Dmitri Nabokov has had an interestingly varied career as an opera
As a novel, it's a wonderful set of 100 pencilled index cards
Saturday, December 12th, 2009 | 3:20 am
Canwest News Service
THE ORIGINAL OF LAURA
By Vladimir Nabokov Knopf
304 pp.; $42
Dmitri Nabokov has had an interestingly varied career as an opera singer, racing-car driver and literary translator. He is often referred to as an "international playboy." But he is best known as the son of the most stylish novelist of the 20th century, the cosmopolitan and controversial lepidopterist Vladimir Nabokov.
Now 75 years old and in need of a few bucks, Dmitri has decided to publish the fragments of his father's last and very unfinished novel, The Original of Laura, a.k.a. Dying is Fun. This event has generated much publicity, since publication was expressly against Vladimir's deathbed wish and the story of the preservation of the manuscript involves shuffled index cards, deleted scrawls and a Swiss bank vault — not to mention serialization in Playboy (to be fair to that august journal, it did once print an exceptionally valuable and highbrow, if characteristically playful, interview with the elder Nabokov).
So is Laura worth the wait and the hype? Emphatically not, as far as the story itself is concerned. The whole thing amounts to just over 100 pencilled index cards. Only the first two chapters are at all finished, the remainder degenerating rapidly into fragments. The narrative is nugatory. A dying man losing bodily sensation, beginning from his toes. The affairs of a promiscuous wife called Flora (24 but, ominously, with the look of a 12 year old). A writer (there's always a writer), one of her former lovers, who has made her into the original of a character called Laura in his most successful novel. It's fairly easy to work out where the story will go, but it barely begins to get there.
Dmitri Nabokov's Introduction is a neat pastiche of his father's great essay on
the origins of Lolita, but his claim that the fragment is "unprecedented in structure and style" is ludicrous.
Penguin has created an extraordinarily handsome book, in which the index cards are reproduced in perforated form so that deranged Nabokovian readers can press them out and shuffle them into random order as the author purportedly did in the process of composition. This nonsense would have horrified Nabokov, the supreme craftsman. His novels all have a very strong structure of beginning, middle and end. It was only his descriptive set-pieces and diverse digressions that he randomized.
Nabokov's style — his love-affair with words, both Russian and English — always teetered on the edge of mannered preciosity. In his best novels, his wit, his ingenuity, his gift for parody and his incomparable eye for human absurdity withheld him from the precipice. In his last completed novels, Look at the Harlequins! and Transparent Things, he was beginning to become a parody of himself. In Laura, the self-indulgence is frequently irredeemable: "Had everything to be shaken out before the pair of morocco slippers could be located foetally folded in their zippered pouch?" Clever alliteration is a Nabokov hallmark. "Foetally folded" is too self-congratulatory by half.
Techniques that are brilliant in the finished novels seem merely tired in this fragment. The parenthesis is a good example. Death by freak accident in Lolita is tautly rendered by "(picnic, lightning)" whereas here a three-year separation is laboured as "(distant war, regular exchange of tender letters)."
Lolita is one of the great stories of love and loss. The writing is never remotely obscene. The sex in Laura, by contrast, is not so far from the traditional fare of Playboy, with a troubling pedophile twist: "The cup-sized breasts of that 24-year-old impatient beauty seemed a dozen years younger than she, with those pale squinty nipples and firm form." As with some of the prose in The Enchanter, the posthumously published short story that was effectively the first draft of Lolita, the warped mind revealed here might just be that of Nabokov himself, rather than the flawed narrator, as it so clearly is in Lolita.
Laura must be thanked if the effect of her emergence from the chrysalis of a Swiss bank vault is renewed interest in the Russian novels of Nabokov's European emigre years before the war. But all in all, Dmitri Nabokov would have served Vladimir's memory most nobly by publishing this fragment in an academic journal for the benefit of scholars. By seeking to turn it into a moneyspinner, he may have inflicted some severe damage on his father's reputation.
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