Notes from Bloomsbury

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Dec 4

"How did one edit Nabokov?"

WHILE I was still at Saturday Review in San Francisco, Nabokov’s Transparent Things was about to be published. He was my favorite living writer along with Christopher Isherwood. Different as Nabokov and Isherwood were from each other, both inspired me with a respect bordering on reverence and an excited anticipation for each new title. Nabokov was funny and wicked, Baroque and heterosexual; Isherwood was sober and good and classical and gay.

I thought that Nabokov’s new novel would be a good occasion for devoting a cover story to him. Although John Poppy would have preferred something on redwood furniture or local dancers, he thought it might be wise to throw a sop to those few “literary” subscribers to the Saturday Review of Literature still hanging on. And I think he could see how thrilled I was at the prospect, and … well, he was a kind man.

I approached a number of writers—William Gass, Joyce Carol Oates, Joseph McElroy (Women and Men)—and asked them to write short essays about Nabokov’s oeuvre. I intended to contribute something myself, especially after Mr. Poppy very generously urged me to do so. He could see that I longed to write about my idol.

Who would take Nabokov’s photos? People around the office suggested a true artist like Cartier-Bresson, but I insisted (yet in truth knowing nothing) that Nabokov was more a social than artistic snob and would respond more favorably to Lord Snowden, Princess Margaret’s husband, the former Anthony Armstrong-Jones. My hunch turned out to be right. Nabokov spent a week clowning around with Snowden, chasing butterflies, of course, but even posing as Borges with a serape over his head. No matter that they weren’t terribly good photos; more importantly for our needs, they were intimate and funny and highly original.

Of course I wanted something from Nabokov’s own pen. After the relative failure of his preceding book, Ada, something he’d worked on for years and that recycled more autobiographical elements than any preceding book except possibly his much earlier The Gift, I thought he’d be open to the full treatment we were offering him. He told me over the phone (I had to get up very early to reach him in Switzerland at the cocktail hour) that he’d write me a short piece on inspiration. He was genial over the phone and at that moment he was having a drink with Alfred Appel, Jr., the editor and commentator of The Annotated Lolita. He had a strong Russian accent, stronger than I’d anticipated; his voice was a high baritone. His a’s were long and English, his r’s rolled and Russian, his accent more French than anything else, at least to my untrained ears. He had an odd way of punching certain syllables, like an old-fashioned orator.

When his excellent piece came in I decided to illustrate it with the charming and kitsch painting of Pygmalion and Galatea by the pompier French artist Gérôme. In the painting the white marble statue of the beautiful young woman is just beginning to turn to delicious pink flesh, feet first, the sculptor stepping back in delighted alarm. Nabokov wrote later that he loved the whole presentation, especially the painting.

But I had a problem. There were minor mistakes in punctuation and even in diction in Nabokov’s mini-essay. How did one edit Nabokov? My solution was to have the essay set exactly as he’d written it, mistakes and all, and then to re-set it in my corrected version. I messengered both versions to him with a short but very polite letter explaining what I’d done. He wired back, “Your version perfect.”

When the essays by various writers came in they were mostly a bit bored with the idea of Nabokov, as if everyone had praised him long enough and now it was more interesting to be critical. Of course as an idolator I was scandalized by the measured tone of my contributors and so my own page became all the more dithyrambic. I compared Norman Mailer unfavorably to Nabokov, which today would be so obvious as to seem comical, absurd, but which at that time was still a highly debatable gambit. It was as though I had preferred European dandyism to the raw nerve of America, an Old World beauty to a New World ugly. Even then still, the United States was very divided between cultural elitists (supposedly located on the East Coast), and Richard Howard wrote me that he and James Merrill had just been at a conference in Minnesota where the audience hissed at them for their elitist opinions. As they left the stage Merrill said loudly, “See what happens when the Great Plains meet the Great Fancies?”

The issue came out with Nabokov glowering in black and white on the cover and the four-color illustration of Pygmalion glowing within. He was very happy, he said, in a longer and appreciative letter, with the entire issue and the visual elements. About then, in 1973, Forgetting Elena finally came out and I sent Nabokov a copy. Some time later he mailed me a letter in which he said that this praise was not for publication but that he and his wife had liked my book, “in which everything is poised on the edge of everything.” A true enough (and very flattering, of course) description of my novel, though later I read the same phrase, about this unstable “everything,” in a Nabokovian description of the visual experience of a passenger in a train just leaving the station.

Three years later, after my book had sold 600 copies and the other 1400 had been pulped, a man from Time I didn’t know named Gerald Clarke called me and asked me if I’d be willing to talk to him about my relationship with Nabokov. “I don’t have a relationship with him,” I said. “I’ve never met him.”

“That’s strange because he talks about you very fondly. In fact he said that he loved your novel Forgetting Elena.”

Would he have loved it, I wondered, if I hadn’t orchestrated a cover story on him? It turned out that Clarke, later to be celebrated for his extraordinarily readable biography of Truman Capote, had gone to Montreux to do an interview with Nabokov for Esquire, and followed the usual drill: he submitted his questions at the Montreux Palace Hotel every evening and the answers, clever and a bit artificial, were neatly typed and placed in his box the next morning (Nabokov retaining the copyright). Clarke was an experienced journalist and felt that this author-approved method hadn’t produced much, so on his last evening in Switzerland he confronted Nabokov over drinks: “So whom do you like?” he asked—since the great man had so far only listed his dislikes and aversions.

“Edmund White,” Nabokov responded. “He wrote Forgetting Elena. It’s a marvelous book.” He’d then gone on to list titles by John Updike and Delmore Schwartz (particularly the short story “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities”), as well as Robbe-Grillet’s Jealousy among a few others. Clarke decided to break the rules and to publish these off-the-cuff comments.

Nothing in my life changed right away, I was astonished to discover. There were no marching bands outside my window. But I did feel that I was being acknowledged in some extraordinary way.

Excerpted from City Boy by Edmund White (Bloomsbury USA, 2009).