Thursday, November 19, 2009

Thoughts Before Reading Nabokov's "The Original of Laura"

I’m holding in my hands the first edition of Nabokov’s Original of Laura, the author’s unfinished novel that, according to his last wishes, was to be destroyed and never published. Nabokov’s wife, Vera, could not bring herself to destroy the work, and following years of public indecision, Nabokov’s son and literary executor, Dmitri, found a publisher in Knopf.

That the work should have been destroyed raises a number of questions. Should Dmitri have followed his father’s instructions out of a sense of filial duty and respect? Did Nabokov wish the manuscript destroyed because it was unfinished, or because it was, in his mind, inferior to his other work? Or was it some other reason, one which we’ll never know?

As readers and critics, is it important to have access to this work? Will it cast light on Nabokov’s oeuvre; will it reveal something new about his writing and his writing process? Or does it just appeal to our sense of completeness, or to our desire to have as much as we can of a writer’s work? Is this selfishness more important than the writer’s final wishes?

Max Brod thought so, when he published Kafka’s work after his friend’s death and against his explicit wishes. Dmitri Nabokov thinks so – or perhaps it was, though he’d never admit it, money, fame, and power that drove his decision to publish. Many posthumous novels litter the shelves at bookstores; not all are good, not all are critically important, and not all enhanced our understanding of that writer’s career. But literary executors, agents, editors, and readers all salivate at the prospect of the unfinished masterpiece interrupted by death, the final words of a literary hero.

Dmitri Nabokov could have published The Original of Laura years ago; desire for money and fame are not the reasons this book is appearing now. In his introduction, he marginalizes those who can’t believe “that a doomed artist might decide to destroy a work of his, whatever the reason, rather than allow it to outlive him.” I agree; Nabokov had his reasons, however inscrutable. He worked on the manuscript right until his death, obviously caring for it and hoping to complete it. He once tried to burn a draft of Lolita – clearly, Nabokov was an artist who wasn’t satisfied with less than his best.

In 2666, Roberto Bolano describes how the fictional and reclusive author Archimboldi enjoys a popularity that owes greatly to his reclusiveness. It is, indeed, unknown as to whether the author is even still alive. Bolano writes that authors often win attention after their death, particularly in America – a prescient thought foreshadowing his own critical reception and popularity in this country following his passing. But Bolano’s are finished novels, published in his lifetime in Europe and South America, and Bolano was popular before he died.

All these thoughts are immaterial. I’m holding in my hands the first edition of Nabokov’s Original of Laura, the unfinished novel that wasn’t destroyed. Now the question is: what to do with it?

Knopf skirted some of the controversy (admittedly, a narrow controversy confined to literary and publishing circles) by producing a spectacularly beautiful book. The Original of Laura is Nabokov’s own title, appearing on the first of the many numbered note cards that constitute the text. These note cards are replicated in the published book – the pages are cardstock, with each note card perforated at the top of the page and a text transcription below it. The reader, if they wanted to, could punch out each card and hold in their hand a copy of the novel exactly as Nabokov left it.

The note cards themselves reproduce the author’s handwriting, his edits, his scratch-outs and erasures, his questions and quotes, notes and insertions, all the things that make a draft a draft. He leaves words out, adds them, misspells them, makes lists. Sometimes Nabokov writes precisely and purposefully, and his pencil is dark and flows across the thin blue lines. Sometimes, his handwriting seems hurried and sloppy, or seeking direction as it floats across the cards. He writes in both sure cursive and steady print. For a serious Nabokov fan or scholar, this is intense stuff.

I am not a serious Nabokov fan. I respect the hell out of him, for his talents and skill, for his imagination and daring, for his intelligence and craftsmanship. But he’s not one of my favorite writers, perhaps because, despite all his powers as a writer, I find his reputation outweighs the joy I look for when reading a novel.

I’ve read Pale Fire, which describes the slow writing of a 999-line poem on sequential note cards. I didn’t finish Lolita, but that says more about my ambition as an 18 or 19 reader not quite ready to tackle Nabokov’s prose. When I say I look for joy in a novel, I only mean pleasure – is what I’m reading something that I enjoy reading, something that I find pleasurable? My readings of Nabokov have been both stimulating and intellectually challenging, but I didn’t race home from work to read the next chapter; I didn’t bring it with me to work read on my breaks; I didn’t talk endlessly about the books to my friends. Great books? Yes. Emotionally gripping? No.

