shabby 50’s offices. Vladimir’s own boyhood room was on the third floor, above the oriel window. The drawing room was entirely out of use and scaffolded, the only piece of history there was the pale outline of a blue bird that Vladimir’s mother supposedly painted on the crumbling stucco ceiling. Nothing else remains of that era: just one stained glass window on the staircase leading to the third floor. The Nabokovs left St Petersburg for the Crimea when the revolution came; in 1919 three Nabokov families fled Russia for Western Europe.
The exhibits are humble : Nabokov’s jacket, shoes and tie, the latter given by his nephew. There are pictures of the family’s old country house, his novels and the four-volume Onegin, three of the volumes being commentary and notes. Little items such as a lock, nails and a matchbox found under the floorboards. His butterfly net: many butterflies from the collection he assembled in the USA in the 1940’s and 1950’s here pinned down, and many memories likewise.
‘All the Russia I need is always with me. I will never return. I will never surrender’. And ‘In America I found my best readers. I feel intellectually at home’.
No matter how hard you look, the master of games is forever and endlessly hidden. That of course is his particular genius. It’s a very curious thing to hear his educated Cambridge English voice speaking out from the room beyond, where two stolid matrons sat watching a scratchy black and white film of a BBC interview of 1962, talking loudly throughout. When tutting and sighing didn’t do it, I’m afraid I asked them to shut up. The programme is called Bookstand, recorded on November 4 1962 the year Pale Fire came out
Nabokov is very clear that ‘the grotesque police state won’t be dismantled in my lifetime.’ He talks about the unattainability of reality, how we can never know everything about something, about how we live surrounded by ghostly objects. The boy who was a conjurer remains an illusionist: ‘I am in good company, he says. ‘All art is really deception’ and he goes on to talk about how Nature cheats, how the lowly insect mimics a leaf.’ He, who in Speak, Memory remembered so much talks here about memory as a tool, one of many an artist uses. He talks beautifully of the freshness of flowers drenched by an under gardener in a cool drawing room a half century ago, of running down the black fir trees with his butterfly net, of those memories which remain so powerfully within him ‘no matter how often I farm them out to a character’.
The genesis of Lolita – the ‘first shiver of inspiration’ was a story in Paris Soir about an ape in the Jardin des Plantes which, after months of coaxing produced its first charcoal sketch : it showed the bars of the creature’s cage. While writing it, he said, he found that he ‘read many accounts of elderly gentlemen seducing little girls – a case of life keeping up with art.’ He himself knew no little girls; Lolita was a figment of his imagination, ‘an interesting thing to do.’ He wrote for pleasure and excitement because he liked problem solving: ‘I have no social message to deliver. I like composing riddles and solving them.’ The magister ludi has and continued to have complete clarity – many of his remarks in this interview (those on his synaesthesia for instance) are also to be found in Speak, Memory (published in 1967, but part written much earlier), virtually word for word. How well he knew his own mind.
He doesn’t bother about the audience or what it wants: the best audience is the one in the mirror and, smiling, he imagines a room filled with masks of Mr Nabokov. He retains his whiplash scorn for the ‘type of critic reviewing fiction who keeps dotting all the i’s in the author’s head’. He speaks of ‘an anonymous clown reviewer who mistook all quotations (in Pale Fire) for my own’. And he delivers, finally, a mighty diatribe against all the things he loathes: ‘such things as abstract bric a brac, music in supermarkets, Freud, Marx.’ He ‘doesn’t fish, cook, dance.’ Doesn’t sign or endorse books. Doesn’t eat oysters. Doesn’t get drunk, go to church or analysts, or take part in demonstrations. He belongs to no group – and he concludes by announcing that he is ‘a mild old gentleman and very kind, there’s nothing cruel in me whatsoever.’
Nabokov is so wonderfully guarded, so misleading, so off on a dance of his own, his private jokes racing away from the hapless interviewer that it makes you want to rub your hands for glee. That poor interviewer, Peter Duval Smith, is outwitted and outmaneouvred, and he doesn’t even know what’s happened.
Nabokov particularly hated to be interpreted or for anyone to put words in his mouth: here’s the canny Herbert Gold describing his Paris Review Interview with the great man and the ever-vigilant Vera, who played such an important part in his life and work. (They were married for over 50 years; she is the dream author’s wife.)
