What an inspiring book this is! Even though the trials of the literary life are notorious and banal, there are few of us who are sufficiently hardened to the blows that we don’t at least on occasion allow our guard to fall and make the mistake of taking the kicks and pricks personally. Old pro or young tyro, we are all of us susceptible to the whine of sanity and reason, supposing that, at least on occasion, it may be that we are wrong and the world is right, that the combined judgment of all those editors, publishers, reviewers, and professors must have some substance to it.

At those times of trial and uncertainty, we may in the future turn to Nabokov’s letters, in this handsomely produced volume—not just on the bookshelf but close at hand, where we can take courage and comfort from the genial master, all silk on the surface but steel underneath, as he so suavely resists the invincible ignorance of Viking; Farrar, Straus; Holt; Doubleday; Harper’s; The New Yorker; The Atlantic; The New York Times Book Review; and all the other hacks, timeservers, buffoons, churls, dimwits, dolts, dullards, and dummies whose absurd destiny and only purpose seems to be to annoy their betters.

He is never ruffled, because these vermin just aren’t worth it, but an attentive reader can catch at least a suggestion of his exasperation when he explains patiently to Katherine White, wife of E.B. and, for a time, the fiction editor of The New Yorker, that she can’t mess with his copy with the same insouciance that publication showed most of the peons on the old finca. Toward the end of a long list of comments on Ms. White’s editorial tinkerings with one of his Pnin stories, Nabokov icily suggests, “34. This insertion is impossible. Nothing should be added here. I worked for a month on this passage.”

Large and small, early and late, Nabokov had to deal with these bêtises, and he did so, gently but firmly, never for a moment forgetting who he was (a great writer) and who they were (for the most part, justifiably underpaid tradesmen obviously out of their depth).

It is impressive to note how a distinguished editor (like the late Pascal Covici) at a distinguished house (Viking, then an independent publisher) could be so wrongheaded as to reject Pnin, that most charming and least challenging of Nabokov’s novels. On aesthetic grounds? Or commercial? Either judgment today seems stupid, but Nabokov knew it was even then and, with a perfect certainty and faith, understood that he might as well have been dealing with members of another species. Similarly, at Doubleday, which published Pnin and Nabokov’s Dozen, editor Jason Epstein and editor-in-chief Ken McCormick not only couldn’t get the house to do Lolita, they couldn’t even get Douglas Black, the president of the company, to read the manuscript.

To The New York Times Book Review, which had commissioned a review of Sartre’s La Nausée, he suggests an obvious truth: “May I add that if you could pay me more for this kind of work, I would be able to devote more time to it,” and then, once the work is done, he writes to chide them: “This is the first time in my life that something written by me has been pruned by others without my consent. When you asked me to write the article, the very first thing I did was to draw your attention to the fact that I would have to be consulted before any cuts were made. This was a condition—otherwise I would not have written the article at all. . . . [It] is all hopelessly botched and butchered and in gaping discord with my signature. I repeat that never before has any publication acted with such utter sans-gene towards me.”

Throughout all these trials by idiocy, Nabokov remains, relatively unruffled and, in the best sense, gentlemanly. It is a rare moment when he allows his exasperation to show through—as he did with Edward Weeks, editor of the Atlantic, to whom he wrote in October of 1948: “I have received your letter of September 30 and can only excuse its contents by assuming that you were in your cups when you wrote it. . . . Your letter is so silly and rude that I do hot think I want to have anything to do with you or the Atlantic any more.”

Nabokov was not perfect. Nobody is. Some of his opinions about art and literature, which he expressed in Strong Opinions (1973) but which naturally appear here in the letters, were eccentric and wrong—he certainly undervalued Faulkner and T.S. Eliot, for instance. But Nabokov was a creative writer, not a critic, and if his enthusiasms and dislikes require any justification, the wide shelf of his novels, stories, translations, and poems is more than sufficient. Indeed, it is the unquestionably high level of that achievement that gives this volume its particularly therapeutic value for young writers—or writers of any age who, at some moment or other of their lives, happen to be beaten down by the willfully shortsighted stupidity and cupidity of the middlemen of the arts. To read these letters and see how Nabokov got his share of the nonsense, and to realize how little he let it get to him, is to be cleansed and strengthened. He redirects our attention from the ephemeral annoyances to the lasting values that lured us to the arts in the first place.

L’affaire Lolita was a particularly severe series of trials. Nabokov may have been somewhat naif when he wrote to Maurice Girodias of Olympia Press (of all people!): “You and I know that Lolita is a serious book with a serious purpose. I hope the public will accept it as such. A succès de scandale would distress me.” There was such a scandale, not so much because of the book as because of the curious character of that moment in American cultural history. It is my own theory that the relaxation of movie standards that came about through the rating system (and the motion picture producers’ struggle to stay in business in spite of the challenges of television) rather incidentally changed the ecology for books, for which, automatically, there was a literacy test to limit their audience. A decade later, and the to-do about Lolita would hardly have been noticeable. Nabokov was amused by it, only mildly distressed, and always wonderfully balanced.

I remember going up to Ithaca in 1958 to interview him for Newsweek, the terms of my assignment being to determine whether either town or gown now thought of him—to use my editor’s words—as “a dirty old man who played with himself in the shower.” What Nabokov told me, and what he wrote shortly thereafter to Walter Minton, the president of Putnam’s, the book’s publisher, was that “the university’s attitude toward the Lolita matter has been above reproach.” On the other hand, during the Halloween trick-or-treating the week before our interview, Nabokov said that a young girl had appeared at his doorstep dressed in tennis whites and wearing a sign around her neck that proclaimed her identity as “Lolita.” He shook his head and explained, “And I don’t think they knew I was the author of the book. Frankly, I was shocked.”


[Vladimir Nabokov: Selected Letters 1940-1977, Edited by Dmitri Nabokov and Matthew J. Bruccoli (New York and San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich) 582 pp., $29.95]