To choose sides in the literary feud between Edmund Wilson and Vladimir Nabokov is almost to make a political (even moral) confession. The two men, at least at first glance, embodied very different world-views. Wilson was a dining-room socialist who advocated a ‘temporary dictatorship of the class-conscious workers’ while his children attended private schools and he enjoyed expensive holidays in Europe and the Caribbean. His relationships with women were unstable – he had four marriages and was promiscuous throughout each of them – yet these relationships were among his most honest and dependable. Nabokov, on the other hand, was snobbishly anti-democratic, lamented the human-interest aspect of literary criticism and was happily devoted to one woman throughout his adult life (Nabokov’s love letters to his wife, Véra, contain some of his most evocative prose).
Alex Beam’s new book, The Feud, tells the story of how these two unlikely friends eventually became, at least on the printed page, each other’s worst enemies. Along the way it shows that the greatest difference between the two men wasn’t in how they viewed strangers or treated lovers, but