‘The interviewer had sent ahead a number of questions.[he starts with Lolita – as, frustratingly, everyone always would] When he arrived at the Montreux Palace, he found an envelope waiting for him—the questions had been shaken up and transformed into an interview. A few questions and answers were added later, before the interview’s appearance in the 1967 Summer/Fall issue of The Paris Review. In accordance with Nabokov’s wishes, all answers are given as he wrote them down. He claims that he needs to write his responses because of his unfamiliarity with English; this is a constant seriocomic form of teasing’
Nabokov learnt English from his governess; it was his first language. Then French. When his father discovered that he could not write Russian he summoned the village schoolmaster, a fiery revolutionary, to give him lessons in his mother tongue. His is not the English of a foreigner, or of a Russian or exile – it’s the English of a genius; he seems to be me to be one of those aliens like ET who can touch your hand and instantly absorb everything you know, just one more drop in his ocean of knowledge. Here, too, he’s having fun. Take this:
Do you consider yourself an American?
Yes, I do. I am as American as April in Arizona. The flora, the fauna, the air of the western states, are my links with Asiatic and Arctic Russia. Of course, I owe too much to the Russian language and landscape to be emotionally involved in, say, American regional literature, or Indian dances, or pumpkin pie on a spiritual plane; but I do feel a suffusion of warm, lighthearted pride when I show my green USA passport at European frontiers. Crude criticism of American affairs offends and distresses me. In home politics I am strongly antisegregationist. In foreign policy, I am definitely on the government’s side. And when in doubt, I always follow the simple method of choosing that line of conduct which may be the most displeasing to the Reds and the Russells.
And – let us not mistake his steel - here is Nabokov on being edited:
But I have also come across a few pompous avuncular brutes who would attempt to “make suggestions” which I countered with a thunderous “stet!”
Which brings us to the third duel in this tale, no less bitter for being a duel of words. Vladimir Nabokov fell out with his close friend and associate Edmund Wilson over his translation and the all too disastrous attempts Wilson made to “make suggestions”. Arguably, both savants could be described as pompous avuncular brutes; it was Nabokov, whoever, who administered the final, deadly thrust.
First, though, to recap that first duel, the one Pushkin invented to punish his hero. Onegin’s is a life Pushkin knew well - he is the bored, cynical man about town, the semi-educated, wholly dissolute charmer and dandy whose life consists of balls and parties: the translation here is Nabokov’s:
In French impeccably
He could express himself and write,
Danced the mazurka lightly
And bowed unconstrainedly –
What would you more? The World decided
He was clever and very nice.
At the country estate he’s inherited from an uncle, he befriends the poet Vladimir Lenski and through him meets Tatiana, a quiet and thoughtful girl:
Sauvage, sad, silent,
As timid as the sylvan doe
Tatiana writes him a beautiful, affecting letter opening her soul and offering her love. He rejects her in a very cool manner and then, out of mischief, flirts with her flighty sister Olga, who is engaged to Lenski. The innocent and passionate Lenski takes this badly. So the challenge comes – and, because honour demands it, it is accepted. Though by the next day neither of them wants to fight, Onegin kills his friend.
Innocence is murdered, both literally and metaphorically – and Onegin leaves, travelling to deaden remorse. Years later he encounters Tatiana again – now the rich and beautiful wife of an old prince, she is the remarkable still centre of the St Petersburg social whirl. He falls deeply in love. When she rejects him in a letter that mirrors his, while admitting that she still loves him, he is left to contemplate his own selfishness and the anomie of his existence.
The tale is told swiftly and wittily, and it fascinated the society to which it held an unflattering mirror. It’s funny, sad, and touching, and strangely modern in feel – the emptiness and egotism of Onegin still startle, the callous dismissal of the dying uncle, the rejection of love. What non-Russian speakers can’t get is the style and rhyme, the swing of it, which engages people so. Full of Pushkin’s asides – he casts himself as Onegin’s friend - of puns and parodies of contemporary French writers, the Russian verse dazzles. Or so we are told. In English translation it’s very hard to ‘get’ the virtuosity and pleasure of the verse, the brilliance of the unusual ‘Onegin stanza’ rhyme scheme - iambic tetrameter with masculine and feminine rhymes: ababeecciddiff and, above all, that playfulness.
