Vladimir Nabokov


Vladimir Nabokov and Edmund Wilson, once intimate, were estranged at the time of Wilson’s death on June 12, 1972. We do not know what Nabokov felt when he learned of Wilson’s death, but on September 25, 1972, three months after the death, Nabokov made a notation about an idea for a new novel (Boyd, Vladimir Nabokov, The American Years 1991, 606). That novel would be Look at the Harlequins!, a fictional autobiography of Vadim N. which in many ways parodies Nabokov’s own life and works. But many details about Vadim bear no similarity to Nabokov. I argue that in those details, Nabokov recalled his memories of his old friend, Edmund Wilson. 

It is solely in the broad outlines that Vadim’s life resembles Nabokov’s, rather than in personality and his private life. To begin with, in contrast to Nabokov, Vadim has an “irritating and impossible” personality (Boyd 625), much like Wilson’s. Even Wilson’s obituary in the New York Times of June 13, 1972 describes him as “dyspeptic.” 

Like Wilson, Vadim drinks far too much, is fat, and, in spite of his looks, is a successful woman chaser. Like Wilson, Vadim had four wives (although it is not clear whether Vadim survives to marry his “you”). With his fourth wife, Vadim has his most satisfying and complete relationship. She is much younger, fluent in several languages, and, in Boyd’s words, has “an original mind, [and] a deep appreciation of Vadim’s art.  She seems to know him better than he knows himself. She treats him with sweet firmness, constant solicitude, unswerving loyalty [.…]” (Boyd 634). While this description fits Véra Nabokov, it is also an apt description of Elena Wilson, Wilson’s fourth wife.

 Vadim, like Wilson, has a life-long nervous disorder and suffers a total breakdown for which he is briefly institutionalized. “Madness had been lying in wait for me behind this or that alder or boulder since infancy,” laments Vadim (Look at the Harlequins, 1974, 240). Madness ran in the Wilson family. His dearest cousin was institutionalized with schizophrenia for life. His father was severely disturbed. When Wilson, as a young man, began suffering from hallucinations and depression, he feared he was following this course and checked himself into a sanatorium for several weeks. 

Vadim, in sharp contrast to Nabokov, is the product of a childhood he calls “atrocious, intolerable” (Harlequins 7). He is the only child of an unhappily married couple who divorce. Wilson was the only child of an unhappy couple who remained unhappily together. Wilson’s controlling mother developed psychosomatic deafness, and his mentally disturbed father, although a prominent lawyer, hid himself behind his baize-covered bedroom door and hardly communicated with his family. 

Vadim’s writing style differs markedly from Nabokov’s. Boyd attributes “the missing magic of Nabokov’s language” to “the thoroughness of self-parody.” But Vadim’s style has a very definite peculiarity.  As Boyd notes, his writing “contains brilliantly funny images of deromanticized sex” (Boyd 625). Wilson’s Memoirs of Hecate County was famous for its sterile, mechanistic descriptions of sex. At the obscenity trial that followed its publication, Lionel Trilling, who testified on behalf of the book’s artistic value, found himself defending a description of female sexual parts on grounds that it was necessary for “accuracy” and “precision” (Louis Menand, Introduction, Memoirs of Hecate County, New York: NYRB, 2004). 

Early in the book Vadim falls deeply in love with Iris and she becomes his first wife. But the brief marriage ends violently when she is gunned down. Wilson’s marriage to his second wife also had a violent and abrupt end when she died in a fall down a flight of stairs. A friend of Wilson’s believed that “the death of Margaret almost destroyed him” (Lewis M. Dabney, Edmund Wilson, A Life in Literature, New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2005, 183).

Vadim’s fourth marriage, like Wilson’s, is his happiest. When Vadim meets “You,” the love of his life, he is still married to his third wife. As the divorce proceedings drag on, he gives his lawyer a “list of her betrayals.” When Wilson met Elena, his fourth wife, he was separated from Mary McCarthy. During the divorce proceedings, Wilson testified that McCarthy left him to go to New York where “she slept with a young man she knew, and presently announced to me that she was pregnant but didn’t know whether by him or me” (Dabney 282). 

Vadim has a troubled relationship with his daughter. Boyd writes that “[h]is tangled relations with his daughter end by stunting her growth and her once-subtle appreciation of the creative side of life” (Boyd 641). The Nabokovs knew Wilson’s elder daughter Rosalind very well. She was a talented woman who made a career as an editor for the New Yorker and Houghton Mifflin, and had published short stories and a memoir of her life with her father (“Rosalind Wilson, 79, a Writer's Daughter,” New York Times, November 9, 2000). Just prior to Wilson’s and Elena’s 1964 visit to the Nabokovs at Montreux, Rosalind was hospitalized for hallucinations and a severe breakdown caused by alcohol. Lewis Dabney attributes her problems, in some degree, to her relationship with her father. At the time of their visit to the Nabokovs in Montreux, the Wilsons’ concerns about Rosalind must have been evident: Wilson had just spent two weeks with her at his house in Cape Cod following her release from the hospital (Dabney 464-466).

The very title of the book, referring to Harlequin, a perennial star of puppet theater, as well as a butterfly, may allude to Wilson’s avid hobby as a puppeteer. As Nabokov was well aware, Wilson’s favorite puppet character was another figure from the Commedia dell’arte – Punch, who can only envy the graceful Harlequin. Punch is fat, homely, and given to hitting people over the head with a club. In a world of puppetry, Nabokov the lepidopterist would be Harlequin, and Punch the corpulent Wilson. On his way to meet the Nabokovs in Montreux, Wilson had stopped in London and ordered a new custom-made Punch puppet (Edmund Wilson, The Sixties, New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1993, 319). One can imagine that the subject came up.

Wilson had once before found his way into a Nabokov novel. Back in the heyday of their friendship, Nabokov inserted a private joke about Wilson into Pnin’s faculty-party scene. Pnin had confused the identities of two professors, one an ornithologist whom he wants to get to know better, and the other an anthropologist. He invites the wrong one, the anthropologist, to the party, and then peppers him with references to birds. In real life, Nabokov had given a similar party and was asked by Wilson, who fancied himself a naturalist, to invite some entomologists. Wilson didn’t realize that none had showed up, and proceeded to talk insects to one of the literature professors (Boyd 47). Nabokov spends pages of this slim book setting up this joke in order to poke fun at Wilson.

Readers may find Vadim’s flawed character repulsive, but he does not start out that way. In the beginning of the tale, he is a figure of pathos--his upbringing was difficult, and his first love died suddenly. In later life, Wilson too, was a difficult figure. He tended to spoil things, like his friendship with Nabokov. But in the early days of their friendship, Wilson helped Nabokov immeasurably, and Nabokov closed many of his letters to Wilson with the word “love.” Nabokov was not a person to forget love, and Look at the Harlequins!, despite its parody, preserves the memory of what was once one of Nabokov’s deepest friendships. 

I thank Priscilla Meyer for her very generous help.

--Frances Peltz Assa, Milwaukee, WI and Caesarea, Israel