Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Alex Beam's "The Feud": Audiobook Review

The Feud: Vladimir Nabokov, Edmund Wilson, and the End of a Beautiful ...
Fame came to Nabokov with Lolita as it ebbed from Wilson after his brief notoriety for the then-racy Memoirs of Hecate County. The two "frenemies" wound up as such, Alex Beam reasons, when the wealthy Russian exile found his comfortable critical and financial perch far above that of the also privileged Wilson. The neediness the emigre expressed to the the literary lion, Beam concludes, had made Vladimir uneasy decades later, and Wilson's attempts to speak truth to the power that became enshrined in VN led EW to try to hold his ground, and lash out, but VN gave better than he got back.

The titular feud began as VN's massive translation-commentary on the supposedly, to Nabokov, untranslatable Eugene Onegin by Alexander Pushkin appeared. Reviewing in the then-nascent NYRB, Wilson, an earnest devotee of Russian but a progressive who sided with the Soviets, rankled the refugee who recalled the Bolsheviks machine-gunning the ship young VN fled on. Not to mention that the Soviets did in his father. So, Beam steadily narrates (via Robert Pullar's at-first hesitant, than warming up to wit in over five hours that felt due to their detail much longer) the trajectory that lifted up VN and drove down EW, after many years of erudite friendship and intellectual banter and support

That support wavered, Beam shows, well before the Onegin fracas that consumed many of the literati of the mid-1960s. EW had little patience for the likes of Lolita; VN. Beam avers, would have had as scant interest in Patriotic Gore, Wilson's in-depth study of the Civil War. Beam introduces each protagonist, documents their alliance, and then dissects their falling out. He keeps the pace lively in spite of dense material. He employs "kiss off" twice, "kooky," and "frenemy" alongside "booted" and "contumacious" and he enjoys the wit that his subjects naturally delighted in as they conducted what VN typically if obliquely given his prickly nature early on called a "friendly" exchange. And it's fun to imagine as some playful Nabokovians do if it was all a game, with VN writing letters to the NYRB and its ilk as EW and he as him, to mock such battles conducted in these journals. Even if it's fiction. 
(Amazon US 4/21/17) 

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