In “The Or iginal of Laura” — f ragments o f a novel that Nabok ov left un finished . ..
Books of The Times
In a Sketchy Hall of Mirrors, Nabokov Jousts With Death and Reality
By MICHIKO KAKUTANI
Published: November 9, 2009
Given the shape of Vladimir Nabokov’s own life, it’s hardly surprising that death — and its cousin loss — permeated his fiction like a potent but noxious perfume.
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THE ORIGINAL OF LAURA
(Dying Is Fun)
By Vladimir Nabokov
Illustrated. Edited by Dmitri Nabokov. 278 pages. Alfred A. Knopf. $35.
Nabokov’s wealthy, aristocratic family was forced to flee Russia in the wake of the Revolution, and in 1922 his father, a liberal politician, was shot at a rally in Berlin, trying to protect another man from an assassin. The Nazis would later drive Nabokov and his wife and son from Europe to America, where they moved from sublet to sublet, motel to motel. Although he gave up his beloved Russian and reinvented himself as one of the great prose stylists of the English language, an exile’s detachment and nostalgia would always lurk beneath the surface of his playful, glittering prose, and a heightened awareness of mortality would create a powerful undertow in his novels and short stories.
Indeed, death comes to Nabokov characters with astonishing swiftness, variety and heartlessness. He famously dispatched the narrator’s mother in “Lolita” with a two-word parenthesis “(picnic, lightning)” and subjected other creations to death by fire, poison, ski jump, suicide, bus accident, strangulation, gunshot, assorted illnesses and firing squad.
In “The Original of Laura” — fragments of a novel that Nabokov left unfinished at his death and that his son, Dmitri, decided, after much agonizing, to publish against his father’s wishes — he imagines the death of his protagonist, a writer and neurologist named Philip, as a sort of Nietzschean act of will, as an exercise in self-erasure conducted body part by body part, beginning with his toes. It is the ultimate fantasy of a writer who wants to exert complete control over the narrative of his own life.
“The process of dying by auto-dissolution,” Philip asserts, “afforded the greatest ecstasy known to man.”
Philip’s grotesque story was sketched out by Nabokov on index cards, which, according to his son, he worked on “feverishly” during the last months of his life in a hospital in Lausanne, Switzerland; he left express instructions with his wife, Vera, that “Laura” should be burned if it remained unfinished at the time of his death.
Vera Nabokov (who had once saved “Lolita” from going up in smoke, when her husband became convinced that it would always remain a victim of incomprehension) failed to carry out this task, her procrastination due, her son writes, “to age, weakness and immeasurable love.” After years of procrastination himself, Dmitri decided that his father, who died in 1977, or his “father’s shade,” would not “have opposed the release of ‘Laura’ once ‘Laura’ had survived the hum of time this long.”
Was Dmitri right to publish “The Original of Laura: (Dying Is Fun)”? Do the index cards (reproduced with meticulous care by the publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, in an ingenious punch-out format) represent, as Dmitri has said, “the most concentrated distillation” of his father’s creativity? Does this fragmentary manuscript constitute the makings of “a brilliant, original and potentially radical book”? Or does the unfinished manuscript — like works left behind by Ernest Hemingway and published after his death by his estate — simply feel like an embarrassing and unfortunate coda to the master magician’s oeuvre?
In many respects, the release of a rudimentary version of his last novel does a disservice to a writer who deeply cherished precision and was practiced in the art of revision. Just as “The Enchanter,” a precursor to “Lolita” that was written in 1939 and published after his death, reads like a crude, often flat-footed version of its famous descendant, so these fragments of “Laura” — so cryptic and sketchy — represent an incomplete, fetal rendering of whatever it was that Nabokov held within his imagination.
Yet, at the same time, these bits and pieces of “Laura” will beckon and beguile Nabokov fans, who will find many of the author’s perennial themes and obsessions percolating through the story of Philip, an “enormously fat creature” with “ridiculously small feet, ” and his wildly promiscuous wife, Flora, who seems to have been the inspiration for a fictional character named Laura.
Like the heroine of “Lolita,” Flora-Laura was a nymphet who attracted the attention of her mother’s lover — in this case an importunate Englishman named Hubert H. Hubert (bizarrely recalling Humbert Humbert in “Lolita”). And like so many of the author’s earlier heroes, Philip is a writer whose transactions with life and art mirror Nabokov’s own jousting matches with reality and his love of artifice and sleight of hand.
In these pages readers will find bright flashes of Nabokovian wordplay (“The potentate had been potent till the absurd age of 80”) and surreal, Magritte-like descriptions: “The street lights were going out in alternate order, the odd numbers first. Along the pavement in front of the villa her obese husband, in a rumpled black suit and tartan booties with clasps, was walking a striped cat on an overlong leash.”
They will also find some small, walk-on parts that read like parodic self-portraits: a tennis teacher “who had coached players in Odessa before World War I and still retained his effortless exquisite style”; a professor of Russian literature, “bored to extinction by his subject”; and an “old illusionist who is able to go behind a screen in the guise of a Cossack and instantly come out at the other end as Uncle Sam.”
Most hauntingly, given the circumstances of its composition, “Laura” explores the subjects of death and the otherworldly with contemplative urgency. Philip speaks of finding a way “to woo death,” of discovering “an element of creativeness” in the willful “process of self-obliteration.” And there are notes about how extinction can signify an “absorption into the divine essence” — notes suggesting that art affords an escape route from the chronological tyranny of time, and that death, like a caterpillar’s entry into a chrysalis, may only be a stage of transformation on the way toward rebirth as one of the author’s beloved butterflies.
The final irony concerning “The Original of Laura,” of course, is the fact that its very form — an incomplete manuscript — recalls a favorite Nabokovian device: the notion of a set of “strange pages” or imperfect scribblings found, edited or annotated by another character. This device — H. H.’s memoir edited and published after his death (“Lolita”), say, or John Shade’s poem, introduced and commented upon by a scholar named Charles Kinbote (“Pale Fire”) — was not only a clever, postmodernist frame deployed by Nabokov in his endlessly inventive pursuit of complication, but it was also a sort of metaphysical statement on Art and the Artist, a rumination upon the inscrutable mysteries of creation.
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