What is The New Yorker? I know it’s a great magazine and that it’s a tremendous source of pleasure in my life. But what exactly is it? This blog’s premise is that The New Yorker is a work of art, as worthy of comment and analysis as, say, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Each week I review one or more aspects of the magazine’s latest issue. I suppose it’s possible to describe and analyze an entire issue, but I prefer to keep my reviews brief, and so I usually focus on just one or two pieces, to explore in each the signature style of its author. A piece by Matthew Trammell is not like a piece by James Wood, and neither is like a piece by Peter Schjeldahl. One could not mistake Finnegan for Frazier, or Lepore for Paumgarten, or Goodyear for Khatchadourian. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

The Nabokov-Wilson Feud

Vladimir Nabokov (Photo by Irving Penn)
Gary Saul Morson, in his “Will We Ever Pin Down Pushkin?” (The New York Review of Books, March 23, 2017), calls the battle between Vladimir Nabokov and Edmund Wilson over Nabokov’s translation of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin “one of the great quarrels of American literary history.” Morson appears to side with Wilson, opining, “Wilson’s criticisms were mostly on target.” Reading Morson’s piece, I recalled John Updike’s great “The Cuckoo and the Rooster” (The New Yorker, June 11, 1979), a review of The Nabokov-Wilson Letters, in which Updike held that Wilson had “a good eye for what was defective or lop-sided in Nabokov, but something of a tin ear for the unique music this ‘inescapably’ artistic man could strike from anything.” Updike wrote, “Without minimizing the kindnesses and excitements that Wilson contributes, this reviewer found Nabokov’s letters the more alive and giving, certainly the more poetic and dense.” I realize that Morson, in his piece, is dealing with Nabokov’s translation, not his letters. Nevertheless, in considering the validity of Morson’s views (e.g., “Nabokov deliberately made his translation unreadable”), I suggest that Updike’s point about “the unique music this ‘inescapably’ artistic man could strike from anything” should be kept in mind. It's possible Morson's ear is as tinny as Wilson's. 

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