A book built on two literary elites arguing about the translation of Russian writer Alexander Pushkin’s narrative poem “Eugene Onegin” may not sound like thrilling reading. While I won’t say it’s on par with Stuart Woods or Lee Child, Alex Beam’s The Feud: Vladimir Nabokov, Edmund Wilson, and the End of a Beautiful Friendship is a very entertaining book.
While Edmund Wilson was once well known for his literary criticism and considered, according to The Feud’s jacket copy, “the undisputed big dog of American letters,” he has faded into obscurity. Nabokov, on the other hand, remains a well know writer almost forty years after his death. The Feud documents the two of them switching places in the literary stratosphere, or, really, Wilson just crashing to the ground. Wilson’s fiction, despite some commercial success, never gained the respect of critics, while Nabokov’s Lolita established his reputation critically and soon made him a rich man. Even though they were friends at the time, Wilson disliked Lolita and didn’t even bother to finish it. This was one of the early skirmishes in their eventual feud.
Later on, with his already inflated ego ready to burst after the success of Lolita, Nabokov took on the translation of “Eugene Onegin.” Not only did he do a translation that many felt was far too literal, but he included pages and pages of footnotes and other commentary that turned the translation of a narrative poem into a multi-volume set. The whole undertaking seemed to be more about Nabokov than Pushkin, and the feud between them heated up after the translation was published. It would not die down for a number of years. The Feud shows how jealousy and ego took its toll on two men who should have been proud of their own and each others’ successes.