NABOKV-L post 0018993, Wed, 23 Dec 2009 06:36:49 -0500

Dmitri Nab okov’s int roduction begins com pellingly ...

From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 6, Issue 50 Dated December 19, 2009



The Butterfly’s Notes

Don’t let the romance of his last manuscript distract you from the pleasures of Nabokov, warns ARUL MANI

PRising index Vladimir Nabokov and
(inset) the last manuscript
LITERARY HISTORY is happily awash with the existential dilemmas weathered by intimates who have had the job of playing executor to authorial remnants thrust upon them. Max Brod’s prolonged agonies over whether to publish Kafka or to heed his friend’s request and destroy the manuscript is a case in point. Such stories offer for our grateful contemplation the idea of the literary executor as rescuer, as the fulcrum around which yet another if-not-for may gently waver between the unthinkable and relief. The great thing about Dmitri Nabokov’s story of how his father’s unfinished novel caused him to wrestle with this self-same dilemma — the introduction to this book — is that it offers us unexpected relief from the tedium of such saintly narratives, but more of that later.

This is a book so carefully crowded with things to look at that you might spend the first few hours of possession mewling incoherently as you trip from discovery to discovery. The title does a slow face from silver to grey across the cover. This device is repeated on the spine and in the end papers — where you will run across an alternative title, and at the place where the ears of the dust jacket lie flattened against the hardcover. You cannot but follow this gradient, and as you venture beyond the unobtrusive dusk of this jacket you will find writ large across the hardcover the same list of orders (“efface, expunge” etc) that form a kind of secondary frontispiece. And then there is the fact that the book threatens to continually to calve into two copies — each page is home both to a facsimile of the little index cards on which Nabokov wrote his novels in elegant longhand, as well as a printed version of what the cards contain. The facsimiles are perforated to allow the reader to shuffle sections of the book just as Nabokov might have done. The companion version is ruined somewhat because its contingent of letters is corralled into black-ink-attention against the background of unrelieved grey cement, thus producing an atmosphere of North Korean good cheer.

Vladimir Nabokov
Penguin UK
288 pp; Rs 699
Dmitri Nabokov’s introduction begins compellingly: memories of his father dealing with a reduction caused by age and illness, followed by the “procrastinations of age, weakness and immeasurable love” that prevented Vera Nabokov from destroying the incomplete manuscript as promised. I did blow raspberries later in response to his blurb noises defending the decision to publish (“despite its incompleteness, one unprecedented in structure and style”) and a tendency towards arch self-insertion (“a survival to which I may have contributed, motivated not by playfulness or calculation but by an otherforce I could not resist”). Otherforce, forsooth. With that one moment of twee Theosophical twittering, the son reveals himself in all his splendour; dull, a self-appointed janitor pirouetting around his broom in a shrine maintained for kitschy-kooing fan-ladies and overgrown boys. Meanwhile, Nabokov Sr fails to disappoint. His gift for mischief shines unfailingly through this assembly of fragments (“her exquisite bone structure immediately slipped into a novel — became in fact a secret structure of that novel, besides supporting a number of poems”). Often one is forced to stand up and applaud loudly because one has either watched him stop the clocks to describe the good Freud as a madman who wrote badly, or seen him charge a host of writers (“Malraux, Mauriac, Maurois… Mishima”) and a literary ideology with this lance of a line: “What amazes one is that they were supposed to ‘represent an era’ and that is such representants [sic] could get away with the most execrable writing provided they represented their times”.

The Original of Laura invites you to hold up an insubstantial shimmer to the light and begin to imagine, from its tracery, the dragonfly that might have been. If you have read any Nabokov, turning down that invitation is about the hardest thing in the world.

From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 6, Issue 50 Dated December 19, 2009

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