NABOKV-L post 0018927, Mon, 7 Dec 2009 17:53:16 -0500

The Last of Laura a first for Wylie (i.e., a failure)? ...

The Last of Laura a first for Wylie (i.e., a failure)?

7 December 2009

Vladimir Nabokov's notes for a novel he never wrote

It was a “surprise unhappy ending for the rare piece of literary history”: Vladmir Nabokov’s note cards for his idea of a novel called The Original of Laura — you know, the unfinished notes that didn’t even make it to manuscript form, that he instructed his family from his deathbed to destroy, and that his son just published in a designed-to-death $35 edition — failed to sell at a Christie’s auction where it was expected to bring in at least $600,000.

As a Big Pond News report details, there was “huge interest” in the Nabokov notes, so the lack of a sale was, well, shocking. But the report also calls the sketch notecards a “manuscript,” and goes on to note that “The unexpected sensation of the auction was an Olivetti manual typewriter on which contemporary US novelist Cormac McCarthy, author of No Country for Old Men and The Road, has written every one of his books.” So what does Big Pond know? I mean, what was so unexpected about the McCarthy typewriter sale? He enlisted no less than the New York Times to help him sell that typewriter in a feature that half the world linked to. (You didn’t really think I was going to link to it too, did you?)

Better, maybe, to consider Michael Orthofer’s take on it at the Complete Review’s Literary Saloon, where he says the failure to sell the Nabokov note cards

… is a huge embarrassment — I am quite honestly flabbergasted — but should also be an eye-opener to [agent Andrew] Wylie-clients, that maybe his approach is not always (ever, I’d suggest, but, as you’ll have realized by now, his approaches all rub me the wrong way, so I’m not entirely objective) the ideal one. (Short term — if you need to raise cash fast –, it may be okay, but otherwise — watch out !) Sure, Wylie made a ton of money for Dmitri off of The Original of Laura, from the various publishers, the Playboy first serial rights, etc. — but his bleed-the-stone-dry approach faltered big, big time here, and long-term little of this has done the reputation of Vladimir Nabokov (remember him?) much good. (I’m amazed Wylie let it come to this: surely it would have been worth saving appearances to pay someone off to bid half a million for the thing, since this kind of reputation-blow will not be quickly forgotten (I’m sure I won’t be the only one to make sure of that).)
Let’s hope Dmitri at least does the honorable thing, admitting he’s screwed over Dad several times over with his handling of this whole mess and tries to begin to atone by donating the thing to some worthy institution where it can be publicly displayed and properly appreciated. (Though I’m sure in that case Wylie will at least insist it go to someplace where they can claim the tax deduction …..)

Meanwhile, how is the book made out of these notes doing? According to Nielsen Bookscan, it sold 2,906 copies its first week of sale, then plummeted to 1,220 books its second week. Not bad, but considering the colossal hype campaign and the stunning extravagance of the book’s design, clearly it was expected to be much bigger than that.

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