Your Version Perfect
Vladimir Nabokov, Montreux, October 1969
I never met Vladimir Nabokov face to face, though I exchanged phone calls and letters with him. My psychiatrist encouraged me to visit him in Switzerland, but I was too afraid that I would quickly sabotage close-up whatever good impression I might have managed to create long-distance. As an editor at the American Saturday Review, I had orchestrated a cover story dedicated to Nabokov on the publication of his novel Transparent Things (1972), and sent Anthony Armstrong-Jones to take a portfolio of photographs, including one that showed the novelist dressed as Borges in a poncho. (My boss had wanted to send a great artistic photographer such as Henri Cartier-Bresson, but I believed Nabokov would be more amused by Armstrong-Jones, the Earl of Snowdon, who had been married to Princess Margaret since 1960 and was, I guessed, more polished than the austere French genius. The two men got along famously.) Nabokov wrote a short piece on “Inspiration” for us, which I illustrated with a reproduction of “Pygmalion and Galatea” by Jean-Léon Gérôme, a big bad nineteenth-century painting of the infatuated sculptor embracing his creation as she turns from marble to flesh, feet last.
A number of tiny errors, typographic and even grammatical, had crept into Nabokov’s text. I had the copy set twice in print, my version and his, and sent them both by overnight express. He wired back, “your version perfect”. In the Nabokov “number” I included rather grudging essays by Joyce Carol Oates, William Gass and Joseph McElroy – and of course my own ecstatic response.
A few months later, I sent him galley proofs of my own first novel, Forgetting Elena. Nabokov sent me a note in response: “This is not for publication but my wife and I enjoyed your novel in which everything is teetering on the edge of everything”. (I later found this same “teetering” image in his evocation of a passenger’s point of view from inside a train leaving the station.) I couldn’t believe my good luck in gaining this endorsement from my favourite author, someone who was dismissive of Conrad, Dostoevsky, Faulkner and Balzac – even if I had to keep quiet about it.