NABOKV-L post 0020219, Mon, 21 Jun 2010 06:49:24 -0400

Dmitri Nab okov’s edi tion of La ura ...

Листья Флоры: о неоконченном романе Набокова

By Анна Разумная

Июн. 19, 2010 | 03:21 am
location: Москва

The Leaves of “FLaura”: The ripe time to say good-bye

Vladimir Nabokov, The Original of Laura: Dying is Fun. Knopf, 2009.

Thus life has been an endless line of land
receding endlessly… And so that's that,
you say under your breath, and wave your hand,
and then your handkerchief, and then your hat.

—Vladimir Nabokov, “Softest of Tongues” (1941)

The Original of Laura, released during the holiday season of last year by Knopf, is Vladimir Nabokov’s latest previously unpublished prose work to descend upon the market. One is wary of saying “last” rather than “latest,” as Nabokov’s Butterflies, a collection published a decade ago by Beacon Press, was similarly trumped up to be “the last important unpublished fiction by Nabokov.” Dmitri Nabokov, the writer’s son, translated the Russian texts for Nabokov’s Butterflies. He now figures as the editor of his father’s unfinished and deeply incomplete final novel. There is much that needs justifying about the genesis of this edition, and Knopf’s design of the book as an at once commemorative and interactive objet (printed on card stock, whose bulk actually highlights the scarcity of textual matter) is as self-serving as Dmitri Nabokov’s introduction, which begins in media res with a brazen captatio benevolentiae:

As a tepid spring settled on lakeside Switzerland in 1977, I was called from abroad to my father’s bedside in a Lausanne clinic.

Nabokov fils goes on to describe his “intervention” in the face of the Swiss doctors’ ineptitude, his “immediate arrangement” of a hospital transfer, and his other feats of efficacy, ultimately futile. All this in a tone that one has to understand, for lack of other plausible interpretation, as triumphant. With the same cruel pomp masquerading as filial respect, he memorializes a humiliating moment that signaled the beginning of Nabokov’s deterioration:

My father had fallen on a hill in Davos while pursuing his beloved pastime of entomology, and had gotten stuck in an awkward position on the steep slope as cabin-carloads of tourists responded with guffaws, misinterpreting as a holiday prank the cries for help and waves of a butterfly net. Officialdom can be ruthless; he was subsequently reprimanded by the hotel staff for stumbling back into the lobby, supported by two bellhops, with his shorts in disarray.

Dmitri Nabokov is eager to dispel the “embarrassed silence” around this incident as well as around other stages of his father’s decline, as if such silence could not possibly be protective. His mannered description of Nabokov’s death—“My mother and I sat near him as, choking on the food I was urging him to consume, he succumbed, in three convulsive gasps, to congestive bronchitis,”—astonishes not only with its affectation but also with the parricidal relish of the moment. Against the background of Nabokov-father’s death, Dmitri Nabokov, the puer aeternus, fashions himself into the protagonist of a narrative meant to justify his defiance of Nabokov’s “express instructions that the manuscript of The Original of Laura be destroyed if he were to die without completing it.”

It is true that authorial will has been defied, and to great gains, in the case of Kafka, thanks to Max Brod, and of Housman, thanks to his faint-hearted brother, who, instead of properly burning Housman’s manuscripts, cut them up into tiny pieces and glued them, papier-mâché-style, to larger sheets of paper. (In a textual scholarship class, Housman editor Archie Burnett advised his students: “If you wish that your writings be destroyed, destroy them yourself—before you die.”) However, Dmitri Nabokov’s judgment to preserve and publish The Original of Laura as a popular edition lends itself but to trivial gains.

The unfinished novel, whose prose, prurient and unpruned, makes the sum of Nabokov’s output less, not more, impressive. Laura is no “maddening masterpiece” or a work nearly as achieved as Lolita—a novel whose rescue by Vera Nabokov is invoked by her son to defend his own publication of Laura. But these two acts of defiance of Nabokov’s urge to “efface, expunge, erase, delete, rub out, wipe out, obliterate” any traces of the preliminary, the incompletely-controlled and tell-tale in his work, are only superficially alike: whereas Vera Nabokov helped deliver into the world a fully-formed novel, Dmitri performed a similar operation on something quite unripe. Consequently Laura, an unfinished work of indisputable scholarly interest, is ill-suited for being published as a lavish gift edition. Likewise, it seems strange of its publisher to proffer it coyly as a kind of literary a game for grown-ups, since Laura is a book about dying—not in the manner of Lolita, as in Martin Amis’s clear-sighted synopsis:

…once the book begins, Humbert's childhood love Annabel dies, at thirteen (typhus), and his first wife Valeria dies (also in childbirth), and his second wife Charlotte dies ('a bad accident'—though of course this death is structural), and Charlotte's friend Jean Farlow dies at thirty-three (cancer), and Lolita's young seducer Charlie Holmes dies (Korea), and her old seducer Quilty dies (murder: another structural exit). And then Humbert dies (coronary thrombosis). And then Lolita dies. And her daughter dies.

Unlike Lolita, whose entire cast is wiped out as if by a plague, The Original of Laura ruminates on the gradual, self-willed bodily deterioration of a single character—its narrator. The concentration involved in this sustained meditation is familiar to anyone who ever found oneself slowly picking at the scab after scraping one’s knee. The novel’s other fixation—also physiological in kind—concerns the erotic escapades of the narrator’s wife, first conceived as “Flora” and occasionally referred to by the casually humid nickname “Flo.” “Flora” morphs—through the tentatively intermediate “FLaura”—into “Laura.” Described to be vengeful and insatiable, Laura is considered mostly in close-up—a lock of hair, a shoulder blade, a slipper at a time—and therefore in fragments. More a fantasy than a character, she is above all an author’s plaything, an element in Nabokov’s game of composition with its familiar clichés (birches, Cossacks, fruits and furs), puns (“Sex, a delightful Swiss resort famed for its crimson plums”), incongruities (the narrator’s claim of pretending “to slam down a marble paperweight” without actually performing the act), and grasping onomastic juggling, as in “the orange awnings of southern summers”. Reaching for awe, extorting a yawn.

The striking feature of Dmitri Nabokov’s edition of Laura is the wresting of authorial control, by a son, from a father whose deep obsession with control was manifest throughout his literary career, including this final unfinished novel. The Original Laura is a novel of willed self-obliteration; its publication is an obliteration of its author’s will to obliterate the incomplete novel, a filial cruelty perpetrated with feigned piety.

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