NABOKV-L post 0018918, Sat, 5 Dec 2009 10:20:21 -0500

Nabokov was accused of being an arrogant narcissist ...

'The Original of Laura,' by Vladimir Nabokov
Eric Naiman, Special to The Chronicle
Friday, December 4, 2009

Read more:

The Original of Laura
(Dying Is Fun)

Images View Larger Images

By Vladimir Nabokov
Edited by Dmitri Nabokov
(Alfred A. Knopf; 278 pages; $35)
Let's imagine that Vladimir Nabokov, like Agatha Christie, wrote a book to be published after his death. Like much of his work, this book would deal with meta-fictive and metaphysical questions, including contributions to the text from beyond the grave.

Unlike Nabokov's "Transparent Things," written by an imaginary dead author (a character), this book would be written by a truly dead author. In many of Nabokov's novels, characters endeavor to escape - usually unsuccessfully - from the novel that contains them. Here the author would exit, leaving the unfinished text in a shambles behind.

"The Original of Laura (Dying Is Fun)" consists of several chapters about a couple: young promiscuous Flora and her older husband, the neurologist Philip Wild. Flora is the heroine of an inferior novel, "My Laura," which is written, perhaps overwritten, by a former lover in the libidinally lush style Nabokov's readers know so well.

Philip, a kind of Dorian Gray in reverse, is conducting an experiment in self-elimination. Slowly, on his inner "private blackboard," he begins erasing himself, starting with his feet, and the corresponding body part begins to feel numb. Wild discovers that "the process of dying by auto-dissolution afforded the greatest ecstasy known to man." He cautions that you have to wriggle free at the right moment, restoring the chalk line you have just erased, so you can begin the whole process again: "Enjoy the destruction but do not linger over your own ruins lest you develop an incurable illness, or die before you are ready to die."

Wild's pleasure is the autoerotic joy of self-effacement, the playful rubbing of one's body up against the line separating life from death, but one has the sense that the neurologist has gone too far, leaving us with his fragmentary notes, the meta-fictive equivalent of the stool found toppled beneath a hanging corpse, except that the corpse is gone. David Carradine, meet Dr. Jekyll.

Nabokov was accused of being an arrogant narcissist; he played with that conceit in "Pale Fire" and "Pnin." "The Original of Laura" is about an author who loves himself to death. Not everyone will read "The Original of Laura" this way; many readers of this auto-elegy won't agree that Nabokov has found the fun in funeral. Just as the editors of the New Yorker thought they understood "The Vane Sisters" but rejected it because they didn't see it was a story written by ghosts, some readers will dismiss this book because though they know it is written by a ghost, they won't see enough of a story.

Essentially, they won't read beyond the introduction by Dmitri Nabokov about his father's last months, nor think past the nearly irrelevant human-interest question of whether Nabokov's son, heeding his dying father's wishes, should have burnt the index cards on which the novel was composed. Somebody will mention Kafka. It may be recalled that Nabokov declined to read examples from a work in progress because "no fetus should undergo an exploratory operation."

More interesting is the uncanny resemblance of some of these cards to the photos left by Laura's father, whose "inclination for trick photography" led him to shoot himself simultaneously in both senses of that word: "These automatic pictures of his last moments and of a table's lion-paws did not come out too well; but his widow easily sold them for the price of a flat in Paris."

There are two ways to appreciate "The Original of Laura." The first is to treat it as an objet d'art, a coffee-table book that is, indeed, exquisitely produced and often beautifully written. Dmitri Nabokov and Chip Kidd have designed a lovely edition; on each page there is a perforated reproduction of Nabokov's original index cards, with the text printed below. You can also detach the cards and have them float about your walls, so that your life becomes a perpetual seance with Nabokov.

If we don't treat the text as pure surface, and if we don't want to see it as a dying author's miscarriage, we will have to read it as Nabokov's last metafictive parable. In no meaningful sense a novel, "Laura" has as its closest predecessor probably Nabokov's 1957 poem "The Ballad of Longwood Glen," in which Art Longwood, "a local florist," climbs up into a tree and disappears. ("His family circled the tree all day./ Pauline concluded: 'Dad climbed away.') When the tree is felled, there is precious little left: The benighted tourists who visit the spot don't know, of course, that the compensation for Art's disappearance is supposed to be the poem they are in. We, at least, have this gorgeous book, which eventually will be seen, when it is packaged less distractingly, as one of the most interesting short stories Nabokov never wrote.

Eric Naiman is a professor in the department of Slavic languages at UC Berkeley. His next book, "Nabokov, Perversely," will be published in June 2010. E-mail him at

This article appeared on page ED - 4 of the San Francisco Chronicle

Read more:

Search archive with Google:

Contact the Editors:,
Visit Zembla:
View Nabokv-L policies:
Visit "Nabokov Online Journal:"

Manage subscription options: