Sunday, November 18, 2012

Five best: notable correspondence by eminent men

Frederic Raphael is the author of more than twenty novels, including The Glittering Prizes, f ive volumes of short stories, biographies of Byron and W. Somerset Maugham, and five volumes of his personal notebooks and journals. His new books include Distant Intimacy: A Friendship in the Age of the Internet, a collection of his correspondence with Joseph Epstein.

For the Wall Street Journal he named a five best list of collections of notable correspondence by eminent men, including:
Dear Bunny, Dear Volodya
Edited by Simon Karlinsky (2001)

The letters exchanged by Vladimir Nabokov and Edmund Wilson between 1940 and 1971 begin with Wilson's helpful condescensions toward the penurious immigrant Russian writer whose first stories in English found a niche in the New Yorker. In due time, Wilson becomes "Bunny" and Nabokov "Vladimir" and then "Volodya." But, as can happen between writers, intimacy leads to envy, envy to friction. If Wilson was the panjandrum of American letters, Nabokov was the outsider who trumped the ace. Wilson could do everything except write an undoubted masterpiece. As Nabokov's genius declared itself ("Pale Fire" was loudly applauded by Wilson's ex-wife Mary McCarthy), the two men's amiable jousting turned tetchy. The friendship came to a sour conclusion when Wilson wrote a long and hostile review of Volodya's translation of Pushkin's "Eugene Onegin." Nabokov never forgave his ex-patron for presuming to teach him Russian. When I visited Nabokov in Montreux in 1970, he told me that he had received an envelope from Wilson from which there flopped a large black cut-out of a butterfly. As a tribute to Nabokov the lepidopterist, it was the nearest that Bunny ever came to an apology. Wilson enclosed a note saying how much he had enjoyed the controversy about Pushkin. Nabokov looked at me balefully. "I did not enjoy it at all." The two men never wrote to each other again.
Read about another entry on the list.

Also see Frederic Raphael's top ten talkative novels.

--Marshal Zeringue