Issue 157, Winter 2000
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 two-thousand 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. Wilson and Nabokov often disagreed about the merits of the literary works they discussed—both their own and those of other writers—but the letters illustrate the profound enjoyment each found in these healthy, and often lively, differences of opinion. The mood began to change in 1965, however, when Wilson attacked Nabokov's translation of Aleksandr Pushkin's Eugene Onegin. What began as a deep friendship became a very public feud printed as letters to the editor in the pages of The New York Review of Books. By March 1971, kind words had returned to replace the violent, personal attacks in the press, but the release of Wilson's Upstate (a volume based on twenty years of recollections of travels in Northern New York) later that year reignited the battle. Powerful attacks on each other's character and personal shortcomings had by then become more frequent than respectful literary criticisms, and the writers had not restored their longtime closeness at the time of Wilson's death in 1972. Developed at the Mercantile Library of New York and first performed at Manhattan's Century Theater in 1997, the dialogue that follows traces the more than thirty years of this relationship between two of the last century's preeminent men of letters.
SETTING: Two desks, two chairs, two lecterns
Theme music begins. Lights fade up. At stage left, a desk, a chair and a lectern at which NABOKOV stands; At stage right, a desk, a chair and a lectern at which WILSON stands. Both men speak cheerily and rapidly over the music, continually cutting in before the other has finished.