Back in London, I read Nabokov’s version of Eugene Onegin. The introduction is astonishing. It’s a marvellous thing and also a wonderful homage and perhaps also a betrayal (each man kills the thing he loves). Of the innumerable translations made of Pushkin, one school chooses to sacrifice reason (or rather literalness) to rhyme, the other vice versa. In the July 15 1965 issue of the New Yorker, Edmund Wilson announced himself to be a friend of Nr Nabokov ‘for whom he feels a warm affection sometimes chilled by exasperation’ and then launched a blistering attack on the literal Eugene Onegin translation:
Since Mr. Nabokov is in the habit of introducing any job of this kind which he undertakes by an announcement that he is unique and incomparable and that everybody else who has attempted it is an oaf and an ignoramus, incompetent as a linguist and scholar, usually with the implication that he is also a low-class person and a ridiculous personality, Nabokov ought not to complain if the reviewer, though trying not to imitate his bad literary manners, does not hesitate to underline his weaknesses.
On he goes through innumerable criticisms in detail leading to this rapier attack:
And there is a drama in his Evgeni Onegin which is not Onegin’s drama. It is the drama of Nabokov himself attempting to correlate his English and his Russian sides. As in The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, they continue to elude one another. When he tries to invent a prosody in which both languages will be at home, English poetry will not submit to it; when he tries to translate Onegin “literally,” what he writes is not always really English. On the other hand, he sometimes betrays—in his ignorance or misapprehension of certain matters—that he is not quite at home with Russia.
Finally, after a few disingenuous compliments on Nabokov’s smaller virtues, Wilson faintly praises: in their physical appearance these volumes, ‘are among the most attractive books that have recently been brought out in this country.’
The two men had been friends since 1940 when Wilson, extremely well known as a writer, journalist and man of letters (primarily a critic), had helped Nabokov get in touch with editors and publishers and obtain a Guggenheim fellowship. They enjoyed a close friendship and correspondence for years. But Wilson didn’t like many of the novels, Lolita in particular. With the Onegin translation, matters came to a head. Nabokov immediately counter-attacked, translating this aphorism into Russian for his friend’s benefit:
Cet animal est très méchant:
Quand on l’attaque, il se défend.
Two letters from Nabokov and a reply from Edmund Wilson were published in the August 26 issue : Nabokov stresses his warm affection (also chilled by exasperation) and over many pages reveals his dear friend’s little failings, or, as he puts them ‘ghastly blunders”, while pointing out that "I have always been grateful to him for the tact he showed in refraining from reviewing any of my novels.’ He goes on:
‘A patient confidant of his long and hopeless infatuation with the Russian language, I have always done my best to explain to him his mistakes of pronunciation, grammar, and interpretation. As late as 1957, at one of our last meetings, we both realized with amused dismay that despite my frequent comments on Russian prosody, he still could not scan Russian verse. Upon being challenged to read Eugene Onegin aloud, he started to do this with great gusto, garbling every second word and turning Pushkin’s iambic line into a kind of spastic anapaest with a lot of jaw-twisting haws and rather endearing little barks that utterly jumbled the rhythm and soon had us both in stitches.’
On it went; the friendship was over.
The Nabokov-Wilson letters cataloguing the two men’s long and warm friendship from 1940–71 (the correspondence being effectively over by 1958) came out in 1979, after both men had died. As reviewer Christopher Lehmann-Haupt put it in the New York Times : ‘When the gods clash, the earth shakes.’
I’ve not read these letters. Leon Edel (editor of Wilson’s papers) suggests in the New Republic that though the two men genuinely took intellectual pleasure in each other’s minds, their clash was inevitable, and that its roots lay in this fundamental difference:
Wilson had accepted--what Nabokov could never accept--the historical fact of the Russian revolution of 1917. Nabokov, cast into the vortex of modern history by that revolution, made a wanderer in Berlin, Paris, New York, lived in nostalgic memories of the Old Russia, where life had seemed benign to the small upper middle class in that vast continent of illiteracy. He could not accept Wilson's probing into the human side of Lenin and Trotsky. To Nabokov they were simply ogres.
Edel sees Wilson as mainly preoccupied, as he put it, with "the writing and acting of history." Nabokov confined himself to the writing (and perhaps at moments the living) of fiction. Wilson admired the poetry in Nabokov and his storytelling gifts; but he could not accept the "lost world side" of the imaginative emigre. This made Nabokov seem to Wilson ahistorical and apolitical. Added to that, he didn’t necessarily like Nabokov’s novels. ‘Wilson consistently felt that Nabokov's fiction contained an excess of "humiliation"--Schadenfreude--of mankind. He speculated that this stemmed from the cruelties Nabokov had experienced as a proud and indeed arrogant Russian liberal, humiliated by history. He had been thrust into a life role of second-class citizenry as a man without a country, who had asserted himself (and found freedom) by the sheer force of his genius. But the struggle had been bitter and hard.’ I can’t help feeling that there’s something in this. It’s a terrifically interesting assertion for readers of Nabokov (so hard to pin down) and perhaps the saddest and truest comment on the whole spat.
