NABOKV-L post 0012194, Thu, 8 Dec 2005 18:41:57 -0800

Fwd: Nabokov's "Orignal of Laura" (2) ...
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Date: Wed, 07 Dec 2005 23:02:41 -0500
From: "Sandy P. Klein" <>
Subject: Nabokovs Laura -- headlines omitted probably, ...

Nabokov’s _Laura_ Is
Saved From Burning;
Who Was This Woman?

BY: Ron Rosenbaum
DATE: 12/12/2005

Breathe easy: I think it’s safe to say without much exaggeration
(and only an understandable modicum of self-congratulation) that _The
Observer_ has saved _Laura_. Saved the last, incomplete, unseen
Vladimir Nabokov manuscript from a threat of destruction. In a
convoluted way, my plea to Dmitri Nabokov, the son, translator and
defender of his father’s legacy (“Dear Dmitri Nabokov: Don’t Burn
_Laura_!”, _The Observer_, Nov. 28, 2005) has apparently resulted in
the revocation of the threat. I suppose I should feel good, but in
fact I feel uneasy. I can see the arguments on the other side. I
spoke of my conflicted feelings in the initial column: about the
argument that Nabokov deserves to have his unequivocally expressed
wishes carried out—_The Original of Laura_ (full title) burned. But
if she lives or dies, I think, as we’ll see, it’s now possible to
make an educated guess about the identity of the original Laura of
_The Original of Laura_. Why the conflicted feelings over this
apparent rescue? Well, Nabokov made clear that he didn’t want to
leave behind an imperfect version of something he cherished. Despite
what _we_ might want him to want, he wanted the incomplete manuscript
of _Laura_—30 to 40 index cards of handwritten draft that Dmitri says
would have become “the most concentrated distillation of [his
father’s] creativity”—destroyed. Before he died in 1977, VN asked his
wife Véra to do it, and when she hadn’t by the time of her death 14
years later in 1991, the burden of his father’s injunction was
bequeathed to Dmitri. Dmitri, an honorable and devoted son, obviously
has a conflict. His father wanted him to do one thing; the world wants
him to do something else. Most of those who know about _Laura_—and,
until recently, not many did—hoped or assumed that Dmitri would
ultimately find some way to make the manuscript available. After all,
it was a document that might provide both clues to the final aesthetic
direction of the greatest writer of the past century—and a new
perspective from which to look at his astonishing, puzzling,
endlessly rewarding past work. I certainly would like to study it,
but I don’t feel that the argument for preserving it is as obvious as
most people seem to assume. The argument that “Nabokov’s genius
belongs to the world” in effect _punishes_ him for being the greatest
writer of the past century, by declaring he is so great that we need
pay no attention to him, to his heartfelt wishes about the
disposition of his drafts. I can see Nabokov’s stern face saying,
“But I said destroy it and I meant destroy it. What part of ‘destroy
it’ don’t you understand?” Well, I can’t see him saying the last
sentence, but I’m talking about the sentiment, the gravamen, here.