But that’s my reading of Nabokov: highly intelligent and incredibly well-written, linguistically dazzling and brilliantly layered, but not the sort of thing that made me angry, or weep, or cry, or laugh, or walk around in a daze while trying to sort out how the book made me feel. Others are free to disagree – many will disagree, especially those who’ve read far more Nabokov than I.

So what to do with The Original of Laura? It can’t be unpublished. It will be read. I could take a stand of some sort and not read it as a way of honoring Nabokov’s wishes – but that would just betray my intellectual curiosity. And to me, intellectual curiosity is everything Nabokov stood for. I said that the Knopf edition is beautiful; beneath the dust jacket, on the book itself, is a reproduction of one of Nabokov's note cards that reads "efface expunge erase delete rub out wipe out obliterate." That was the intended fate of this novel. It didn't happen. Dmitri Nabokov finally opened his father’s box of index cards, and for years after, was haunted by the story they contained. That story is ready to be told. I’m holding in my hands the first edition of Nabokov’s “Original of Laura,” the author’s unfinished novel that, according to his last wishes, was to be destroyed and never published. And I’m going to read it.

1 comment:

  1. I think the whole dust-up over this publication has been quite a bit of fun, the occasion for some very interesting discussions about topics that one generally only encounters after the bell rings in a college lit course and on into smoky hazy dorm room deliberations. I heard a one-hour radio show about it, featuring some noted Nabokovian scholars, obviously tickled pink by their moment of propinquity to Current Events.

    And it is a thorny issue, the "dying wishes" thing. As a reader of literature and ardent admirer of genius, I can sympathize with the desire to have that last fragment, that final and nonrenewable resource of real art. But I say this as a general consideration, with the important proviso that circumstances vary.

    This whole situation just rubs me the wrong way, I guess. Son Dmitri certainly goes to lengths to explain his motivations and reasons, but they sound a hollow ring to my ear. If not dishonest, his apologia seems at least disingenuous in parts and unbecomingly defensive in others. The part where he denounces his critics as "lesser minds" or somesuch really sounded bad, given his rather controversial position.

    He even evokes the Max Brod comparison himself. But I just don't see how it fits. With Kafka, we're talking about nearly his entire literary corpus that had remained unpublished, due largely to the author's crippling self-doubt. Of all the things I've heard ascribed to haughty Mr. Nabokov, self-doubt or particularly exhausting self-criticism have never been among the lot. Plus, from what I gather, 'The Original of Laura' is not 'The Castle,' 'The Trial,' or any of Kafka's posthumous stories.

    Which brings me to the part where, as a writer, I cannot imagine a more infuriating outcome. As you note, the presentation is one that the readers see's the hero's hand, sees his scribbles and outtakes. Yet these were not meant to be seen. I have a hard time imagining the fury that would beset me if someone nabbed a rough notebook of mine and published against my express wishes, to be considered for all time as fodder for judgment and criticism.

    So, yeah, on this one I have to vote 'Nay.' But I have no problem reading Kafka, indeed I am forever grateful to Mr. Brod for my ability to do so. And, come next summer, I'll eagerly purchase the posthumously published fragment of the novel that David Foster Wallace was working on when he died. Because, all sources seem to indicate that he organized and arranged the thing, knowing there would be interest, and in at least tacit acceptance. Nothing of the sort can be predicated of vain Dmitri's choice.

    Aside: I'm with you when you say that Nabokov tends to dazzle, but generally fails to enthrall. One notable exception, I think, is the poem element of 'Pale Fire', which I find to be very moving and beautiful. Of course, Vlad pretty much wrote it to set up the erudite and enigmatic language-games of the second part of the book, which I found much less compelling. So it goes.

    It's also funny, and probably fitting in some cosmic sense, that 'Pale Fire' itself is about the contentious publication of a stack of notecards on which is composed a late-period supposed masterpiece by a deceased literary titan. That his own final scribblings imitated that fiction might have struck the man as funny regardless of the disobedience involved. But, then again, an irony that succinct probably would have seemed far too pat and condescending for his esteemed sensibilities.