Martin Amis Visits the 92nd Street Y to Pay Tribute to Nabokov ...
November 17, 2009, 4:00 PM ET
Martin Amis Visits the 92nd Street Y to Pay Tribute to Nabokov
By Steven Kurutz
The curiosity over Vladimir Nabokov’s final, incomplete novel, “The Original of Laura” was satiated last night at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan, where the first public reading was held.
On hand to speak was Nabokov’s biographer, Brian Boyd; book designer Chip Kidd, who created the Knopf first edition, in which replicas of the 138 handwritten notecards on which Nabokov wrote the book can be punched out; and novelist Martin Amis, who caught a late flight from Heathrow to pay his respects to an author with whom he has an “obsessive interest,” as he put it.
The real stars of the night were the notecards themselves. They were housed in a glass case in a large, green-carpeted room off the lobby. People waited in line to get a peek at what are likely Nabokov’s final written words, before the cards are auctioned off at Christie’s next month. In a small dressing room backstage, Amis, wearing a dark suit, a glass of white wine in his hand, spoke about Nabokov and the late author’s last work.
A few days earlier, in an essay for the Guardian, Amis had expressed disappointment in the book and described “The Original of Laura” as a “longish short story struggling to become a novella.” He elaborated on the point. “In truth, there’s not much coherence in that fragment,” Amis said, adding, in reference to yet another echo of a “Lolita” theme in the book, “I do think it exacerbates an artistic problem in Nabokov, in that there’s just too much about little girls.” But Amis said reading “Laura” did little to dull his affection for Nabokov, nor does he think the book’s publication dilutes the writer’s reputation in any way. “His corpus is so amazingly strong,” Amis said.
Nabokov in Rome, 1959
Shortly before his death, Nabokov asked his wife, Vera, and son, Dmitri, to burn the “Laura” manuscript. Neither could bring themselves to carry out his wishes. After years of agonizing, Dmitri sold the work to Knopf for publication, a decision that’s been met with criticism by some. “It’s a gray area,” Amis said. “If I’d written five novels about little girls and was halfway through my sixth and I hadn’t finished it by any means –- I mean, it was larval -– I can see a case for not wanting it to appear.”
On the other hand, Amis pointed out, the world of letters is better served because Max Brod didn’t carry out Franz Kafka’s wishes and burn Kafka’s manuscripts. Also, in delegating the task to his family rather than doing it himself, it suggests a subconscious desire in Nabokov for “Laura” to be read. “It’s a physically demanding thing to do –- to destroy a book,” Amis said.
Amis, who’s set to publish a novel next year about the sexual revolution of the ’60s and ’70s, did not read from “The Original of Laura” at the event. Instead, he chose passages that demonstrated Nabokov’s talents at full bloom — in particular, a short story called “Sights and Symbols,” about an older couple who visit their son in an asylum. “It’s a dementedly talented story,” Amis said. “Some of his stories are quite charming and inconsequential, but this is really with the volume on 10. I don’t think there’s another story like it in his work — or anyone else’s.”
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