NABOKV-L post 0018832, Sat, 21 Nov 2009 16:54:17 +0100

TOOL Review in Dutch Paper

Please find below my translation of the review the Dutch writer Hafid
Bouazza wrote for NRC Handelsblad on November 20th. Attached is a scan of
the first page laid out, quite approriately, on index cards.
My apologies in advance for any errors and infelicities for which I am alone

When Dmitri Nabokov had announced he would publish the manuscript of his
father’s last unfinished novel, the editor of a radio program asked him if
he could tell something about it. He replied in writing: "I know more than I
can express in words, and the little I can express would not have been
expressed, had I not known more." A remarkable response, because it is a
literal quotation of Vladimir Nabokov: exactly what Nabokov père replied in
a 1964 interview when asked whether he believed in God.

Metaphysics are never remote from the metaliterary contemplation of The
Original of Laura, Nabokov’s posthumously published novel in fragments with
the striking subtitle “Dying is Fun.” Not only had Dmitri admitted that his
father’s voice had helped him in his decision (“Why not make some money on
the damn thing?”), but after Lolita (1955) Nabokov’s work acquired a more
metaphysical and eschatological slant. The young Nabokov wrote to his mother
that he was convinced that his assassinated father was always and everywhere
with him; he also showed a great interest in spiritual séances and, as The
Eye and “The Vane Sisters” evince, his knowledge was profound although the
subject was treated derisively.

Nabokov’s faith was not conventional, notwithstanding the angels and
biblical characters that populate his early poetry and short stories. In
Pnin (1957) he wrote that he believed “in a democracy of ghosts.” What is
commonly called a soul comprised for him the human consciousness: he could
not believe that this consciousness could die, it had to live on. Pale Fire
(1962) deals with the possibility of a hereafter; the ghost of a girl, who
commits suicide because she is rejected on a blind date (she is ugly),
haunts the poem that is one part of the novel, and the delusional commentary
which comprises the other. In Transparent Things (1972) the narrator turns
out to be a deceased writer, R., who is in the company of a host of ghosts.
The melancholy and claire-obscure of this underrated novel introduced a
change in Nabokov’s style. It became more sinewy, more unfleshed, although
the familiar sensuousness is still present.

Writers like Martin Amis would say that the enchantment was gone: the blue
wave that on every page of his previous books swells under the heart and
breaks in the mind in an iridescent splash swelled but sporadically. But
what if the writer of Lolita and Ada (1969) had remained the same magician?
Would tiredness not have set in? Was magic not at risk of becoming a trick?
Nabokov entered other areas, other crepuscular realms; as an artist he
evolved and grew old, and the cliché has it that old age brings mildness,
but it turns out this was not in Nabokov’s case. The Original of Laura is
his most desperate and relentless writing I have read. Would you expect
otherwise when infidelity, death, revulsion with one’s body, impossessable
beauty and unrequited love are the subjects that one can glean from a book?

The question whether or not the manuscript should have been published seems
irrelevant to me now. Whoever expresses disappointment should be grateful
for the publication otherwise there would have been no room for
disappointment (and schadenfreude at a dying genius). Someone like Martin
Amis; his claim that The Original of Laura is not a novel in fragments but
“a longish short story struggling to become a novella” is as criticism far
from just. It is impossible to say how much we have of the book, how long
Nabokov would have worked on it. The story that we now can distill is about
Flora, a ravishing and cool adulterous wife, married to the obese, brilliant
neurologist Dr. Philip Wild, who attempts to devise a way to gradually
obliterate himself, to arrive at self-obliteration by dint of the

Philip Wild’s disgust with his own body is expressed as follows: ‘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
load, or else indigestion with a first instalment of hot filth pouring out
of me in a public toilet three minutes before a punctual engagement.’
Readers familiar with Pale Fire will recall poor Gradus who, with a “liquid
hell in his stomach”, sees his murder plan almost being flushed down various
toilets. Complaints about unreliable bowels and the discomforts of old age
can also be found in Ada, towards the end, echoing Nabokov’s pronouncements
about his own old age in an interview. And Dr. Philip Wild’s small feet
recall Pnin’s. Undoubtedly, Flora will remind readers of Lolita and Ada.
Admittedly, Flora is 14 when she is deflowered, but she retains her nymphic
luster; and how about “Hubert H. Hubert” who shows up in this book?

This is one of many things that the reader’s imagination can discover in the
wide spaces between the fragments. Nabokov himself invites one to. Natura
abhorret vacuum. And the reader too. In the book there is a roman-à-clef
(“with the clef lost forever”) entitled My Laura or just Laura, Flora’s name
in a novel within a novel (somewhere one reads F Laura); Philip Wild is
called Philidor Sauvage. It is not clear whether one or two novels are
concerned, because in certain passages where Philp Wild talks about his
experiments, he refers to a key novel in which he figures –these passages
are therefore not from the key novel except if there are two novels. I
suspect that the final result should have been a novel, The Original of
Laura, containing a shadow novel (My Laura). In that case the question would
be: which novel is the true one? Such metaliterary techniques were not
strange to Nabokov. By the way, Flora refuses to read the novel Laura.
Naturally, this was quite unforeseen, but what the neurologist attempts to
accomplish, namely, self-disintegration, the book does accomplish and that’s
the wry sense of humor of death who refused to tarry.

The striking fact about Flora is that she, in spite of her cool sensuality
and indifference towards her husband, is greedily promiscuous. She has Ada’s
ivory skin and frail shoulders, but the frigidity and sexual aloofness of
Armande from Transparent Things (when making love Flora and her husband
assume the same position as Armande and her husband Hugh Person). The
despair she causes, not only to her husband, but even to the boy with whom
she has sexual intercourse for the first time, is particularly painful. The
heartache of love is Wild’s heartburn. And as in King, Queen, Knave and the
short story “Solus Rex” again here we find a deft description of the male
member: ‘She observed with quiet interest the difficulty Jules had of
drawing a junior-size sheath over an organ that looked abnormally stout and
at full erection had a head turned somewhat askew as if wary of receiving a
backhand slap at the decisive moment.’

Vadimir Vadimirovich in Look at the Harlequins! (1974) realizes he is
leading a life inferior to that of another and better writer. In exactly the
same manner, Flora and Wild are the subjects of a key novel: here is I
believe something that this novel would have explored to greater extent. How
does real life relate to fiction? And what remains of real life when it has
been fictionalized? Perhaps I am overstating the case, but I cannot rid
myself of the impression that Nabokov in The Original of Laura was looking
for the original of his own work.

That Nabokov’s style was changing became obvious in Look at the Harlequins!
Brian Boyd, Nabokov’s biographer, was unsparing in his judgment; he
considered the style disappointing, inelegant, and even petty. The bird of
paradise had lost its feathers. But this book was written in a hurry,
fuelled by frustration and anger at Andrew Field’s biography, to which
Nabokov had lent his support until he fell out with the biographer.
Something had clearly snapped in the master.

The first pages of TOOL are so precise, the rhythm so unrelenting that the
reader cannot but conclude that here is no disappointment at work. Nabokov’s
style changes, becomes less rococo, has less flesh folds, but a more satiny
skin, and exact contours and lines. The words we read here are not wafted
over by the breath of death but a master’s who had a still greater grasp on
his tool. Gone are the rainbows, but the sun is still blazing in pastel.

And another thing, something quite unique with a writer who could be so
aristocratic and dandyishly haughty: thanks to The Original of Laura I have
come to know Nabokov quite intimately.

A. Bouazza.

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