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Nabokov Studies 3 (1996) BRIAN WALTER (ClarksviUe, Arkansas) Many a Pleasant Tussle: Edmund Wilson and the Nabokovian Aesthetic1 In a telling and painful exchange from early 1952, Vladimir Nabokov and Edmund Wilson revealed both the great closeness and the unavoidable antagonism that characterized their long, well-documented relationship: [Nabokov:] Do not miss my story 'Lance' in one of the near New Yorker issues. And do not miss in it a reference to you and Elena. It is introduced into the text with a watered-silk effect which is the tender point of genius, the asparagus tip of art, if you see what I mean. Katharine White, for reasons you will understand—in a soft flash of comprehension—when you come to that passage, was against the reference but I did not give in. I must have put the equivalent of a dozen distant thunderstorms in nervous energy into that little story. (Karlinsky 270) [Wilson:] I'm sorry you told me that there was something about me in your New Yorker story, because I have to make it a rule never to read anything in which I am mentioned, for fear it will influence my judgement one way or another. (Karlinsky 273) Wilson could hardly have chosen a cmeler way to snub Nabokov, whose art of preciseness and exclusion entails great costs from both the writer and the reader, requiring of the latter an ability to extract from the act of reading a "shiver of satisfaction, to share not the emotions of the people in the book but the emotions of its author—the joys and difficulties of creation" ("L'envoi" 382). Without this ability in the reader, Nabokov's artist is necessarily diminished, a heedless court jester in the company of grave, unsympathetic prophets—Orwell and Mann, Milosz and Pasternak, Solzhenitsyn and Silone. Nabokov seeks the audience's delight to confirm the 1. I would like to express my gratitude to Simon Karlinsky for lending me his personal copy of the manuscript of his revised, expanded, and updated edition of The Nabokov-Wihon Letters 1940-1971 (as yet unpublished in English). 78 Nabokov Studies affective value of his work. Describing in his autobiography the flight from his uncle's pavilion to his mother's audience, ready to be delivered of bis first poem, Nabokov highlights his dependence as the youthful poet on the receptiveness of his chosen reader: In my foolish innocence, I believed that what I had written was a beautiful and wonderful thing. As I carried it homeward, still unwritten, but so complete that even its punctuation marks were impressed upon my brain like a pillow crease on a sleeper's flesh, I did not doubt that my mother would greet my achievement with glad tears of pride. The possibility of her being much too engrossed, that particular night, in other events to listen to verse did not enter my mind at all. Never in my life had I craved more for her praise. Never had I been more vulnerable. (Speak, Memory 225) The reader's warm response shelters the writer in a necessary moment of vulnerability . As is clear from the exchange above, the general predicament of the reader's response in Nabokov's work is manifested with particular intensity in the specific case of Edmund Wilson's readership. Both a voracious reader and a voluminous, accomplished writer like his émigré friend, Wilson was well-positioned to shiver with Nabokov at the joys and difficulties of creation , to discern the asparagus tip of art so cleverly and subtly revealed in Nabokov's work. But apart from The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, Conclusive Evidence, and—with notable qualifications—Nikolai Gogol, none of Nabokov's books ever earned a kind word from his friend, and this despite Wilson's habit of being "usually (with the exception of Nabokov) very generous about bis friends' work" (Meyers 397). Moreover, Wilson's criticism is not simply a case of the one-noted Marxist critic decrying a lack of social concern in Nabokov's work; as Galya Diment notes, while he did believe in a "social mission for intellectuals and artists. . . . Wilson also habitually upheld one's absolute right to be a...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1548-9965
Print ISSN
1080-1219
Pages
pp. 77-87
Launched on MUSE
2010-10-13
Open Access
No
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