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The Original of Laura (Dying is Fun)
Author: Vladimir Nabokov
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
$35.00 Cloth (278 p.)
Reviewed by Sarah Yasin, e-Content Bibliographer
At the end of 2009, Vladimir Nabokov’s final and unfinished novel, The Original of Laura, was released to the world, despite the author’s wishes that it be destroyed. Like many writers, Nabokov had a method of laying out scenes on index cards so they could be shuffled around during the revision process. When he died in 1977, Nabokov requested that the index cards to his final novel be burned since they were unfinished. His family kept the cards in a lockbox at a Swiss bank, allegedly agonizing over the decision to follow his wishes or to disobey and share The Original of Laura, his unfinished work, with the world. The resulting book is one that is a pleasure for any kind of bibliophile: the index cards have been scanned and replicated, front and back, with the words typed out below them. Please note that there are two editions of this book: the regular and the library edition. One has perforated pages so the index card reproductions can actually be removed from the pages and shuffled around, and the other has no such perforations and cannot be altered.
Reading The Original of Laura is fascinating. Because we have the note cards we can almost see how Nabokov dashed down his thoughts, if that is not too much of a presumption; unfortunately, there is no time-stamping on the cards to show precisely how long it took Nabokov to get to the point of drafting scenes on these cards. Did he begin with a formal outline? Did he draw a mind-map and then transfer the ideas onto the cards? All we have are the cards themselves, so we may never know. I wonder if he ever shared his writing methods with any of his students. There is an introduction written by Nabokov’s son, Dmitri, but he makes no mention of whether there might have been more to the writing process. If there might have been something penned by the great Nabokov prior to writing the note cards, it is not divulged in the introduction of this book. I do not mean to trivialize the excitement I felt at the prospect of seeing this book, the handwriting of such a literary master, and the process by which he executed his craft. This book is one of the most mind-bending things I’ve had in my hands, but this is only because of its historical value, not because the story is a masterwork.
On one card a bed is described as “unfresh.” This shows the succinct nature of Nabokov’s writing since, to him, it must have meant something very particular in his polyglot mind. To anyone else, it could mean different things – an un-made bed, or a bed with dirty sheets from lack of washing, or a bed that has recently been soiled. As a reader, I want to know what this word was really supposed to mean. On page 48 there is an intricate love triangle laid out with great difficulty; many words are crossed out. It’s a difficult passage to read and one difficult to have written. It is remarkable to be able to see the card, especially when taking into account the process of longhand writing, which slows down the author and gives him time to think of what to write next. The story itself doesn’t flow together. Even with its separate parts numbered, there is a lot missing: chunks of action and even sentences are left unfinished. Despite its fragmentation, there are some glimmers of Nabokov’s brilliant craft and composition of the English Language.
It’s interesting to see the actions of Nabokov’s mind demonstrated by his words penned in other languages. Did he do this because he was in a hurry or because those words had the perfect etymological color of what he intended to express? I suspect he wanted to go back to the cards and later choose better words. In fact, on one of the cards, he even notes what a remarkable word choice he has made, as if finding that perfect word were a rarity at such an early stage of writing.
Nabokov had a tremendous gift of disguising depraved action in smooth and chaste writing, but the note cards are much more explicit than what he has proofed in his other writings like Lolita. At times there is vivid graphic horror and an openness about sexuality, which I can only imagine is there because it was intended to be edited at a later phase, or because literature had gone past the sexual revolution of the 1960s by this time and so had Nabokov’s smooth style passed itself.
Nicholson Baker recently said in the Wall Street Journal that many hours were spent on his latest novel, The Anthologist, in rearranging the story’s plot-timeline. I wonder how differently Nabokov and Baker might be in the revision phase. The index cards from The Original of Laura are certainly haphazard, even though most have some chronological markings. I’m pleased with Dmitri Nabokov’s choice to publish the note cards instead of editing the story, which was organized just enough that it might have been done as a bound narrative. The story is clearly unfinished, and being able to see the separate fragments is helpful in understanding and even speculating where certain pieces leave off. The literary world has much to discuss as it is without debating the finality of certain works (I’m thinking of Bolaño’s 2666 which to my mind is not finished, yet the children of the author decided to publish in book form with a post-script stating the book really was finished).
This book belongs in any library collection that has a focus on the discipline of creative writing.
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