Before I get deeper into this question and the fascinating debate
that has subsequently developed about who the “Laura” of _The
Original of Laura_ might be, let me explain my claim that _The
Observer_ saved _Laura_. After my story was published, two
developments rapidly ensued. It was picked up in the European press
from Ireland to Moscow, and the headlines were variations on the
Dmitri’s comment from his e-mail to me that he would “probably
destroy it.” The headlines omitted “probably,” but they put a
spotlight on Dmitri as the sole custodian of a work he had described
as something that would have been “Father’s most brilliant novel, the
most concentrated distillation of his creativity, but whose release in
incomplete form he expressly forbade.” The final distillation! All we
know about the novel’s content, aside from the fact that it’s a
“distillation” of something, is the testimony of the editor of
_Nabokov Studies_, Professor Zoran Kuzmanovich, who apparently heard
Dmitri read some excerpts of it at a gathering of Nabokovians at
Cornell in the 90’s. Professor K. tells us that _Laura_ seemed to
concern “aging but holding onto the original love of one’s life.” My
_Observer_ story put the focus on the apparently perilous situation
of the manuscript, whatever Dmitri (now 71) decides. He told me that
knowledge of the location of the safe-deposit box containing _Laura_
(which he disclosed to me was in Switzerland) was limited to him and
“one [unidentified] assistant”—raising the question of whether the
manuscript might be lost before anyone had a choice whether to burn
or preserve it. I called upon some museum, foundation or university
to offer a plan for its preservation and access for scholars. At the
very least, get it out of the questionable confines of some bank
vault. Banks have been known to be robbed, flooded or burned, after
all. The locations of secret Swiss safe-deposit boxes have been known
to be lost upon the death of their holders, due to the banking-secrecy
laws there. And so it appears that once _The Observer_ made his threat
public, and the eyes of the world were upon him, awaiting his
decision, Dmitri rethought words he may have uttered in haste or
irritation. What he initially told me was that because of “the
repugnant atmosphere typical of current ‘Lolitology,’” as he called
it, “I shall probably destroy it.” In the past, he’d spoken of
consigning it at some point to a scholarly institution that would
preserve but not publish it, and that would permit access to certain
scholars. While it may have contravened his father’s wishes to
destroy the unfinished work (maybe a third of a short novel), it was
a reasonable compromise. Was his displeasure over “Lolitology”
(presumably a reference to the furor over the claim by German scholar
Michael Maar that VN had, in some conscious or unconscious way, taken
the name and plot of _Lolita_ from a forgotten 1916 German short
story with that title) reason enough for consigning _Laura_ to the
ashes? Was he punishing those he felt were not giving _Lolita_ its
due by blaming _them_ for denying us a parting glimpse at where VN
might have been going after his final published novels, _Transparent
Things_ and _Look at the Harlequins!_ Whatever Dmitri’s thinking
process, when someone in the press reached him for comment on my
_Observer_ column, Dmitri denied he intended to destroy _Laura_,
which was fine with me. Exactly what I’d hoped for, in fact. What was
_not_ fine with me was a report in the press that what I’d written was
somehow a distortion of his words. I have his e-mail. There was no
distortion. But if all this allowed him wiggle room to back off from
the threat of destruction, I am happy to be of service. After all, it
may well have saved _Laura_ from the ashes (though I can make his
e-mail available if any confusion persists). And now, with the eyes
of the world upon Dmitri and _Laura_, that fateful couple, perhaps
(as I called for) some responsible institution or foundation will
make public a plan for the preservation of _Laura_. The current
situation, with the manuscript deteriorating over time in a
safe-deposit box of unknown security or manuscript-preservation
ability, is not a good solution. Nor is allowing only one other
person to know its location. ‘The Revengeful Ghost’ But should it be
preserved at all? Among the arguments that broke out on the Nabokov
discussion list I subscribe to was the question of whether Dmitri has
an _obligation_ to carry out his father’s wishes. One Nabokovian
posted a message under the subject line “Burn ‘Laura’, Dmitri,”
arguing that we had no right to inspect something VN clearly did not
want us to see. Those who argue that he didn’t _really_ mean it have
only speculation on their side, and a belief that literary history
has more of a claim on the unfinished work’s fate than its author.
