NABOKV-L post 0018875, Mon, 30 Nov 2009 01:18:58 -0500

A last word worth having? ...

A last word worth having?
Ben East

Last Updated: November 22. 2009 4:58PM UAE / November 22. 2009 12:58PM GMT

Most people can expect the instructions they leave for dissolving their estate after their death to be conscientiously heeded. But that courtesy was not afforded to one of the greatest writers of the 20th century, Vladimir Nabokov.

The author of Lolita, Pale Fire and Ada was composing a new novel, The Original of Laura, on his death bed. As he succumbed to bronchial collapse in 1977, he told his family he wished the notes he had made on 138 index cards to be burnt.

Of course, the cards weren’t burnt, and this month The Original of Laura was published with the long-withheld permission of Nabokov’s son and literary executor, Dmitri. As the reviews multiply, most agree that Nabokov’s final work is not the way he should be remembered

Martin Amis, writing in The Guardian, was hugely disappointed: “When a writer starts to come off the rails, you expect skid marks and broken glass,” he said. “With Nabokov, naturally, the eruption is on the scale of a nuclear accident.”

In The Wall Street Journal, Alexander Theroux bemoaned the fact that it “noticeably weakens; the prose, ever more hallucinatory and random, nods off”.

And the novelist Aleksandar Hemon, writing in Slate, is typically florid in his disgust that it was printed in the first place: “The Original of Laura can’t escape the musty air of an estate sale: the trinkets that piled up in the attic; the damp books from the basement... the mismatched, overworn clothing – all are brought out in the hope that there might appear a buyer for those sad objects, someone blinded by literary nostalgia and willing to rescue the family possessions from the wastebasket.”

Hemon hits the nail on the head. It’s not so much the quality of the writing that has divided the literary world but whether The Original of Laura should have been published at all. Nabokov’s wife, Vera, couldn’t make up her mind, and the notes remained in a bank vault until her death in 1991. And if their son Dmitri’s decision to publish seems like a callow action of youth, it’s worth remembering that he is 75 years old.

Thankfully, Dmitri hasn’t attempted to finish the sketched story of a young girl called Flora. She’s the daughter of an artistic couple, and becomes the main character in a slightly scurrilous novel, My Laura, written by a “neurotic and hesitant man of letters”. She gets involved with much older men and is soon bored by them. There’s more than a nod here to Lolita. Indeed, the appearance of a Hubert H Hubert, a clear echo of Lolita’s Humbert Humbert, is Theroux’s main problem; he finds it “hard to comprehend artistically”.

But perhaps it is something of an artistic exercise. The infamous index cards are reproduced on the page, offering a fascinating glimpse into how Nabokov worked (he always used this method) and, perhaps, his increasingly addled mind as the knowledge that death was approaching sunk in.

This doesn’t alter the fact that Nabokov was unequivocal in the request that they should be burnt, just as the writer Philip Larkin was when he asked his girlfriend, Monica Jones, to shred his diaries (the difference being that she did so).

The counter argument, expressed eloquently by the award-winning critic Michael Dirda, is that all the work of a great writer such as Nabokov ought to be available to scholars and interested readers. “To my mind, Dmitri Nabokov was clearly right to ignore his dying father’s request,” Dirda wrote in The Washington Post. The subtext behind his viewpoint (supported to an extent by Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times) is this: if Nabokov was that keen to keep these sketches of a novel from the public, why didn’t he walk to the grate, light a match, and make sure he did the job himself?

But even they can’t quite bring themselves to say The Original of Laura is a good book. It might have been if Nabokov had the time or faculties to complete it, but as Kevin Jackson said in The Sunday Times: “Would we have been denied a masterpiece had Dmitri followed Vladimir’s request? Certainly not.”

What we do know from what Nabokov said the year before he died is that he “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”.

How he would feel to see it reach a wider audience than that can only be a matter for speculation.

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