wave of posthumous releases from authors like Vladimir Nabokov ...
Life & Style
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LIFE & STYLE
SEPTEMBER 25, 2009
A new wave of posthumous releases from authors like Vladimir Nabokov, David Foster Wallace and Ralph Ellison raises thorny questions about what the writers intended.
By ALEXANDRA ALTER
After author David Foster Wallace committed suicide last September, his longtime agent, Bonnie Nadell, found herself lost in a maze of words. Scattered on two different computers and in hard copies stashed around the cluttered garage where Mr. Foster Wallace had worked in Claremont, Calif., she discovered multiple versions of his final, unfinished novel. She had no idea which draft he preferred. Mr. Wallace's novel about I.R.S. agents, due out next fall, is being assembled based on the author's notes. "A great deal of it is a puzzle," she said of the novel, titled "Pale King."
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Vladimir Nabokov instructed his family to burn his final novel, "The Original of Laura," after his death. He had sketched out the novel on 138 index cards, a process he used to write "Lolita" and other works. Nobody, not even Mr. Nabokov's son and literary executor, Dmitri Nabokov, knows the exact order the author intended for the cards.
For decades, Dmitri Nabokov kept the manuscript locked in a Swiss bank vault, allowing only a select group of Nabokov scholars to read it, and occasionally suggesting in interviews that he would destroy the novel. In 2008, more than 30 years after his father's death, he announced to a German magazine his decision to publish the work, saying that his father had appeared to him in a vision and told him to "go ahead and publish."
Brian Boyd, a Nabokov scholar and biographer at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, said he initially felt the novel was too "raw" and that Mr. Nabokov's directive to destroy it should be heeded. He first saw a draft in 1985, when Vera Nabokov, the author's wife, allowed him to read it. After her death in 1991, he reread the manuscript and changed his mind.
"The opening few words just blew me away," said Mr. Boyd, who is also editing three other collections of Mr. Nabokov's work, including previously unpublished letters to his wife. "There's a kind of narrative device that he's never used before and that I don't think anybody else has ever used before."
Alfred A. Knopf, which will publish the book this November, asked Mr. Boyd and other scholars to study the draft, but no one could decipher the order of scenes. The publisher faced a new dilemma: "How do you take 138 note cards and turn them into a book?" said Chip Kidd, Knopf's associate art director, who added that the cards "go in consecutive order for a good bit, until all of a sudden they don't anymore."
To highlight the fragmentary nature of the book, Mr. Kidd came up with an unusual design. "The Original of Laura" will contain photographic reproductions of the index cards, along with typed transcriptions. The cards will be perforated around the edges so that readers can tear them out and shuffle them, mimicking Mr. Nabokov's composition process.
Dmitri Nabokov's decision to publish the book unleashed a torrent of criticism from scholars and writers who argued that the author's wish to suppress his work outweighs the public's desire to read it. Harvard English professor Leland de la Durantaye and British playwright Tom Stoppard called for it to be destroyed.
Others clamored to have it published, arguing that if Franz Kafka's literary executor had carried out his order to burn his work, we would not have "The Trial," "The Castle," or "Amerika."
In an email interview, the younger Mr. Nabokov wrote that he expected mixed reactions. "Judging by prepublication input, one third of the critics will express their gratitude that I preserved this novel, one third will condemn me for defaming the author, and the remainder will attempt comparisons with my father's other works—an impossible task," he wrote.
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