Did he mean it? One of the most important responses to my column came
from Professor Abraham Socher of Oberlin. I wrote about his important
_TLS_ piece on Nabokov, Frost and the origin of the opening lines of
“Pale Fire” last summer (_The Observer_, July 18, 2005). Last week,
Professor Socher sent me an astonishing excerpt from Nabokov’s first
English-language novel, _The Real Life of Sebastian Knight_. In the
passage Professor Socher sent me, the speaker is examining his dead
brother’s personal effects. “My first duty after Sebastian’s death
was to go through his belongings. He had left everything to me and I
had a letter from him instructing me to burn certain of his papers …
but I soon found out that except for a few odd pages dispersed among
other papers, he himself had destroyed them long ago, for he belonged
to that rare type of writer who knows that nothing ought to remain
except for the perfect achievement: the printed book … the litter of
the workshop, no matter its sentimental or commercial value, must
never subsist.” “That rare type of writer who knows that nothing
ought to remain except for the perfect achievement”: Whom could the
narrator be thinking of? “That rare type of writer who knows that
nothing ought to remain except for the perfect achievement”: VN
speaking of himself? I e-mailed Professor Socher to ask him if he
felt there was any irony about “that rare type of writer” in the
context. He said he felt Sebastian was, in fact, “a Nabokovian
figure,” and he supplied the passage in the ellipsis he had made as
he typed the passage into his first e-mail; a passage that begins
after “the perfect achievement.” A passage that is a moving tribute
to “the printed book” as the final, Platonic form of written
literature, of a writer’s intentions as opposed to its imperfect
manuscript or typescript precursors: “[T]he printed book … its actual
existence is inconsistent with that of its spectre, the uncouth
manuscript, flaunting its imperfections like a revengeful ghost
carrying its own head under its arm.” It’s almost too perfectly
resonant: the revengeful ghost can’t help conjuring up an allusion to
the revengeful ghost in _Hamlet_, a dead father urging his son on to
destroy the “imperfect copy” of himself, his brother and murderer,
the usurper, Claudius. And here was Dmitri, a son, haunted, like
Hamlet, by the ghost of his father, urging destruction of an
imperfect version of himself. Those who wish to comfort themselves by
saying, “Well, Nabokov probably didn’t mean it” when he said to
destroy the imperfect _Laura_ will have to contend with Sebastian
Knight’s sentiment, first published in 1941, which makes the later
injunction to destruction seem not only a longstanding inclination,
but both heartfelt and premonitory—not a whim or a coy invitation to
disregard his wishes. Dmitri has already shown that _he_ is
(honorably) conflicted. Who is Hamlet here—Dmitri, us, both? The
too-easy argument against admitting the relevance of the _Sebastian
Knight_ passage is that it refers to “the litter of the workshop”—and
that _Laura_, however incomplete or unfinished, is not “litter.”
Still, the passage doesn’t refer only to “litter,” but to a far more
advanced but imperfect “spectre” of the final Platonic form, an
incomplete or early (“uncouth”) draft. In a passage from VN’s letters
I quoted in my last column, he writes of having finished _Laura_ in
his mind some “fifty times,” but not on paper, and of fearing that a
“stumbling” version of it could notlive up to its final form in his
mind: the printed book. Just as in _Sebastian Knight_. But again,
some have asked why he didn’t burn it himself rather than give
instructions for his wife, Véra, to do it. But perhaps VN _meant_ to
do it himself but was prevented when final illness incapacitated him,
leading him to delegate the task. After all, he almost threw the
manuscript of _Lolita_ in the incinerator before Véra stopped him.
We’re glad, most of us, that she did, but this does not necessarily
mean he wanted a far less finished draft of &shy;_Laura_ to see the
light. We may never know, but is that an excuse to disregard his
wish? Petrarch, de Sade and Laura’s Original But let’s set aside for
the moment the debate over whether to destroy _Laura_ and glance at
the debate that followed the publication of my _Observer_ piece: Who
_was_ “Laura”? What does it mean to say “the Original of Laura”? In
my initial essay, I had offhandedly suggested the possibility of the
1944 Otto Preminger film _Laura_, about a detective who becomes
obsessed with the portrait of a woman whose apparent murder he’s
trying to solve—obsessed with “the original” of the Laura in the
painting. But I’m always impressed by the erudition of _The
Observer_’s readership, and before the end of the first day the paper
was out, two people had e-mailed me to suggest that _Laura_ must bear