In Nabokov's last note, he asks Wilson to ‘please believe that I have long ceased to bear you a grudge for your incomprehensible incomprehension of Pushkin's and Nabokov's Onegin.’ In Wilson's reply, the volume's final letter, he warns that "I have included an account of my visit to you in Ithaca" in a forthcoming book. "I hope it will not again impair our personal relations (it shouldn't)." (It did.) The rest is silence. A very fraught silence.
Nobody remembers d’Arthes, imprisoned right after the duel and tried in February. He, the seconds, and indeed Pushkin were all sentenced to death (it being understood that Pushkin was not available for this punishment) in the general understanding that the sentence would be commuted to something milder by Imperial decree. Eventually d’Arthes was demoted to army private and expelled from Russia to his native France. He changed his name to that of de Heeckeren, his adoptive father. The murderer of Pushkin flourished, became a wealthy man with many business interests and was elected to the National Assembly, becoming a senator in 1852. His wife Catherine had died in 1843 of puerperal fever, having given birth to a much-wanted son. Senator Georges de Heeckeren died in 1895, surrounded by his large family. He was 83.
And nobody today seems to know or read Edmund Wilson. But Nabokov lives forever, as Pushkin does. The monument stands: taller than Alexander’s tower (or if you prefer, column). Nabokov’s 1967 memoir, Speak, Memory does indeed glamorize the past, the lost people and their way of life; like all autobiography it is also fiction, as Nabokov was the first to admit. For me, the butterfly hunter who rated the discovery of a new genus above any novel he might have written – and who forever remains one of the great geniuses of fiction – lives on enchantingly in this beautifully written account of all that he has lost. It is relayed without a trace of bitterness or cruelty or Schadenfreude, only – in his words - ‘nostalgia, a hypertrophied sense of lost childhood’. Memory again: that tool the artist uses. 'Without memories, we have no way of knowing that we have lived.’
Edmund Wilson died in 1972. Vladimir Nabokov died in 1977.
Vera Nabokov died in 1977. My grandmother, Mathilde Johanna Steinberg (nee Lindemann) alsways known as Tilde or Tilly died in 1981. No monument (or indeed grave) commemorates her. Just a few photographs; the memories we share, and the stories we tell. She was a much travelled woman, and intrepid, and though she complained about being hungry in Moscow she didn’t want to miss a thing. We tottered over the ice rink of Red Square arm in arm to see Lenin’s tomb (it was closed, his body was being restored) propping her up between us, warm and snug in her astrakhan coat, fur hat and thick boots. We had tickets to the Bolshoi and the bus just travelled past. When my mother complained, we were taken to a concert of Russian patriotic songs. Frustrated and disgusted we sat for hours on the bus waiting for the others – nobody could go anywhere alone. We hopped on and off trains in the grandiloquent marble underground and wondered rather self-importantly if we were being followed.
We shopped: in the regulation tourist store using our carefully counted foreign money, we bought Russian dolls – not the amusing political ones, but the cheap ones with crazed red cheeks. Nobody went for the rabbit fur hat. Gum department store at no. 3 Red Square wasn’t the champagne-swilling temple to grand luxe it is now. The magnificent building was empty; just one stall on an upper trading row was selling something. The queue stretched through the whole building and out onto the street, people joining the back without any idea of what was on offer. If you went to the front to look, you risked losing any chance of a purchase. Just like the war, said Omi, who had been a refugee in Belgium. She remade her life several times over – in Morocco, Lima and finally London, acquiring French, Spanish and finally English in a complex mish-mash that expressed her thoughts perfectly without troubling the grammar books.
After the troika ride – the guide pushed a long queue of people to one side falsely claiming that we had priority – my mother sang Lara’s theme from the film of Dr Zhivago. People were astonished because in Russia nobody smiled or sang, and I am sorry to say that I was ashamed of her. She sent a postcard to my sister "from Russia with love” and gave the caviar and vodka to the guide who was blissfully happy and confided that perhaps next year she would get to go to Czechoslowakia for a holiday.