Nabokov’s final novel hits Russian stores. By Irina Titova The St. Petersburg Times Alexander Belenky / The St. Petersburg Times Vladimir Nabokov’s final, unfinished novel, ‘The Original of Laura’ has been published after much...
Nabokov’s final novel hits Russian stores.
By Irina Titova
The St. Petersburg Times
Alexander Belenky / The St. Petersburg Times
Vladimir Nabokov’s final, unfinished novel, ‘The Original of Laura’ has been published after much debate. Nabokov asked his family to burn the notes.
Vladimir Nabokov’s final, fragmentary novel went on sale Monday in two versions in Russia, more than 30 years after he asked that it be burned upon his death.
The emigre Russian wrote “The Original of Laura” on index cards from 1975 to 1977, the last years of his life.
He asked his wife and son to burn the cards after his death, said Tatyana Ponomaryova, director of the Nabokov museum in St. Petersburg, where the versions were presented on Monday.
One version contains reproductions of the 138 English-language index cards on which Nabokov wrote the draft, while the other, in Russian, puts the words into conventional text form.
In the U.S., where the book went on sale two weeks ago, the publisher allowed readers to put the index cards in the order of their choice, by perforating the images so that they can be removed and reassembled in any order.
The fragmentary book may be frustrating to many readers accustomed to the polished writing of Nabokov, whose novels, including “Lolita” and “Pale Fire,” are regarded as some of the best English prose ever written. But scholars at the presentation found it intriguing.
“Now we have a unique opportunity to play Nabokov as a Rubik’s Cube. That is, we can try to decide ourselves how the plot should go,” said Valery Timofeyev, a Nabokov expert at St. Petersburg State University.
“In fact, we now have a sample of the author’s laboratory, where all the stages of the writer’s work can be seen. It is great material for teaching philology students, too.”
“Today, when every word of Nabokov is worth its weight in gold, this book is like finding a treasure,” Russian writer Sergei Kibalnik said.
The book was published in the West in early November, and reviewers took note of its postmodernist conceits, in which the narrator tells of an affair with a young woman that later became the basis for a best-seller purportedly written by him.
“It’s not a novel. It’s a plot of a plot. But it is very interesting from that point of view,” said Boris Averin, a Russian literature historian at St. Petersburg State University.
The decision by Dmitry Nabokov to publish the book against his father’s wishes was controversial in literary circles, with many opposing the move.
Alexander Belenky / The St. Petersburg Times
Nabokov was still working on the manuscript when he died at 77, and had been in poor health for some time.
Ponomaryova said Nabokov did not leave any written will instructing his family to burn the draft, but asked his wife and son Dmitry to do so in conversation not long before he died, she said.
“However, it’s understandable that it was very hard for Dmitry to burn something written by the hand of his father. And I’m personally very glad that Nabokov’s son still decided to publish his father’s work. He did it now also because of his advanced age of 75,” Ponomaryova said.
Dmitry Nabokov wrote in his preface to the book that publication of the book was caused not “by his frivolity or to seek profit.”
“I think my father, or his shadow, would not be against giving Laura her freedom if [the draft] has already lived for so long,” he wrote.
Nabokov wrote the draft from December 1975 through the spring of 1977, the year in which he died. An early version of the novel had the title of “Dying Is Fun.”
The novel revolves around two characters: Promiscuous Flora and her obese husband, Dr. Philip Wild, “a brilliant neurologist, a renowned lecturer and a gentleman of independent means.” The readers learn that Flora has had lovers, and that in her childhood she was pursued by her stepfather, a Mr. Hubert H. Hubert.
“She was often alone in the house with Mr. Hubert, who constantly “prowled” around her, humming a monotonous tune and sort of mesmerizing her, enveloping her, so to speak in some sticky invisible substance and coming closer and closer no matter what way she turned,” Nabokov wrote in his notes.
“For instance, she did not dare to let her arms hang aimlessly lest her knuckles came into contact with some horrible part of that kindly but smelly and ‘pushing’ old male,” the author wrote.
However, the focus of the draft later switches to Wild, who is determined to kill himself. What he has in mind is a strange process of subtraction: He imagines himself as a kind of stick figure on a mental blackboard, then slowly erases parts of his body, starting with his toes. Dying, he imagines, will be fun, since “auto-dissolution afforded the greatest ecstasy known to man,” wrote James Marcus, an editor at the Columbia Journalism Review.
Nabokov was 77 years old and in failing health when he wrote the draft, so it is perhaps understandable that death seemed a more pressing theme to him than Flora’s sexual betrayal and metaphoric malleability. He was staring at the end of himself, wrote Marcus.
Nabokov and his family fled the chaos of the Russian Civil War, and he lived in Europe until moving to the United States in 1940.
He became an American citizen in 1945 but returned to Europe in 1961 after the great success of “Lolita,” settling in Montreux, Switzerland, where he died.