Even by the standards of genius, Vladimir Nabokov's work habits were odd. He wrote much of Lolita in the backseat of the family car, a black 1946 Oldsmobile. (He said it was the only spot in America where he wasn't plagued by noise and drafts.) He didn't use regular paper. Instead he wrote in pencil on index cards, which his wife Vera later typed up for him.
Nabokov spent his last years in a grand hotel in Montreux, Switzerland--after Lolita he could afford it--working on a novel called The Original of Laura. But he died before he could finish it, leaving behind a box of 138 index cards that he instructed Vera to destroy. This she did not do.
Neither did his son Dmitri. Now Dmitri Nabokov has published The Original of Laura (Knopf; 278 pages)--what there is of it--in an elegant edition, priced at $35, that reproduces each index card on a single page. "Nabokov intended to win his 100-card dash against death but, given the course of events, could not foresee the exact form in which the book would ultimately appear," Dmitri explains in a written interview with TIME. "He was sure, however, that it would appear. He had been working on the novel since 1974 and, when asked in 1976 what three favorite books he was reading and would want to keep, he listed a new translation of Dante's Inferno, a volume on North American butterflies and The Original of Laura ... Those are not the words of an author who intends to have that novel burned."
The Original of Laura is a fragment, or a collection of fragments--"the novel was probably half or one-third 'written' in the strictly technical sense," Dmitri says. It is not a series of consecutive chapters. Nabokov liked to attack his subjects on multiple fronts, from all directions, an approach facilitated by his use of index cards. The book begins at a party attended by a woman named Flora. Her husband is not present, and she slips away to an absentminded tryst with a lover, which Nabokov renders delicately but unsentimentally: "That first surrender of hers was a little sudden, if not downright unnerving. A pause for some light caresses, concealed embarrassment, feigned amusement, prefactory contemplation."
We meet, in due course, the deceived husband as well: "A brilliant neurologist, a renowned lecturer [and] a gentleman of independent means, Dr. Philip Wild had everything save an attractive exterior." Philip is older, eccentric and miserly, and he's less interested in Flora than in a bizarre experiment he's conducting on himself. As he feels his aging flesh deteriorating, he develops the habit of entering a trance wherein he pictures his body and then mentally erases portions of it; he begins with his toes, which instantly become numb. By this means, he imagines that he is bringing about his own death, piecemeal--seizing control of it and turning it into a volitional act, even an enjoyable one. "The process of dying by auto-dissolution affords the greatest ecstasy known to man," he tells us. The subtitle of The Original of Laura is Dying Is Fun.
For readers who are devoted to Nabokov (I'm one), The Original of Laura affords its own ecstasies. It comes at you as a reprieve, a final appearance from an old friend you thought was already gone for good. It's a shambles, a heap of shards, but they're Nabokov's shards and no one else's: the "nasty compassion" the partygoers direct at a drunken Flora; the "alien creams" Flora spots in someone else's bathroom (recalling the "solemn pool of alien urine" deposited by Mr. Taxovich in another bathroom in Lolita); the playful half-rhyme of belie and belly; the perhaps overly wink-winky inclusion of a pedophile named Mr. Hubert H. Hubert; and one lost, evocative phrase off by itself in the upper margin of a card, without a context--"the orange awnings of southern summers."
Flora's surrender to lazy, loveless sexual pleasure and Philip's intensely strange abdication of bodily life together make, or would have made, The Original of Laura a melancholy meditation on our fleshly predicament. And what else? The novel's title refers to a novel-within-a-novel called My Laura, about a character based on Flora. This in turn rhymes with Aurora, the name of an early love of Philip's whom Flora physically resembles, creating a chain of resemblances and echoes that leads us ... where?
We'll never know. The Original of Laura is a beautiful ruin, like the Venus de Milo, not a novel. To pretend otherwise is wishful thinking, no different from Philip's belief that he can master death. At some moments the book seems to anticipate its shattered future--Nabokov compares Flora to "an unwritten, half-written, rewritten difficult book." That's part of her appeal and, oddly, part of Laura's too. You admire what you can see, and you dream about what might have been.