Dear Bunny, Dear Volodya

Terry Quinn

In 1940, soon after coming to the United States, Vladimir Nabokov sent Edmund Wilson some of his early attempts at writing in English. This initial query, and Wilson's gracious response to it, began a relationship that would span more than thirty years and 2,000 pages of correspondence. Their letters were collected by Simon Karlinsky in The Nabokov-Wilson Letters: Correspondence between Vladimir Nabokov and Edmund Wilson, 1940-1971. The following is a dramatic dialogue adapted by Terry Quinn from the texts of the collected letters as well as from additional material provided by the two writers' estates. It chronicles a deeply serious literary relationship as well as a close personal bond sharing the details of private domestic affairs.




Dear Bunny, . . . We have spent most of the summer in Wellesley. I have given up smoking and have grown tremendously fat. We have passed our citizenship examinations. I know all the amendments.




Dear Volodya: . . . I have been having, as you probably know, a great deal of domestic agony, and am now living alone in my New York house, where I’d be delighted to put you and the whole family up.




I heard about your and Mary’s domestic affairs soon after our last meeting in New York. I hoped the whole thing somehow would be settled, but from what you write I deduce that it has not. I do not know what to say to you except that I have been feeling very much upset about the whole matter--especially as I did not hear from you directly and had to sift and combine various rumors.



 Tell me: Why do you think that Hamlet has always been so popular on the stage in the English-speaking countries? Of course it’s good but this can’t be the reason. Several of Shakespeare’s other plays ought to be more dramatically effective. It’s true that it gives the star a fat part, but there must be something more to it than this. Do give me the benefit of your opinion on this matter.




There are several reasons why Hamlet, even in the hideous garbled versions current on the stage, should be attractive both to the caviar eater and the groundling: (1) everybody likes to see a ghost on the stage; (2) kings and queens are also attractive; (3) the number and variety of lethal arrangements are unsurpassed and thus most pleasing--(a) murder by mistake, (b) poison (in dumb show), (c) suicide, (d) bathing and tree climbing casualty, (e) duel, (f) again poison--and other attractions backstage.




I hear from people who have seen you that you are becoming stout, optimistic and genial--in other words, Americanized. I believe that I had already noticed traces of this in your letters, and I’m not sure that I entirely approve.




I detest Plato, I loathe Lacedaemon and all Perfect States. I weigh 195 pounds.

February 1, 1946 . . . Dear Bunny, . . . I was wrong in saying that there were no Russians in Sherlock. It is queer that I should have forgotten the lady nihilist [NEE-hilist] who lost her, or the lovely sentence: "He was an elderly man, thin, demure, and commonplace, by no means the conception one forms of a Russian nobleman."

In reviewing various details of my very pleasant stay, I notice with horror that when speaking to Auden I confused him with Aiken and said flattering things about the latter’s verse, in the second person. I understand now the wild look that passed in his eyes. Stupid, but this has happened to me before.

I have read your book Memoirs of Hecate County in one swallow. There are lots of wonderful things in it. You have given your narrator’s copulation mates such formidable defenses (leather and steel, gonorrhea, horse-gums) that the reader--or at least one reader, for I would have been absolutely impotent in your singular little harem--derives no kick from the hero’s love-making. I should have as soon tried to open a sardine can with my penis. The result is chaste, despite the frankness. I am really looking forward to seeing you. Your book is causing quite a "sensation" among my literary friends here!




Dear Volodya: Nihilist [NI-hilist] is pronounced the way I pronounce it--not NEE-hilist. See any dictionary.

Thanks for your letter. But you sound as if I had made an unsuccessful attempt to write something like Fanny Hill. The frozen and unsatisfactory character of the sexual relations is a very important part of the central theme of the book, indicated by the title, which I’m not sure that you have grasped.




I have just finished Bend Sinister. It has taken four years to compose, and I am now resting comfortably with the rubber-red infant at my side.

I have cut out a cartoon depicting two people wondering why you have such nasty friends. Have you seen it? Somebody told me that Hecate is number thirteen on a best-seller list!




I’ve just purchased a remarkable car--a 1931 Cadillac--which belonged to an old lady in California and was in storage for countless years, so that it has been absolutely perfectly preserved, like that Siberian mammoth in the ice. It is enormous and looks slightly comic, because it has one of those straight up-and-down store-window fronts that they do not make any more. You sit or recline in back on a high and much-upholstered seat, from which you look down on the driver and the passing world.




With the feeling that I had: (1) some serious heart trouble, (2) ulcers, (3) cancer in the gullet and (4) stones everywhere, I had myself thoroughly examined at a good hospital. The doctor found that I was constitutionally in fine shape but was suffering from acute nervous exhaustion, due to the entomology/Wellesley/novel combination, and suggested my taking a two-months vacation. I have written Doubleday to hurry up. They have been reading my novel since May and must know it by heart.

Have been rereading Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. The latter is a third-rate writer and his fame is incomprehensible. I am very anxious to know more about your "trial." Hecate County is as pure as a block of ice in a surgical laboratory.


PERMISSIONS AND ACKNOWLEDGMENTS: Letters of Edmund Wilson used here by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Inc. on behalf of the estate of Edmund Wilson. Copyright © 1995 by Helen Miranda Wilson. All rights reserved. Letters of Vladimir Nabokov copyright © 1979 by Vera Nabokov, Executrix of the Estate of Vladimir Nabokov; additional letters copyright© 1994 by Dmitri Nabokov. All rights reserved. By permission of the estate of Vladimir Nabokov.

To read the rest of this piece, purchase the issue.