some relation to the Laura of Petrarch, the great 14th-century poet
known as a progenitor of the love-sonnet sequence tradition later
taken up by Shakespeare. Petrarch’s _Rime in Vita e Morta di Madonna
Laura_, also known as the_ Canzoniere_, contains dozens of sonnets
devoted to a mysterious married woman, “Laura,” love for whom drives
the poet mad (he practically stalks her) and later leads him to seek
after a higher, more spiritual love. Almost simultaneously, several
members of the Nabokov list-serve began discussing Petrarch’s Laura
(as well as Otto Preminger’s) as a possible source, and inspired by
their suggestions, I consulted an edition of Petrarch, the 2004
translation by David Young, and found three striking passages that
may add something to the debate. And indeed, the third one suggests a
solution. First, a footnote in Mr. Young’s introduction actually
refers to a controversy over what you might call “the original of
Laura.” It seems that one of Petrarch’s contemporaries challenged him
by saying there could be no such being as Petrarch’s “Laura,” no real
human “original,” but that he invented her and his love for her out
of thin air. Petrarch’s response is fascinating. Instead of taking
credit for such an imaginative achievement, he bridled at the charge:
Are you saying, he asked his challenger, that “there is no Laura … and
that concerning the living Laura, by whose person I seem to be
captured, everything is manufactured: my poems are fictitious, my
sighs pretended. Well on this head I wish it were all a joke, that it
were a pretense and not a madness! But believe me, no one can simulate
[madness] without great effort; to labor to appear mad, to no purpose,
is the height of madness... we can in health imitate the behavior of
the sick, but we cannot simulate pallor.” Pretty amazing
“distillation,” one might say, of what would, six centuries later, be
preoccupations of Nabokov’s art—simulation and reality, fiction and
truth, whether “the truest poetry is the most feigning,” as
Shakespeare put it. It certainly suggests that if Petrarch and Laura
are not themselves the literal subject of _The Original of Laura_,
the question of “originality” may well be. After all, many consider
the Laura poems the origin of the Romantic love tradition in Western
literature—and thus the origin of the way we _experience_ love and
love’s madness. And here’s the second shocker that I came upon in
Mr. Young’s introduction: the de Sade connection. He says that the
Laura of the sonnets “existed, surely, and she came from the Avignon
area … where Petrarch lived in his youth. She had blond hair,
striking eyes, and considerable composure. She may well have been the
Laura … who married into the de Sade family, a name made infamous much
later by the notorious Marquis (a historical irony that would have
greatly amused Petrarch and, one guesses, Laura herself).” And,
needless to say, Nabokov, had he come across it. Laura: from Petrarch
to de Sade, love leading to Light and Darkness. (_Look at the
Harlequins!_, those creatures of light and darkness, the title of
VN’s last complete novel.) The final and most suggestive discovery I
made was in Petrarch’s poem No. 141 in the_ Canzoniere_, a sonnet to
Laura. The opening quatrain struck me as a remarkable precursor to
the opening lines of “Pale Fire,” the poem in the novel _Pale Fire_,
the famous quatrain that begins “I was the shadow of the waxwing
slain / By the false azure in the windowpane.” On the most basic
level, it’s a description of a bird flying blindly—and fatally—into a
window because it’s deceived by the reflection of the sky, deceived
into thinking it’s seeing “the original” of the sky, the real sky,
when it’s only an image on glass. Now here (in Mr. Young’s
translation) is the opening quatrain of Petrarch’s poem No. 141: _The
way a simple butterfly, in summer,__will sometimes fly, while looking
for__the light,__right into someone’s eyes, in its desire,__whereby
it kills itself and causes__pain …._ Amazing how it chimes with “I
was the shadow of the waxwing slain …. ” Here, a winged creature
kills itself by flying into the “azure” of Laura’s eyes. Petrarch,
the butterfly blinded by the “allure” of Laura’s eyes. In “Pale
Fire,” we also have a reflected image: For Nabokov, the reflected sky
of art deceives unto death. Amazing not just how the Petrarch quatrain
involves a winged creature, but even more amazing that it’s a
_butterfly_, since Nabokov was famous as a lepidopterist. I think I
may have found—with the invaluable help of the Nabokovians who
pointed to Petrarch—the lines that are the original of _The Original
of Laura_! At least its _conceptual_, aesthetic origin. And perhaps
the “original” of “Pale Fire” as well. Prove me wrong, Dmitri,
although the only way you can prove me wrong is by preserving—and
letting me read—the original of _The Original of Laura_.



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