The Independent review ...
Hit & Run: Would we care if he were alive?
Tuesday, 17 November 2009
Imagine that this year's breakout novelist is a 56-year-old Russian-American called Vladimir Nabokov, whose 12th work of fiction, Lolita, is making waves. On Radio 4's Front Row, his agent explains that yes, it has taken a while to be published in the UK or the US, but it's available from a Parisian porn imprint called the Olympia Press. He explains it's a monologue by a posh, unregenerate paedophile called Humbert Humbert, and his 12-year-old "nymphet" stepdaughter, with whom he absconds across America, for extremely sexual purposes, after her mother dies.
Can you imagine the outcry? But Nabokov was an author like no other. Trilingual, synaesthetic (he saw the letter M as pink) and addicted to games, he was a compendium of eccentricities. His main obsession, outside writing, was butterflies: he chased them all over America, and was curator of lepidoptery at Harvard's Museum of Comparative Zoology in the 1940s. He was also a chess obsessive, who composed scores of chess problems and wrote a novel about a chess master, The Luzhin Defence.
He'd have had a hard time at today's literary festivals. "I think like a genius," he once wrote, "I write like a distinguished author, and I speak like a child." He therefore liked to stage-manage interviews, demanding to see questions beforehand, writing the answers with great care, adding more questions and answers to be parrotted verbatim, prompted by small file cards propped against studio vases. It's hard to imagine today's Paxmans or Frostrups joining in the charade.
All his novels were written on these little cards. The last ones he used are immortalised today, as his final text The Original of Laura is published by Penguin. The 275 pages feature, rather luxuriously, all 138 cards on which he wrote fragments in hospital during his last illness, before his death in 1977.
But the narrative soon runs out of steam. Fragments deal minimally with Flora, the promiscuous wife of a fat lecturer in experimental psychology called Philip. One of her mother's lovers is "Hubert Hubert," who fondles Flora in bed but is repulsed, a clear re-run of Lolita. The time-line jumps generations and plays games with a novel-within-the-novel called Laura, which scarcely exists. Nabokov's own voice intrudes now and then, expressing contempt for Freud and Malraux, and speculating about how to die happily by imagining an upright "I" on a blackboard being gradually rubbed out. The original has some nice word-play ("The potentate had been potent until the absurd age of eighty") amid the usual Nabokovian arcane vocabulary ("omoplate"? "inguen"? "hallux"?) and some startling dreams of bisexuality, but it's strictly a work for academics.
In October 1976 Nabokov described The Original of Laura as "the not quite finished manuscript of a novel which I had begun writing and reworking before my illness, and which was completed in my mind". He confesses that, "in my diurnal delirium [I] kept reading it aloud to a small dream audience in a walled garden. My audience consisted 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". That dream audience should, perhaps, have remained the only audience for The Original of Laura.
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