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Unfinished Masterpiece? Thirty Years Later Vladimir Nabokov’s Final Novel Is Posthumously Released

Thursday, January 14th 2010

By kevin elliott


Vladimir Nabokov, arguably one of the most talented and acclaimed writers of the twentieth century, was in the process of writing The Original of Laura at the time of his death in 1977. Knowing his health was failing him, he began to fear that he would not live long enough to finish his final work, so he gave explicit instructions to his wife Véra to have the manuscript burned in case of such an occurrence.
Woefully, Nabokov succumbed to severe congestive bronchitis before ever completing the first draft, and of course Véra, and her son Dmitri, could neither bring themselves to incinerate the one hundred and thirty-eight handwritten index cards that comprised the manuscript, nor publish them. Torn between respecting her husband and his father’s dying wish and the increasingly scrutinizing demands of the literary world, their resolve was to dismiss the cards into the mystical confines of a Swiss bank vault.
Upon Véra’s death in 1991, Dmitri became Nabokov’s sole executor, inheriting an intense and piercing pressure. The term “Dmitri’s dilemma” had entered the university and literary vernacular as a metonymy for the tension between the art world and the rights of the artist. To whom does great art belong to: the public or the artist? Thus was Dmitri’s dilemma.
Dmitri shared the manuscript with only a few scholars, and short excerpts were scantly allowed for publication; he himself only dared, at least initially, as he admits in his introduction to the book, to read the index cards but a handful of times, and mostly only for editing purposes. Three decades had produced a magical aura of The Original of Laura; those mere one hundred and thirty-eight shabby and elementary index cards had become the subject of deified wonderment by too many. For Dmitri, the cards were a “disturbing specter.”
Hence his announcement in 2008 to finally publish the manuscript — in full. The BBC’s Newsnight declared that it was “likely to be the literary event of 2009.” On November 17, 2009, The Original of Laura (Dying Is Fun): A novel in fragments, almost thirty two and a half years after Nabokov’s death, was officially published for the first time.
An abomination! How could Dmitri do this? Alas, I cannot help myself! How could he not? Nabokov, ever the lover of language, is perhaps matched only by the likes of few as one of the greatest literary wordsmiths of all time. Naturally, only his ecstatic and playful prose could produce the horrid pedophiliac incest abound in Lolita and have it applauded as “the only convincing love story” of the twentieth century by Vanity Fair. Surely Nabokov would have regretted denying the world something written so rapturously. If he really wanted the manuscript burned, he would have done it himself.
Such was Dmitri’s defence in his introduction. He reaffirms Nabokov’s own claim in the afterword to Lolita that he almost tossed a draft of the novel into his incinerator before Véra intervened — and, worried “the ghost of the destroyed book would haunt” him, and he was glad she did. As Dmitri asks, would the ghost of Laura not also have haunted his father?
I am not prepared to go into any length summarizing the plot. Some chapters are complete; others are merely scattered paragraphs interspersed with Nabokov’s notes and research.
As far as I can tell, the middle-aged Dr. Philip Wild is married to the young and unfaithfully promiscuous Flora, who reminds him of a woman he had once been in love with, Aurora. A novel within the novel, My Laura, written by a once rejected admirer of Flora’s, depicts his affair with the girl. I think Laura is Flora, but the coy Nabokov conflates the matter, even using the hybrid FLaura at one point. Is the original Aurora? Or is it some variant of FLaura?
In any case, it seems to drive Wild mad, as he becomes obsessed with death and a kind of metaphorical suicide of self-erasure. Extended passages that read like a Freudian case study portray his attempts to expunge himself through meditation, “a mounting melting from the feet upward.” When reading, expect a mixed reaction of frustration and confusion because of the novel’s fragmented incompleteness, with exulting jubilance over rich wordplays that almost reflect vintage Nabokov.
The book was published using thick pages, a photograph of each index card per page, perforated so they can be removed and rearranged as actual index cards—something which I think is both interesting and insultingly trivializing. Below each card is a typed transcription.
Ultimately, despite the lively prose, part of me was saddened (aside from being perplexed) to read Nabokov’s work so incomplete and unpolished. But anyone who criticizes Dmitri’s decision, I daresay, is a hypocrite.
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