Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0000221, Fri, 1 Apr 1994 16:39:56 -0800

Original of Laura (fwd)
Nabokovians! I trust you will enjoy Jeff Edmunds' tale as much as I did. I
also hope that you will note the date of transmission.
Don Johnson, List Editor

---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Fri, 01 Apr 1994 08:47:44 -0500 (EST)
Subject: Original of Laura


Yesterday I received a fascinating package from France. Its contents
require a bit of background information:

In the summer of 1975 I attended a music seminar held at Schloss
Wartensee just outside Rorschach, Switzerland. The castle, a restored 15th-
century chateau, overlooks the misty Bodensee. It was there, in the course
of an early morning ramble through the tall grass abutting a duck pond that
graces the extensive grounds, that I made the acquaintance of a young Swiss
who prefers, for reasons that will soon become apparent, to remain
anonymous, but whom I will refer to as Peter B. In the course of our
matinal conversation, conducted, premonitorily, in a conspiratorial whisper
, Peter discovered that I was a passionate reader of Nabokov. He himself
had only a passing familiarity with the author's books, but reported that
his sister knew Nabokov. "Comment?!" I replied, astonished, and like an
echo of my exclamation point there was a sudden flurry and splash of some
unseen creature leaving the bank for the water. Peter explained that his
sister worked at the hotel where the writer lived in Montreux. One of her
duties was cleaning Nabokov's suite, where he lived with his wife, a white-
haired woman of regal bearing and a generous tipper. Peter's sister had
told him that the author was notorious among the cleaning staff for
doodling on the wallpaper beside the bathtub, of which he made daily use. I
smiled musingly.

Our conversation continued over tea that afternoon. It was, I think,
evident to Peter that I envied his sister's access to the author I revered
above all others. Already the seeds of a plan were taking root in my head.
>From an interview with Nabokov I had seen on French TV, I knew that he
wrote at a lectern in his room and that his preferred writing paper
consisted of specially made note cards which were then numbered, sorted,
and lovingly filed in boxes--tantalizing treasure troves of unpublished
genius. "Look at the Harlequins" had been published the previous year.
Surely the master was already at work on a new masterpiece.

After a good deal of wheedling on my part and two gifts which amounted
to bribes, Peter agreed to approach his sister with my proposal. The urge
to catch a glimpse of the author's work in progress was overpowering. I
therefore suggested that Peter's sister, whom I'll call Gisette, make use
of her access to Nabokov's rooms to photograph the cards of his new novel
using a small camera I would provide. Gisette, an honest girl, balked. I
insisted to Peter that I be permitted to see her face to face. He agreed.
On a rainy Friday in September we met at a cafe in Lausanne. Gisette turned
out to be somewhat mannish, but, like Joan of Arc, "belle et bien formee".
Lucky for me, her naturally strong sense of right was not unmixed with a
certain taste for adventure. I assured her, in a marathon performance aided
in its vociferousness by half a dozen cups of espresso, that my interest in
the great man's book was purely aesthetic and purely personal, that I had
no intention of showing the film to anyone and that I would destroy the
negatives once I had drunk my fill of the sweet wine of his virgin prose,
as yet unsullied by eyes other than his and my own. Her inclination to do
everything in her power to please her friends played in my favor, and she
agreed, regarding me with a quizzical expression and shining eyes.

Over the next few weeks the plan was put into practice. I took a hotel
room in Geneva and commuted by train to Montreux whenever Gisette
telephoned for a meeting. I had planned at first for the photographing to
be carried out weekly during each cleaning session. But the Nabokovs were
underfoot and Gisette felt herself surveilled by her scrubbing and dusting
and vacuuming colleagues. In early October, chance blessed us with an
opportunity not to be missed. Nabkkov left for Bex to hunt bugs and Madame
was in Monza, and two of Gisette's co-workers were out with the flu. She
found herself alone in the slient suite. She managed to shoot a roll of
film, but her nervousness and inexperience, and the insufficient lighting
combined to render the results pratically illegible. On the blurred prints
I could make out only one word, the name "Laura", as if through a glass,

Under my watchful eye, Gisette practiced with another roll of film on
a set of cards I had manufactured myself. I tried my best, in my hotel
room, to reproduce the conditions of space and light of the Nabokovs'
palace suite. The results were not perfect, but encouraging. A few more
practice runs, interrupted by events of a more prosaic nature, and we had
only to wait for fate to hand us once more the opportunity to pluck the
fruit that hung so maddeningly, so palpably, within our reach.

In mid-December, the Nabokovs left for the south of France. The hotel
was less busy than usual, many of the staff had left town for the slow
month, and once again Gisette found herself alone standing before a lectern
supporting a shoe-box of priceless cards. Following my oft-repeated
instructions, she shot four rolls of film, capturing four cards per frame
for a total of 576 cards, nearly the entire manuscript as it existed at
that time. The process took almost three hours. When she was later passed
in the corridor by her supervisor, he assumed she had cleaned with added
diligence to impress the esteemed guests upon their return. The poor girl
looked worn out.

When I received her call, I was lying on the bed fully dressed smoking
a cigarillo. As soon as I heard the news my heart began palpitating. I
extinguished the cigarillo only to light another as I dressed. I was in
Montreux less than 90 minutes later. Gisette met me at the station in a get
-up which made me think of Wuthering Heights. I think she expected
something more, but I only clutched at the four cannisters she offered and
jumped the first train back to Geneva, hollering my thank yous as the train
moved off. I heard "Je t'en supplie!" in a voice choked with emotion and
turned in the vestibule to face her imploring look dissolving in a wash of
tears behind the oblong window. Poor Gisette!

In Geneva I had the film developed by a friend. He supplied me with
the negatives and a single set of prints. The negatives I immediately
deposited in a safe deposit box in a dependably discrete bank. Then I fled
to Paris with the prints.

Due to a set of circumstances I need not divulge here, I felt safer
leaving the prints with a friend in Neuilly-sur-Seine with instructions to
mail them to me by insured air-post in three days after my departure for
the United States. When the expected parcel failed to materialize, I
telephoned France, and in one of those nightmarish international phone
fiascoes, was told that the number I was trying to reach did not exist. My
acquaintance, it seems, had vanished. My outrage and acute sense of loss
was soon after replaced by an infinitely greater sense of loss when news
reached me of Nabokov's death in July of 1977. At that point my lost
treasure seemed unimportant and, frankly, in bad taste.

Then, out of the blue, nearly seventeen years later, I received a
package yesterday postmarked Courmes containing what appears to be the
original set of prints and a hand-written note in semi-literate French. I
translate literally:
Found among the papers of Jean L., recently deceased. Returned to
their owner by X, executor.

Working from the photographs of the manuscript, I have reconstituted
what I believe to be the first three chapters of Nabokov's last book,
Original of Laura. The text, along with my notes and commentary, is to be
published soon by a Canadian journal. If any of NABOKV-L's subscribers
would be interested in an advance peek at the text, please e-mail me
personally or post your questions to the list. I will respnd promptly to
all queries.

Jeff Edmunds