Vladimir Nabokov wanted his final novel destroyed after his death.
The posthumous publication of Nabokov’s highly original dream
By Jeff Simon
ARTS AND BOOKS EDITOR
Updated: November 10, 2009, 9:16 AM
It’s the literary story of 2009. But it begins almost 60 years ago with the most famous Conflagration That Never Was in American literature.
Vladimir Nabokov, in private writerly despair, was on his way to the incinerator a couple of times with the manuscript of “Lolita.” At least once, he was stopped on the way by his wife, Vera.
She simply refused to let her husband consign the book—now among the most revered novels of the 20th century—to the ash heap.
The Original of Laura By Vladimir Nabokov Knopf; 288 pages; $35 (on sale next week)
Nor was Vera Nabokov the only woman at the time who understood, long before anyone else, how great a masterwork “Lolita” would prove to be. Nabokov’s friend Edmund Wilson refused to read the novel’s second half, pronouncing it by far the worst book Nabokov had yet written. It was only after Wilson’s wife, Elena, stoutly disagreed and called it an original and very great novel indeed that her husband relented and acquiesced to his friend’s request that he read the whole book before condemning.
Though there are still moralists who decry the novel because of its subject matter, “Lolita” is, in the world of literature, almost unanimously admired as one of the great achievements of the 20th century.
And now it is Vera Nabokov, once again, who has proved to be the major rescuer of her husband’s work. When Vladimir Nabokov died in 1977, he requested that the novel he was working on—“The Original of Laura”— be consigned to the incinerator, just as he once wanted “Lolita” to be.
She refused, just as Franz Kafka’s friend and literary executor, Max Brod, refused to destroy’s his friend’s life work after his death, even after being “instructed” to do so (which is the only reason why the world now knows and reads Kafka’s “Metamorphosis,” “The Trial” and “The Castle”).
Vera Nabokov’s death in 1991 left their son, Dimitri—musician, singer, frequent translator of his father’s early work in Russian—in possession of his father’s final manuscript, quite literally written in part on Nabokov’s deathbed.
And now, 32 years after his father’s death, Dimitri—now 75—is publishing the wildly original “The Original of Laura” in one of the most unusual posthumous editions anyone has ever seen.
Once Russian emigre Vladimir came to America to teach and write in the English language, he wrote his major works on index cards.
In the published version of “The Original of Laura”—macabrely subtitled “Dying Is Fun” by the failing writer —all Nabokov’s index cards are reproduced on heavy, near-cardboard pages but are detachable from each page. In
that way, says Nabokov fils, the reader can shuffle and reshuffle the narrative line just as his father would have in the process of composition. Underneath each reproduction of an index card, the author’s handwriting is deciphered.
No literary executor that I know of has ever gone to such ground-breaking extremes to reproduce with complete exactitude what was left of a manuscript at an author’s death.
Dimitri has done what he can as an editor, he seems to say, and now it is the reader who must deal with the work as the writer did.
Dimitri is right. This is no ordinary manuscript.
The question of what heirs should do with a great artist’s work has been vexing for centuries. Preservation, wisely, has proven to be the rule, not the exception. All you need is one “Unfinished” Symphony by Franz Schubert — arguably his greatest work in the form, though only two movements long — and you have all the proof you will ever need that posterity’s claims outweigh an author’s vagrant wishes and haphazard output.
Dimitri Nabokov, then, has been as scrupulous as humanly possible about just what it is of his father’s that he is presenting to the world. And that is nothing close to what his father would have presented.
Vladimir Nabokov, in life, was the most imperious and exacting of writers. He was not a man to welcome even the suggestion of syntactical alternative or transplanted comma in his work. Let the Thomas Wolfes and Joseph Hellers of this world drop disorderly ghosts of manuscripts on masterly editors with the obvious need for them to find the finished work within. Vladimir Nabokov wasn’t just the omnipotent emperor of his artistic world, he was, Roman-style, its deity, too.
So “The Original of Laura” is an astonishingly accurate representation of a genius’ shards —the contents of 138 handwritten index cards. But, my God, what shards these are.
What devotee of Nabokov, much less mere reader, could possibly regret Dimitri Nabokov’s decision to give us this gift?
Not only did he have his father’s index cards but the memory of his father’s verbal pronouncements about his intentions. There’s no one we could possibly trust more to shore up a ruin with fragments.
What we have is a novelistic genius’ fever dream — one of the great literary talents of his century aswirl with ideas and last thoughts.
The novel’s heroine, Flora — the original of a famous fictional character named Laura—is a sexual adventuress we meet at the age of 24 spreading out her fur coat on a dubious hotel room bed to consummate an afternoon frolic with a man instantly rejected afterward.
As was his delight in later years, Nabokov brings back his fictional characters for curtain calls. “Lolita’s” monster/seducer/ murderer Humbert Humbert, for instance, becomes in a flashback Flora’s mother’s suitor “Hubert H. Hubert,” who tells Flora “sad stories about his sad life . . . about his daughter who was just like her, same age — 12 — same eyelashes” when she was “crushed to death by a backing lorry on a country road — shortcut home from school.”
Flora’s husband, rich and famous we’re told, and a world-renowned scientist, is named Philip Wild.
Just as his novelistic creator is on his deathbed, Wild in extremis has become — in classic, Nabokovian arrogance — a man who has invented a technique of “auto dissolution” whereby he can imagine his own death in ecstatic piecemeal. That’s where the novel’s black comic subtitle — “Dying Is Fun” — comes from.
To know that a dying literary genius has invented this wild danse macabre on the brink of his own extinction is itself beautifully hallucinogenic.
Nabokov incarnates himself all through the book, from scientist to “stodgy old Basque” tennis coach.
Where Vera and Dimitri’s rescue from oblivion becomes an act of salvation, though, is in preserving this one last virtuoso piece by a writer who had been “trilingual” his entire life (he was, in his native Russia, steeped in French and, especially, English literature).
Among the reasons his fellow writers, almost without exception, genuflected toward the late-life Swiss resident Gore Vidal memorably called “the Black Swan of Lac Leman” is that no one else was capable of such writing.
To get the time, Flora “consulted the onyx eye on her wrist.” Photographers moving among the crowd on a ceremonial occasion are “specters doing a spectral job.” A scientist’s rivals are imagined clapping their “claws” in triumph “like crabs in boiling water.”
Here is a great literary genius’ final unfinished phantasmagoria presented — against his express wishes — with a son’s knowledge of how very much the current literary world needs it.