Nabokov's unfinished work provides a glimpse ...
The Original of Laura
REVIEWED BY ANDREW RIEMER
December 9, 2009
While it's hardly a masterpiece, Vladimir Nabokov's unfinished work provides a glimpse into his painful final days.
By Vladimir Nabokov, edited by Dmitri Nabokov - Penguin, 278pp, $55
DON'T be misled by the size of this sumptuous book. You'll need less than three hours to read it from cover to cover, and even then you'll be reading most of it twice.
In the two years before his death in 1977, Vladimir Nabokov was working on a new novel, sketching bits and pieces, including a few short sections marked as chapters, on ruled index cards, writing (mostly in pencil) on one side of the card only. He had been in poor health, his son Dmitri writes in his introduction, ever since an undignified fall in 1975 while chasing butterflies at the Swiss alpine resort of Davos. He pressed on nevertheless, working on his cards, arranging and shuffling them, deleting some phrases, adding others.
In 1977 his health took a turn for the worse. While undergoing a “banal operation”, he contracted an infection that left him debilitated. He persisted with his cards, however, even during his last days in hospital, where he died after a nurse with a cold (who had also left a window open) gave him a bronchial infection. “Little was said of the exact causes of his malady,” Dmitri Nabokov writes. “The death of the great man was veiled in embarrassed silence.” Some years later, when he “wanted to pin things down” for “biographical purposes”, he was denied all access to his father's medical files.
During the last weeks of Nabokov's life, according to his son, the writer gave specific instructions that the cards must be destroyed if he were to die before completing at least a first draft. Those instructions were ignored. The cards stayed in their box. Now, long after the deaths of both his parents, Dmitri Nabokov has decided to publish those fragments of The Original of Laura, “an embryonic masterpiece”.
The original of Laura – Laura is a character in a novel – is a woman called Flora, the granddaughter of a Russian painter of bad genre paintings and the daughter of a ballet dancer. In the fragments Nabokov marked as the second and third chapters (occupying 25 index cards), we learn about Flora's early life, including her near-seduction when she was an adolescent by a wine merchant with bad breath called Hubert H. Hubert.
In Chapters 4 and 5 (nine cards), Flora meets Dr Philip Wild, “a brilliant neurologist . . . of independent means” who “had everything save an attractive exterior”. Flora marries him for his wealth and promptly sets out on a succession of torrid affairs – as we learn from an enigmatic first chapter (20 cards) and from other snippets among Nabokov's jottings.
One of Flora's lovers writes a novel about their affair, turning her into Laura and Philip Wild into Philidor Sauvage – get it? There's not much information about that novel, Laura, among Nabokov's cards except for a sequence of three marked “Final” in which Flora learns – on the railway station of a Swiss town called Sex – that she has been given “a wonderful death”, a death that will make her “scream with laughter”. Nabokov may have had Dying Is Fun in mind as an alternative title for The Original of Laura.
Understandably, Dmitri Nabokov believes that the fragments he and his mother failed to destroy would have turned into a masterpiece had his father lived long enough to complete the work. On the evidence of what has survived that is doubtful. The bulk of this material seems little different from Nabokov's last published works: Last Things, Look at the Harlequins! and even the longer and much more intricate Ada. The baroque turns of phrase, the puns and the language games are still there, but – like the final works – The Original of Laura lacks the verve and extravagance of Nabokov's three masterpieces: Pnin, Lolita and Pale Fire.
For all that, one set of cards contains extraordinary and extraordinarily disturbing material. In these the fat, ungainly Philip Wild imagines how he can mentally obliterate himself, making his toes and fingers drop off for instance, by concentration and effort of will. These cards were written, it seems, during Nabokov's last days in hospital, when he was suffering excruciating pain in his toes, a torture made all the worse by the nursing staff's heavy-handed attempts at pedicure.
These cards – where Nabokov's characteristically neat and precise handwriting deteriorates into a scrawl – contain a darkly ambiguous account of self-annihilation, suicide through the imagination. Some of Dmitri Nabokov's shadowy statements in the introduction carry troubling hints about the last weeks of his father's life. These few cards were the reason, I suspect, why Nabokov wanted all of them to be destroyed.
As it turns out, they were not destroyed, and here they are published in a large, beautifully designed and expensive volume. Inevitably, Dmitri Nabokov cites Max Brod's refusal to destroy his friend Franz Kafka's manuscripts after Kafka's untimely death. There is a difference, nevertheless. Whatever the ethical implications of his actions, Brod gave the world two substantial texts, The Trial and The Castle, seminal works of 20th-century literature. The Original of Laura, both in significance and extent, represents something quite different: an interesting footnote to the large body of Nabokov's published writings – in Kafka's case only a few short works were published in his lifetime.
How to present this skimpy material must have provided a few headaches for the publishers. The solution they came up with is astonishingly extravagant. Each card is reproduced in exact facsimile on the top half of a page. The text – sometimes only a line or two – is printed underneath. Because Nabokov wrote on only one side of his cards, the left side of almost every opening of this volume (the verso page in bibliographical parlance) is blank – though occasionally there is a smudge or a large “X”.
Most of the book is printed on cardboard. The facsimile of each card is surrounded by perforations. A note advises that you can remove the cards and shuffle them, as Nabokov used to do. I am not sure why anyone would want to do that but you can never tell. Perhaps they could come in handy as a Christmas party game.
Andrew Riemer is the Herald's chief book reviewer.
Source: The Sydney Morning Herald
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