Ron Rosenbaum's response to his perusal of the Nabokov Original
of Laura manuscript ...
of Laura manuscript ...
The Reading Experience
Contemporary Literature and Criticism
October 05, 2009
Transforming Pencil Lead to Gold
I find Ron Rosenbaum's response to his perusal of the Nabokov Original of Laura manuscript pretty creepy.
First there's the general hyperactivity and indecisiveness of his behavior leading up to the revelation that this manuscript existed. He apparently began lobbying Dmitri Nabokov to decide what to do with the manuscript several years ago, but the best he could do in suggesting a course of action was to proclaim "Part of me desperately wants to read Laura. But I have a superstitious dread of violating V.N.'s wishes." Then he wrote a piece describing what he could discern of the manuscript, which surely served to persuade most Nabokov readers they should want to read it, only to eventually conclude the manuscript should probably be destroyed after all. Now he's been given access to the manuscript before its scheduled publication, the encounter with which he smarmily describes as inducing "a numinous aura. . .as if it were a newly discovered Dead Sea Scroll."
The only real reason anyone should want to read this manuscript Rosenbaum dismisses. He tells us that The Original of Laura "might contain a clue or clues, a code, for all we knew, that would offer new perspective on the often cryptic prose of past Nabokov masterpieces," only to declare that this isn't his interest in the book. One doesn't have to think that this manuscript might provide "clues" or "code" to anticipate it might shed some light on Nabokov's work as a whole, might persuade us to read that work just slightly differently, perhaps more aptly. But Rosenbaum is interested in "clues," it's just that they're clues "about the nature of a true object of wonder, mystery and intricacy: the mind of Vladimir Nabokov, perhaps seen for the first time in the process of creation, giving us a glimpse of the alchemy with which he transformed pencil lead to gold."
This is a peculiar approach to the work of fiction writers, as if the writer's brain residue has somehow been left on his words. It expresses more interest in the "process of creation" than the creation itself. I suppose that Rosenbaum is entitled to find the "alchemy" of process a more pertinent subject than actual art (although I myself have never understood this preoccupation with what pyschologically enables the artistic or literary work, rather than the work, the art object), but in this case it seems especially misguided, since Nabokov is a writer of such formal and stylistic distinction and distinctiveness. Why would we be interested in the "mind" of a writer whose language and formal devices on the page--and, indeed, there is nothing else on the page than these things--are so thoroughly the source of his appeal? Rosenbaum professes his overwhelming admiration of Nabokov the writer, but his eagerness to inspect The Original of Laura doesn't seem much motivated by an interest in what Nabokov wrote.
Rosenbaum makes this more or less plain when he suggests that "Encrypted within [Nabokov's] words, encoded indecipherably, ambiguously, is the equivalent of the secret of lightning. Something akin to the secret code of higher human consciousness, the DNA, the genome of genius." I have difficulty believing Nabokov himself would have had much patience with this sort of pomposity. He made fun, in his work, of the notion of "codes" ("Signs and Symbols," Pale Fire) and he was always critical of interpretation that wandered outside the text itself, into biography or psychology or "intention." "Higher human consciousness" was not the subject of Nabokov's books, encrypted or not. The manipulation of language in aesthetically pleasing ways was his concern.
Ultimately Rosenbaum claims to have learned through his encounter with Nabokov's manuscript that, through the evidence of revision, it demonstrates that "even the greatest of geniuses. . .were not superhuman; they live in the same world of error and doubt that the rest of us inhabit. The fact that they think they've made "mistakes" makes their work even more perfect than it would be if they never blotted a line or scratched out a word." This is both staggeringly trite and finally incoherent. The only people who doubt whether great writers "live in the same world of error and doubt that the rest of us inhabit" are those who posit the existence of superhuman genius ("the secret of lightning") in the first place. I'm pretty certain most of us already know that no one is immune from mistake, so why the existence of second thoughts makes a writer's work more "perfect" is perfectly obscure.
But what Rosenbaum seems to have taken away most from his encounter with The Original of Laura is that on page xix of the book's front matter Dmitri Nabokov thanks. . .Ron Rosenbaum. This is probably the creepiest part of Rosenbaum's essay, as he goes all gushy about the role he believes he played in bringing The Original of Laura to light. Despite the fact that he mostly dithered about it and used the occasion largely to draw attention to himself and his own dithering. The whole episode makes me wish Vladimir Nabokov had burned the manuscript himself so we would have been spared the ruminations of Ron Rosenbaum
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