Vladimir Nabokov wanted The Original of Laura manuscript – written on 138 index cards – burnt. But how binding are authors' deathbed decrees?
What posthumous control should an author retain over his or her work? This old question goes back to Virgil, who asked that the unfinished Aeneid should be destroyed on his decease. (It was the emperor Augustus who intervened to save it for posterity.)
The issue cropped up again when Kafka asked his friend, Max Brod, to burn a collection of manuscripts, which happened to include the novels we know as The Trial and The Castle, after his death. Fortunately, Brod found reasons to ignore the request.
This subject will recur once more in the next few days when Penguin Classics (and Knopf in the US) publish a facsimile edition of The Original of Laura, Vladimir Nabokov's unfinished 18th novel, a manuscript (on 138 index cards) which he stipulated should be destroyed after his death.
Related to this, and far more trivial, is the control Roald Dahl sought to exert over the exploitation of his children's books. For instance, he opposed any Americanisation of his work, and would doubtless have had a fit if he could have seen Wes Anderson's adaptation of Fantastic Mr Fox.
Anyway, there's a ziggurat of comment towering over the question of authorial intentions. In Nabokov's case, the question is complicated by his genius. For many people the author of Pale Fire (1962) and Lolita (1955) is one of – perhaps the sole – literary giants of the 20th century. Everything he wrote is somehow sacred.
When this subject was last aired in the British press, there were two points of view. Tom Stoppard said, unsentimentally, that, "It's perfectly straightforward: Nabokov wanted it burnt, so burn it." John Banville, in disagreement, wrote that, "The question of whether or not to follow an author's wishes regarding the fate of his work after his death is a difficult and painful one."
Between these two poles of opinion, any number of comments have ensued from readers "conflicted", as some have put it, by Nabokov's deathbed injunction.
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