NABOKV-L post 0018959, Mon, 14 Dec 2009 09:32:02 -0800

David Lodge on Laura
David Lodge is surprisingly kind to Laura in The Literary Review:

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David Lodge
The Original of Laura: A Novel in Fragments
By Vladimir Nabokov (Penguin Classics 278pp £25)

In 1962, following the international success of Lolita that made him
financially independent, Vladimir Nabokov gave up his professorial
post at Cornell and settled in Montreux, Switzerland, where he resided
at the Palace hotel with his wife Vera and wrote his later novels,
until his death in 1977. In the last two years of his life, which were
marred by various accidents, illnesses and increasing physical
debility, Nabokov worked on a novel called The Original of Laura,
writing it, as was his habit, by hand in pencil on small index cards.
It was unfinished - very far from finished in fact - when he died, and
he had expressly directed Vera to burn the manuscript in that
eventuality. Having rescued Lolita from the incinerator many years
before, when Nabokov had a sudden failure of nerve about publishing
it, his widow understandably hesitated to carry out his wishes with
respect to his last work. The Original of Laura has lain in a bank
vault for thirty years, the object of intense curiosity and
speculation among aficionados, while Vera and the Nabokovs' son Dmitri
agonised over whether or not to allow it to be published. They finally
decided to do so, and here it is.

The work has been lavishly and reverently designed and produced. Every
index card is photographically reproduced in the top half of the recto
page, white on a pale grey background, with a printed transcription
underneath. On every verso page there is the reproduction of another,
blank, index card, perhaps to represent the words Nabokov never lived
to write, perhaps to give the reader a convenient space to make his
own notes, perhaps merely to bulk out a text of no more words than a
long short story to make a full-length book.

The subtitle, 'A Novel in Fragments', was presumably not Nabokov's,
since he hoped to complete it, but it is an accurate description.
Nabokov was never a straightforward storyteller - he always required
close concentration from readers and delighted in setting them little
traps and puzzles and surprises - but we have to work especially hard
to construe and connect the various fragments of The Original of
Laura. The first line is a typically Nabokovian tease, an answer to a
missing question: 'Her husband, she answered, was a writer too - at
least, after a fashion.' The 'she' here is Flora, a young woman
married (we discover in due course) to an older man, Dr Philip Wild, a
grossly obese but distinguished neurologist who was not able to attend
the party at which she is speaking to a writer who must have asked the
question, 'What does your husband do?'

In this first episode, which is narrated from the writer's point of
view, he accompanies her to a borrowed flat where they have sex, or
rather the coitus interruptus that is her preferred contraceptive
method. The daughter of a ballerina and a photographer, both of
Russian extraction, Flora is a femme fatale, beautiful, wanton, cruel,
irresistible, 'an object of terror and tenderness' to her husband, and
of the same lineage as Lolita. To the writer 'the cup-sized breasts of
that twenty-four year old impatient beauty seemed a dozen years
younger than she'. Lolita was twelve when Humbert Humbert first met
her, and the prepubescent Flora, we learn, suffered the attentions of
an elderly lover of her mother's called Hubert H Hubert. She lost her
virginity at fourteen and was soon enjoying al fresco boyfriend-
swapping. 'Sometimes a voyeur would be shaken out of a tree by the
vigilant police.'

The writer uses Flora as the transparently recognisable model for
Laura, the heroine of a bestselling novel, which her husband, when he
can no longer resist reading it, will find a 'maddening masterpiece',
one more item, as he says, in 'the anthology of humiliation to which,
since my marriage, I have been a constant contributor'. Philip Wild's
main comfort in his unhappy personal life is a strange application of
his professional expertise: he develops a technique for sending
himself into a kind of trance in which he is able to remove various
parts of his anatomy by a kind of virtual amputation, projecting a
stylised image of his body upon the screen of his closed eyelids and
deleting a selected area. He begins with his toes (Dmitri Nabokov
tells us in his introduction that the author himself was tortured by
ingrowing toenails in the last months of his life) and moves on to
more vital parts of the body. 'I hit upon the art of thinking away my
body, my being, mind itself. To think away thought - luxurious
suicide, delicious dissolution!' The trick is, he emphasises, to
retain the ability to come out of the trance before one actually kills
oneself. In this way he explores various possible kinds of death
without actually succumbing to it and achieves a kind of orgasmic
ecstasy in the process. The last recto page of the book reproduces not
an index card but a small piece of graph paper down the middle of
which Nabokov scrawled in a slanting hand a list of words: 'efface
expunge erase delete rub out wipe out obliterate'. It makes a fitting
tailpiece to the book, but it was not of course Nabokov who placed it

The way the manuscript has been ingeniously edited and reproduced
overcomes to a large extent the disappointment and frustration
inherent in reading an unfinished and disconnected narrative, and
achieves an interesting aesthetic effect unintended by the author. If
the manuscript had been printed in the conventional way we would have
hurried through it vainly seeking some coherent plot or hint of its
ultimate direction. As it is the book invites us to linger over the
text's quiddity, relishing not just its stylistic feats but also the
physical marks on the index cards, the poignantly shaky hand of an
ailing author, his revisions and insertions and smudged rubbings out,
and the tantalising space he left to be filled in later when he found
the right word. 'The only way he could possess her was in the most
position of copulation'.

Few readers will probably read the whole text continuously from the
cards, but the matching printed text underneath also has a
defamiliarising effect on the act of reading when, quite often, the
last line does not extend to the margin. Page 7 for instance ends
'when they and their dog do not happen', and by habit one's brain
tries to make sense of this as a complete clause before turning the
page to find 'to need it.' This is an effect akin to a caesura in
poetry, and indeed the structure of the work as a whole is more akin
to modern poetry of the Eliot-Pound kind than a conventional novel,
shifting from one voice to another without explanatory links. Towards
the end these jump cuts become more abrupt, and there are more cards
which bear just a few lines, sometimes evidently Nabokov's notes to
himself. A line from The Waste Land, 'These fragments I have shored
against my ruins', might have been a suitable epigraph for The
Original of Laura, but the last lines of page 21 would make a better
one: 'Only by identifying her with an unwritten, half-written,
rewritten difficult book could one hope to render what'.

Is it, as the blurb claims, Nabokov's 'final great book'? No. Does it
contain brilliant, funny, astonishing sentences only Nabokov could
have written? Yes. Should it have been preserved and published?

David Lodge is a novelist and critic, and Emeritus Professor of
English Literature at the University of Birmingham. His most recent
novels are 'Author, Author' and 'Deaf Sentence'.
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