The book i tself— th e physical object yo u hold in your hands — is a wo rk of art ...
Nabokov's last work is not really a novel, but
Best-selling author Vladimir Nabokov smiles during an interview in Montreux, Switzerland, in December 1976. Associated Press file
By JAMES D. WATTS JR. World Scene Writer
Published: 11/15/2009 2:23 AM
Last Modified: 11/15/2009 4:23 AM
The book itself — the physical object you hold in your hands — is a work of art.
It's remarkably thick and heavy for a book of fewer than 300 pages. Remove the plastic-backed jacket — with its words fading to inky blackness on the front and an image of the author, caught with a slight sneer of condescension shadowing his face on the back — and you find enlargements of two handwritten passages.
Inside, on pages made of card stock, are reproduced the 138 index cards upon which Vladimir Nabokov wrote what would be his final novel, something he called "The Original of Laura." The reproductions are more than photographically exact: each card image is perforated so that the reader can remove the cards from and shuffle them about to refashion the narrative in whatever manner he or she might wish.
And if Nabokov's penciled script isn't quite as legible as one might like, the bottom half of each page contains a printed translation, with the few amendments and additions clearly marked to help make a word or phrase make sense.
"The Original of Laura" is a lot of things. But one thing it definitely is not is a novel.
It's not even a "novel in fragments," as it is described on the cover. "Fragments of a novel" might be more precise a description, but even that is a bit grandiose. "Scraps of the roughest of rough drafts" is probably the closest thing to the truth.
Master at work
Vladimir Nabokov was one of the 20th century's greatest writers, whose novels were known for the unique mix of playfulness and precision in the way he crafted his prose. "Lolita" brought him international fame — although it started out as notoriety, given the novel's subject. "Pale Fire," which might be his masterpiece, is a 999-line poem with an accompanying commentary; what sounds like the driest of academic conceits is in Nabokov's hand, an amazingly complex, funny, suspenseful and dazzling story.
Shortly before Nabokov died in 1977, he had requested that his wife destroy his manuscript of "The Original of Laura," the novel that he had been working on for two years, if he were unable to complete it before he died. However, his wife chose not to follow that instruction, and when she died in 1991, the collection of cards was passed on to the couple's only son, Dmitri.
When Dmitri Nabokov announced his intention of publishing the pieces of "The Original of Laura," it caused a minor tempest in the teapot of literary chat, with Ron Rosenbaum, who writes The Spectator column for Slate.com, leading the discussion first in favor of publishing, then in favor of not publishing. (Rosenbaum is listed in the acknowledgements for setting of an unplanned "publicity campaign" about the book.)
So what are we left with? Approximately 9,000 handwritten words that deal with a character named Philip Wild, who had a wife named Flora, who had a lover who wrote a novel about his affair with Philip's wife that he titled "My Laura."
But that's only a small portion of what's here. There is much more about Wild's discovery of the ability to die by degrees — to imagine, in some trance-like state, that one's toes can magically disappear, followed by one's lower legs (Wild is quite unhappy with all aspects of human bipedal locomotion, it would seem), and to experience the ecstasy of this loss, only to be restored whole once one breaks the trance.
One of the last cards, however, reveals that this joy is starting to get problematic as Wild imagines more and more of his body away. Exactly what will come of this, we'll never know. Maybe it would explain the odd subtitle, "Dying is Fun."
It's easy to understand why Nabokov would have wanted this work destroyed. He was a perfectionist with words — something that writing in what was not his native tongue emphasized (even though his mastery of English was impeccable). And "The Original of Laura" is about as far from perfect as can be imagined. There is a clumsiness to a lot of the sentences here, as if things were being hurried, jotted down to be reworked and refined at a later time.
The pieces don't fit together, and there is no sense of where the various storylines might go — other than toward that list of words that make up the last card and front cover: "efface, expunge, erase, delete, rub out, wipe out, obliterate." Maybe Nabokov's story and characters were just to disappear, dissolve without a trace, like those letters on the cover.
If "The Original of Laura" holds any value beyond that of a curiosity or something that Nabokov completists will need to own, it is this. These 138 cards, with their fragile smudges of graphite, prove that even for a genius like Vladimir Nabokov, creating a piece of literature is never as easy as it looks to those who know only the finished product.
James D. Watts Jr. 581-8478
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