In the Cards, A Last Hand ...
The Wall Street Journal
NOVEMBER 13, 2009
In the Cards, A Last Hand
A novel posthumously constructed from 138 handwritten index cards.
By ALEXANDER THEROUX
Before his death in 1977, Vladimir Nabokov instructed his wife, Vera, to burn the unfinished draft of a novel called "The Original of Laura"—a handwritten mélange of notes on 138 index cards. Vera ignored the instruction. Instead, she temporized for 16 years about whether to publish the book in its incomplete form, and never did. When she died in 1991, the cards were still locked in a Swiss bank vault. Dmitri Nabokov , the novelist's 75-year-old son, has now liberated them. Indeed, they are displayed for all to see, precisely duplicated on detachable cards—one per page, with printed transcriptions underneath—in the first published edition of "The Original of Laura." Should we be glad for this posthumous novel, however incomplete?
The first effect of reading "The Original of Laura" gives less pleasure than a certain squeamishness. The bony, tentative hand of illness can be found on the cards themselves. The lineaments of a serious literary undertaking are obvious, too, but in only a few places can one discern even a hint of the technical brilliance, the penchant for parody, the irresistible flippancy that we would recognize as the work of the author of "Lolita," "Pale Fire" and "Ada." "The Original of Laura" shows us the writer's version of a great athlete in decline: not, so to speak, the glorious Lou Gehrig of 1927, but the feeble shadow of the same man, retiring at midseason in 1939.
The novel's plot is a simple one: A flighty adventuress named Flora, the daughter of an artistic couple, becomes, as the years pass, the subject of a scandalous novel, "My Laura." It has been written, we are told, "by a neurotic and hesitant man of letters" (a former lover, it is suggested). Young Flora experiences sex early, not excluding a groping encounter at age 12 with a lecher named (drum roll) Hubert H. Hubert, a paramour of Flora's own flighty mother. Years later, she marries fat, wealthy Philip Wild, another older man, with whom after three years she becomes bored—then faithless.
That a child molester named Hubert H. Hubert should show up in a late Nabokov novel is hard to comprehend artistically, even parodically. Hubert's appearance seems less a final salute to "Lolita"—where, two decades before, Humbert Humbert had done the lusting—than a lapse in judgment. It is charming, up a point, that a great novelist in his last years remains so beguiled by nubile females that he must lavish his gifts upon them yet again, but it is not a cause for literary celebration.
More fitting to Nabokov's older self are the novel's portraits of Hubert and Wild, both intensely unattractive men. They allow Nabokov to sketch the shipwreck of old age, the humiliations of desire in a spent, decrepit body. After one Wild-ean mating session with Laura, described in sad and eloquent detail, Nabokov writes: "Like toads or tortoises neither saw each other's faces." Philip Wild catalogs his weakening extremities and imagines his own death by "auto dissolution"—and Hubert himself dies of a stroke.
Reflections on disease, mortality and impotence, not to mention a Swiftian disgust with the human body, figure prominently in "The Original of Laura." On one card we find a reference to Wild's "stomack ailment": "I loathe my belly, that trunkful of bowels, which I have to carry around, and everything connected with it—the wrong food, heartburn, constipation's leaden load." One can't help thinking that such passages capture the author's own musings: The novel was begun in 1975, two years before Nabokov's death. Its deadpan subtitle: "Dying is fun."
It is not all about dying. There are witty Nabokovian moments as well. The virtuoso Nabokov parentheses are in evidence. "First of all she dismissed Cora with the strelitzias (hateful blooms, regalized bananas, really)." One remembers the early passage from "Lolita": "My very photogenic mother died in a freak accident (picnic, lightning) when I was three."
The Original of Laura
By Vladimir Nabokov
Knopf, 278 pages, $35
Nabokov wrote most of his novels, including "Lolita" and "Pale Fire," on index cards, a portable strategy that allowed him to compose in the car while his wife drove the devoted lepidopterist on butterfly expeditions. The cards could be shuffled around and often were. The publisher's decision to reproduce the originals on perforated cards, easily lifted out of the book and ready to be shuffled by the reader, gives "The Original of Laura" a play-kit quality. The cards themselves show Nabokov inserting words, writing memos to himself, scribbling afterthoughts: "invent tradename [for a medicine], e.g., cephalopium." At a certain point the novel noticeably weakens; the prose, ever more hallucinatory and random, nods off.
It is no surprise to discover an author in failing health losing his writerly powers. For son Dmitri, there is no such excuse.
He claims English to be his "favorite and most flexible means of expression"—Dmitri, you see, is multilingual—but his introduction is nonsensical, snobbish and cruel and reads as if it has been translated from the Albanian. Of his father's medical treatment: "The tests continued; a succession of doctors rubbed their chins as their bedside manner edged toward the graveside."
"Nabokov would have wanted me to become his Person from Porlock," Dmitri says, in a typically hamfisted reference to the figure who intruded on Coleridge's great poem "Kubla Khan" before it was finished. But his preface lacks an appropriately chastened quality (after all, he defied his father's wishes). Instead, Dmitri airs old grievances. He complains of a customs inspector stealing a flask of cognac from the family (in 1940) and then of his own personal loss (in 1948) of an inscribed first edition of "Lolita." He guiltily attacks those who would fault his decision to publish "The Original of Laura" as "half-literate journalists" and "lesser minds" and "individuals of limited imagination."
The last card of "The Original of Laura" is a poignant list of synonyms for "efface"—expunge, erase, delete, rub out, wipe out, obliterate. Although we might hope that Nabokov was on his way to a great book, it is a pity that his instructions were ignored and the novel survived in such a form. English professors may assign "The Original of Laura" to their students someday, but it is really better suited to a college ethics class.
Mr. Theroux's latest novel is "Laura Warholic: Or, The Sexual Intellectual" (Fantagraphics).
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