When death triumphs over the writer's art ...
Philip Hensher: When death triumphs over the writer's art
Monday, 26 October 2009
For 30 years, a famous bundle of 138 index cards has remained in a Swiss bank vault. Famous, but seen by hardly anybody. The novel that Vladimir Nabokov was working on at the time of his death, The Original of Laura, was preserved by his family against his apparent wishes to have it destroyed if he died with it unfinished.
From time to time, his son, Dmitri, let it be known that it might really have been disposed of; on other occasions, some scholars, including Brian Boyd, were given access to it. Now, it is being published in the state in which Nabokov left it. It comes out on 17 November, and not much fiction this year has raised so much excitement.
At first, it seems extraordinary. Late Nabokov does not fascinate many readers. His last three novels – Ada, Transparent Things and Look at the Harlequins! – probably sell only a tiny trickle of copies every year. I've read all three, but dutifully, and would never claim that Nabokov's Seventies fiction adds much to the magisterial authority of Lolita, Pale Fire and Speak Memory. If Nabokov had died four years earlier, we would now be getting excited about an incomplete first draft of Look at the Harlequins! Would that be justified?
Posthumous works often excite attention, because they play to a romantic idea of the artist, struggling against mortality. Death triumphs over art, in flat contradiction of the Latin tag, ars longa, vita brevis. The novel, or symphony, or whatever, cut short by mortality is the arts pages' equivalent of Man Bites Dog. Posthumous publication, and the hailing of a lost masterpiece, seems to restore things to their natural order.
But not many of these posthumous restitutions, sad to say, have in practice advanced a reputation. For every Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky, or Alban Berg's Lulu, there is The Buccaneers by Edith Wharton or the last symphonies of Mahler or Elgar. Raymond Carver's first drafts have recently been brought out, and the rational response to them must be that his editor, Gordon Lish, who often cut a story by two-thirds, knew what he was about. Pop music has recently got in on the act; Michael Jackson's concert rehearsals are about to get a profitable afterlife, and Tupac Shakur released more albums dead than alive.
The worst case is Hemingway, who had a substantial body of work brought out sometimes decades after his death. There is one important book, A Moveable Feast, but then negligible things – True at First Light, The Dangerous Summer, The Garden of Eden. None of these adds anything to his reputation. The best you can say is they don't themselves diminish the quality of For Whom the Bell Tolls.
When a novelist actually prepares a book for publication which can't, for whatever reason, be brought out in their lifetime, the case may be different. EM Forster's homosexual novel Maurice could be published only 60 years after it was written, and is a masterpiece; Elizabeth Taylor's last novel, Blaming, is one of her most plangent and memorable works. Indeed, in her last days she took care to destroy an unpublished novel – there was an artist who knew what she was about.
It's too easy to say that if Nabokov had not wanted The Original of Laura published, he should have destroyed it. Whatever its quality is, we would always want to know what the last thoughts of a writer of his importance were. Yet it does seem odd that we get more excited over an unfinished and fragmentary work than over the published and polished novels which preceded it. Do you know: I might even give Transparent Things another go.
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