Friday, December 9, 2016

When Pushkin Came to Shove: How Nabokov and Edmund Wilson Fell Out Over a Poem

by Eric Bennett

New York Times

December 9, 2016

In 1964, Vladimir Nabokov published an English translation of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, regarded by many as the supreme treasure of Russian poetry, in an edition that spanned four volumes. The poem took up a fraction of their 1,895 pages. From the bowels of his dictionary, Nabokov dislodged words that might as well have been invented. If you’re looking for “mollitude,” “ancientry,” “shandrydans,” “agrestic,” “muzzlet” and “scrab,” all in one poem, your search is over. Yet, for some reason, to translate Pushkin’s robust Russian word for “friend,” Nabokov reached for “pal.” The volumes were also heavy on extras — sermons on prosody, disquisitions on usage, vitriolic reproofs of all the strained translations of Pushkin out there.

For a quarter-century, the literary critic Edmund Wilson, Nabokov’s pal, had remained publicly silent about Nabokov’s fiction. So when Wilson panned the translation in The New York Review of Books, he plunged to absolute zero a friendship that had been cooling only gradually. The ensuing quarrel drew in a crowd of what Alex Beam calls “1960s eminentos,” from Robert Lowell and Christopher Ricks to the historian Alexander Gershenkron.

In The Feud, Beam deems Wilson’s 6,600-word appraisal “an overlong, spiteful, stochastically accurate, generally useless but unfailingly amusing hatchet job.” Beam’s own account is unfailingly amusing, not overlong, winningly useless and not entirely free of spite for Wilson, who, based on the evidence Beam provides, seems to deserve it.


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