Nabokov’s Notes For “The Origi nal of Lau ra” Go on the Auctio n Block .. .
THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
November 12, 2009, 5:45 PM ET
Nabokov’s Notes For “The Original of Laura” Go on the Auction Block
By Kate Taylor
The note cards on which Nabokov wrote his unfinished novel “The Original of Laura.”
Looking for the perfect gift for the reader in your life? Sure, you could get them a copy of Vladimir Nabokov’s last, unfinished novel, “The Original of Laura,” which the author’s son, Dmitri, defied his father’s injunction to burn after much public agonizing. The Knopf hardcover, which comes out next week, reproduces Nabokov’s handwritten index cards, complete with perforated edges so that one can punch them out and rearrange them as the author might have in his last days.
But if you’re looking for something really special, skip the bookstore and head to Christie’s, where on December 4 you can bid on the actual thing: the 138 index cards on which Nabokov composed (in pencil) the work his son would call “an embryonic masterpiece.” Don’t expect to get them cheap, though. As the auction catalogue notes, manuscripts by Nabokov come on the market very rarely. Accordingly, the estimate is $400,000 to $600,000.
The index cards will also be on exhibit on Monday night at the 92nd Street Y, but only for ticket holders to the first-ever public reading of “The Original of Laura,” to be held there. Knopf said that Dmitri Nabokov was ill and not doing interviews, and his literary agent, Andrew Wylie, declined to connect a reporter with him. In answer to e-mailed questions about why his client decided to sell the manuscript at auction, Mr. Wylie said simply that Dmitri Nabokov “has a good relationship with Christie’s, dating over a number of years.”
The head of the books and manuscripts department at Christie’s, Thomas Lecky, said no significant literary manuscript by Nabokov has come up at auction before. (Copies of five of Nabokov’s novels, inscribed to the sister and cousin of his wife, Véra, are also included in the Dec. 4 auction. Their estimates hover in the region of $10,000 each.)
Of the coincidence of the sale and the novel’s publication, Lecky said, “It will certainly increase the exposure of both.
They’re obviously intimately linked,” since the Knopf book reproduces the cards. Asked if any institutions had expressed interest so far in the manuscript, Lecky said it’s “still pretty early, but there have been people who have inquired from various corners of the world.”
Institutions that might be interested in the manuscript include the New York Public Library, which has a Nabokov archive that it purchased from Dmitri in 1991, and the Library of Congress, which has a collection of Nabokov papers, originally donated by the author in 1959 and added to over time. Representatives of both institutions declined to comment on whether they would participate in the auction.
In any case, Dmitri, who is in his 70s, will certainly be richer for having decided to embrace “The Original of Laura.” The price Knopf paid for the novel has not been disclosed, but it was no doubt hefty. The literary editor of Playboy, which ran a first serial, told the New York Observer that “we’ve never paid this much for a book excerpt before, ever.” And now the auction.
Nabokov’s biographer, Brian Boyd, said in an email that the author would not be at all disturbed by his son’s profiting from “Laura.” “Nabokov himself drew elaborate invented butterflies in dedication copies especially to his wife and son, knowing that they would be a good investment for Dmitri, as they have been,” Boyd wrote. “He would have had no qualms about the sale now that images of the cards themselves are in the published book.”
In his introduction to the Knopf edition, Dmitri writes that it was painful at first to examine the index cards, and, as he worked on putting the novel in readable form, it became like a “disturbing specter that seemed to be living a simultaneous twin life of its own in the stillness of a strong-box and the meanders of my mind.”
Perhaps when the hammer falls on December 4, Dmitri will no longer be haunted.
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