Nabokov's Final Riddle: Literary Prank Master's Post-Mortem Novel
By Mark Horowitz
Illustration: Lorenzo Petrantoni; Photo: Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
He may be dead, but this fall Vladimir Nabokov is back with a new novel, The Original of Laura—or at least the beta version. Before he died in 1977, the author of Lolita and Pale Fire asked his family to burn this last, unfinished work. But after three decades of soul-searching, his son, Dmitri, has decided to finally publish the unusual manuscript, written on 138 numbered index cards now yellowed with age. Nabokov routinely composed on such cards, shuffling and reshuffling the deck as he wrote. It was like constructing a puzzle.
As a boy in St. Petersburg, Russia, Nabokov devised chess problems, played with codes and ciphers, and later wrote his own crosswords—devices that would find their way into his later fiction. The novels and stories are generously seasoned with acrostics, anagrams, number games, and whodunits, not to mention parodies, puns, and multiple layers of hidden allusions.
Codes and concealed meanings were central to Nabokov's worldview, says Brian Boyd, an authority on the writer's life and work. "Nabokov felt that the thrill of discovery was one of the highest things life had to offer," Boyd says. "But he also felt that ultimately the whole of reality seemed to be constructed as if by some great cosmic prankster."
Nabokov, the authorial prankster, buried Easter eggs of every sort for careful readers to unearth. Along with an enciphered line from Shakespeare ("5.13 24.11 13.16 9.13.5 5.13 24.11"*), there's a multilayered chess problem embedded in his memoir, Speak, Memory. And in his short story "The Vane Sisters," an acrostic reveals an unexpected twist. (Take the first letter of each word in the last paragraph and string them together to find the secret message.) Pale Fire, his involuted, nesting-doll of a novel, has enough riddles and trapdoors to fill another entire book.
Boyd is one of the few people who have read The Original of Laura, to be published in November. "There's pleasure in it, but at the same time there's frustration, because you know that this may be—what?—two-thirds of the puzzle, or seven-eighths? You get some of the satisfaction but also some of the frustration of incompleteness."
The finished book will include facsimiles of every card, on perforated paper, so that readers can reshuffle them. It's a perfectly Nabokovian concoction, a tantalizing puzzler from the beyond.