Fragments from the master ...
Fragments from the master
Devoted Nabokovians can even punch out the index card notes for his lost novel in progress and feel like a real writer
Published On Sun Dec 27 2009
Portrait of Russian-born American author Vladimir Nabokov (1899 - 1977) as he looks over his shoulder out the window of a parked car, Ithaca, New York, September 1958.CARL MYDANS/TIME & LIFE PICTURES/GETTY IMAGES
The Original of Laura
(Dying is Fun)
by Vladimir Nabokov
278 pages, $42
If there is one word, one theme, that runs through all of Vladimir Nabokov's work, it isn't "beauty" or "sublimity" or "bliss" or any of the other possible candidates that might be offered up by his most ardent admirers (and almost all of his admirers are ardent).
Rather, the one word is "control." His fiction was supremely, proudly inorganic, every inch of it hostile to the idea of the happy accident or the free-willed character.
"Even the dream I describe to my wife across the breakfast table is only a first draft," he wrote in the foreword to Strong Opinions, a 1973 collection of his letters, occasional prose and interviews.
With an artist who is so defined by his own sense of control, there is a strong postmodern urge to get a look behind it, to catch the master in his underwear and find the vulnerable, beating heart beneath the aesthetic arrogance. The Original of Laura seems the perfect opportunity to sample that most improbable item: raw Nabokov. The novel – more a series of scenes, sketches and notes toward a possible novel or novella – was a work in progress at the time of the author's death in 1977.
Though in his last years he claimed to have the whole finished book in his head, age or illness meant that the book never got beyond a few hundred index cards. Nabokov wanted the cards incinerated (as he had almost done to Lolita), but his preternaturally devoted wife Vera never got around to it. After her death the responsibility fell to their only child, Dmitri, who sat on those index cards for decades before finally deciding to have them published. In a sour and haughty introduction that reads like a bad parody of Nabokov, Dmitri , now 75, writes that he doesn't "think that my father or my father's shade would have opposed the release of Laura once Laura had survived the hum of time this long ... Should I be damned or thanked?"
For a novel that was never finished and was supposed to have been burned, The Original of Laura gets an awfully deluxe chance at life. Rather than simply transcribing the text on the cards, which would have resulted in a very slim volume, designer Chip Kidd (pretty much the only book designer non-publishing people have ever heard of) has created something that could be called Nabokov: The McSweeney's Edition.
The hardcover book contains colour images of each card, one per page, with perforated edges, so that, according to A Note on the Text, they "can be removed and rearranged, as the author likely did when he was writing the novel." (You Be The Author!)
The narrative, such as it is or was supposed to be, appears to orbit around a woman named Flora, the American granddaughter of a Russian émigré painter. Flora is a sensual woman and was once, in her childhood, nearly molested by a family friend named Hubert H. Hubert. (Sound familiar?)
Flora is unhappily married to Philip Wild, "a brilliant neurologist, a renowned lecturer ... a gentleman of independent means," who experiments with mental "self-deletion" or "auto-dissolution," wherein he imagines each part of his body being slowly erased, only to find them all restored when he opens his eyes. Some background is given on these two characters. Flora opens the book with an erotically tinged party-and-bedroom scene that is full of Nabokovian detailing and authorial intrusion and the occasional display of master-level wordsmithing. Beyond that, we get mostly mandarin digressions and opaque clusters of potential narrative motifs.
Do we offer Dmitri damnation or thanks for this peek into his father's workshop? The short answer is that he doesn't really deserve either.
For all its advance hype and deluxe packaging, The Original of Laura is, at best, a curiosity that does very little to broaden our understanding of Nabokov's work – except, maybe, to confirm that he was right in not allowing his words to be published without a maximum of rewriting and second-guessing.
Nabokov simply isn't the kind of artist whose buttoned-up work becomes newly revelatory in bootleg or demo form. Even putting aside the fact that most literary writing only gets worthwhile three or four drafts in, Nabokov's prose could only ever be the product of much fussing and fixing.
There are other reasons to love his work and other reasons to hate it, but that is the dividing line, the essential nature that must be accepted or rejected. Nabokov's prose can move in a lot of different directions at once, and it can be dizzyingly brilliant, but it never swings, except in its own freakishly controlled way.
It's also true that Nabokov produced only a small clutch of truly great books, among many that were only intermittently great. Those great books — Pnin, Lolita, Speak, Memory and Pale Fire, according to most accountings, including my own – are so great, however, that it's hard to resist the urge to see if the man had one more of those left in him.
Nathan Whitlock is children's review editor of Quill & Quire and author of the novel A Week of This (ECW).
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