NABOKV-L post 0018694, Wed, 21 Oct 2009 19:39:03 -0400

The puritanical will condemn Dmitri for defying his dad. But the
rest of us should thank him. ...

Coming soon: the novel Nabokov wanted destroyed

Next month Nabokov's last novel will be published - despite the fact that he never wanted it to see the light of day

Blake Morrison
The Guardian, Thursday 22 October 2009

Vladimir Nabokov and his wife, Vera in Switzerland in 1967 Photograph: Horst Tappe/Getty Images

In October 1976, asked to nominate three books he had recently been reading, Nabokov chose a new translation of Dante's Inferno, an illustrated guide to North American butterflies and a book of his own, "the not-quite-finished manuscript of a novel". He had recently been ill, and, in his delirium, kept reading the novel aloud to a small dream audience consisting of "peacocks, pigeons, my long dead parents, two cypresses, several young nurses crouching around, and a family doctor so old as to be almost invisible".

On 17 November 2009, that novel, The Original of Laura, will reach a less hallucinatory audience, when it's published for the first time. Nabokov never finished it, and on his deathbed asked his wife Vera to destroy it. She didn't do so; nor after her death did her son, Dmitri. A stern keeper of the paternal flame, Dmitri is no opportunist. But after 30 years and much agonizing, he has retrieved the book from a Swiss vault for worldwide publication, on the grounds that Nabokov thought it one of his three most important works and would not have wanted it "to burn like a latter-day Jeanne d'Arc".

Lolita, too, only narrowly escaped incineration. But it was complete, whereas The Original of Laura has been assembled from 138 index cards. In the Penguin edition, the index cards – showing the author's scribbles, along with thumbprints and food stains – will be included above the text; they're perforated, so readers can detach them. It's a fascinating piece of book-making, and anyone who admires Nabokov will want to have it. But parts of it are only skeletal. And its very existence goes against his wishes.

Should authors be listened to when they ask others to destroy their manuscripts? Surely not. If Max Brod had listened to his friend Franz Kafka, The Castle and The Trial would have been lost – as Philip Larkin's diaries were, when his girlfriend Monica Jones did as he asked and had them shredded. Deathbed requests are often ambivalent or half-hearted. When authors care that much, they make sure to do the job themselves – such as Thomas Hardy, who consigned countless papers to the flames.

The puritanical will condemn Dmitri for defying his dad. But the rest of us should thank him. Next year Nabokov's back-list will be reissued; new readers will discover him, and old ones re-read him in new ways. That's something to celebrate, irrespective of whether Laura is any good.

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