Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 100 in 1998.
Last summer I found a rather unexpected article in Evergreen by my old friend of the Paris days, Austryn Wainhouse, entitled On Translating Sade. The all-too-famous Marquis had very little to do with that piece of diffident prose, in fact: nor had the delicate problems posed by the rendering of eighteenth-century French into English: its central subject was me, myself, and I was being subjected in Austryn's essay to a chaotic assault, quite absurd and unfair.
That did come as a surprise, and a nasty one, but the clue was soon provided by the two words Austryn used to describe hirnself - "bitter and restless"... Then, I reflected, Austryn also has a much more practical reason to turn against me. Those de Sade translations he did for us in the old days, and for which he was paid a pretty good salary, he has felt free to use them later as if they were his own property. I naturally disagreed with him as to his fight to do so. No doubt that is why he is now calling me a thief and a scoundrel to the face of the world. Ah well. Then came another surprise. In the February issue of Evergreen (and serving, as it were, as a preface to the latest installment of Phoebe Zeit-Geist's necrophiliac tribulations), I discovered Vladimir Nabokov's thunderous piece: Mr. Girodias and Lolita. What next, I wondered. Is Evergreen going to ask Madame de Gaulle to write my biography?
Compared with Austryn's maudlin outcry, Nabokov's pyrotechnics have at least the advantage of professional treatment. Then - not everyone has the privilege of acceding during one's lifetime to Nabokov's inverted Pantheon! Nabokov's victims have always been anonymous, at best pseudonymous: am I really the first of the great man's fantasies of hate to be identified with a live person?
Am I really - could I really be! - that delirious, evil character, that chameleonic tormentor? Draped in "an aura of negligence, evasiveness, procrastination and falsity," did I conspire to capture my helpless, struggling Nabokov in "a tissue of haggling manoeuvres and abstruse prevarications"? Did I haunt him in dark recesses "with the sneer of a hoodlum following an innocent passerby"? As a "flexible memoirist" (animated with "undulatory motions"), was I guilty of those countless "insolent and vulgar remarks," those "idiotic insinuations" peppered with "nasty and silly passages" and freely disgorging "discrepancies typical of apocrypha," not to mention the mere "guileful inexactitudes"? (Unless otherwise occupied in concocting "obscene novelettes" in the company of snivelling hacks - couched, that goes without saying, "in intolerably bad English''?) How far can one go? Could that remarkable person be me? Would those darkest "depths of my personality" be the cause of Nabokov's "obligation to endure the elusiveness, the procrastination (sic...), the dodges, the duplicity, and the utter irresponsibility of the man"?
When I read that morceau d'imprudente bravoure I first thought it was meant as a game. Now I am not so sure. To remain on the safe side, therefore, I will simply say that, putting aside the ordinary insults, there is practically not one line in Nabokov's piece that does not contain a misrepresentation ranging from the crude lie to the sophisticated deception. The famous Nabokovian chiaroscuro effects seem to have been brutally wiped away, this time, under the immediate pressure of his uncontrolled fury.
I shall not attempt here a corrective exegis of Nabokov's article word by word, that would be an endless task. My own story (Lolita, Nabokov and I) as printed by Evergreen is factually true on all counts: and that seems to be the reason why it so infuriates him. It seems enough to make the following points.
Nabokov writes that, when he asked his Paris friends to find a publisher for Lolita, he was not at all thinking of the Olympia Press but of Sylvia Beach; he is just pulling our leg; Sylvia Beach, indeed, had published Ulysses in Paris but that was thirty years earlier. When he sent his manuscript to Paris, I had already published Samuel Beckett's first book in English (Watt) and books by Jean Genet, Henry Miller, Guillaume Apollinaire, Georges Bataille, and de Sade: are those the ones he discounts as "obscene novelettes"? Was he so careless as to entrust his book to a new publisher without so much as a glance at that publisher's list?
I am naturally pleased to find that Nabokov admits that he followed my advice as to certain editorial changes: we only disagree now as to their extent and pertinence.... All his complaints about our dealings are at once clownish and self-defeating.... I never said to anyone that the publication of Lolita might "lead to a change in social attitudes towards the kind of love described in it": a grotesque fabrication meant to discredit my motives at publishing Lolita.... He complains about a slight delay in the payment of the second half of his advance: but he naturally refrains to say a word about the size of the advance which I think was a very generous one, and certainly more than he would have obtained from an American firm in those days and for that book.... Nabokov rehashes again and again with varying modulations his own unwarranted grievances about royalties, delayed payments, etc., to convey the impression that he was constantly defending himself against the manoeuvres of a compulsive crook: only once did we withhold some royalties we owed him, and we were forced to do so because Nabokov himself had blocked the payment to us of our legitimate share of certain subsidiary rights.... Those Tender Thighs are the innocent children of Nabokov's imagination; I never published a book with that title, and Debby's Bidet is of the same water... His report of our "American negotiations" is completely erroneous and out of context. So is in particular, his story of how he discovered that some copies of Lolita had been advertised and sold by some American booksellers at a price higher than the regular Paris price: what he obviously wants to suggest (without naturally saying so) is that I had been cheating him of a portion of his royalties and had been caught red-handed in the act. That passage, trivial as it is, illustrates better than any other Nabokov's tortuous treatment of the simplest facts.... What seems to me much more significant is that, when Lolita was banned by the French government in 1956 and I had to start a lawsuit to have the ban abrogated, Nabokov refused to participate in our action even nominally, even only with a simple written statement. The excuses he gives us today to justify his attitude at the time of that vital lawsuit will not make a hero of him.... And finally, Nabokov makes a very big thing of the story I have recounted of our meeting in Paris, in October 1959, which he claims never took place.
He explains that I told that story twice (thus suggesting - but not really asserting - that my two successive versions were contradictory), and he challenges me to tell it a third time with all appropriate amendments. I will be dispensed of that boring task, thank God, as the press photograph reproduced above makes it unnecessary. It is a poor picture I dare say, but I am certainly recognizable in the forefront, left, exchanging conversational grins with my own brother, Eric Kahane, and Nabokov himself, right... No doubt he will now claim that my snapshot was doctored by the Guepeou.
There are several points of significance which are common to those two articles by Austryn Wainhouse and Vladimir Nabokov. Not only the bitterness, the self-pity, the grandiloquent egomania and the tone of offended virtue, but, essentially, the underlying, theme. They both try to convince their readers that they have been badly abused and cheated by me. The truth is quite otherwise, and they certainly cannot state that they ever lost a penny because of m: in fact they don't, although they constantly do their damndest best to suggest it without saying it in so many words. I have always treated Wainhouse in a friendly and loyal manner. As to Nabokov, I sincerely believe that he was most lucky to come across a publisher who did as much for his book as I did. Instead of being fair and sensible about it, he has been assiduously trying to have our contract invalidated, ever since Lolita became, much to his surprise (and mine) a money-making best seller. He is in fact now, at the time of writing, trying harder than ever, and we have a lawsuit pending before the French courts. Must we look further for an ulterior motive?
And of course those two attacks have another trait in common: Austryn's story comes out many years after the facts. Nabokov's "reply" comes not less than eighteen months after my article. The coincidence of their publication by Evergreen at six months' interval appears regrettable, regrettable indeed.