NY Times "Original of Laura" Review ...
The unfinished “Original of Laura” comes ready for devotees to read and remix.
Nabokov’s Last Puzzle
By DAVID GATES
Published: November 11, 2009
In the late fall of 1976, the year before he died, The New York Times Book Review asked Vladimir Nabokov (along with a number of other writers, including John Dean) what he’d been reading lately. He reported that while in a Lausanne hospital that summer, he’d read Dante’s “Inferno,” William H. Howe’s “Butterflies of North America” and “The Original of Laura,” “the not quite finished manuscript of a novel which I had begun writing and reworking before my illness and which was completed in my mind.” In his delirium, he continued, he “kept reading it aloud to a small dream audience in a walled garden. My audience consisted of peacocks, pigeons, my long dead parents, two cypresses, several young nurses crouching around, and a family doctor so old as to be almost invisible. Perhaps because of my stumblings and fits of coughing the story of my poor Laura had less success with my listeners than it will have, I hope, with intelligent reviewers when properly published.” I can take a hint: who’d want to pan Nabokov and end up among the “mediocrities” on his enemies list, to which he might still be adding over on the other side?
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Carl Mydans/Time & Life Pictures — Getty Images (1958)
THE ORIGINAL OF LAURA
(Dying Is Fun)
By Vladimir Nabokov
Edited by Dmitri Nabokov
278 pp. Alfred A. Knopf. $35
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Illustration from “The Original of Laura.”
But although “The Original of Laura” has, at long last, been properly published — assuming it was proper to publish it at all — there’s not enough of it to be properly reviewed, as Nabokov himself would surely understand. “Not quite finished” with the manuscript? This was a sad understatement, for public consumption. As his biographer Brian Boyd explains, Nabokov would customarily “envisage a novel in his mind complete from start to finish before writing it down” — on 3-by-5 cards, which allowed him to work on any section he wanted to, then place it “in the sequence he had foreseen, among the stack already written” — and, in the case of “Laura,” “a series of accidents and illnesses would keep him from transferring to his index cards more than a patch or two of his bright mental picture.” The 138 cards we have add up to perhaps 45 printed pages of a novel — of who knows what projected length. The cover of the published book identifies “The Original of Laura” as “A novel in fragments,” as if it were some deliberate experiment in form. In fact, it’s simply fragments of a novel: the first five chapters, some taking up just a few cards, along with drafts and parts of other chapters, a random phrase or sentence here and there, and some notes.
Except for that bit of overselling, “The Original of Laura (Dying Is Fun)” — it’s not clear how seriously Nabokov was considering that parenthetical subtitle — should serve as a model of how to publish a posthumous and unfinished manuscript. (The countermodel is the published version of Hemingway’s “Garden of Eden,” not a serious edition of a great writer’s epic mess, but a market-driven remix, with no information about the extent of the high-handed cutting and splicing.) Dmitri Nabokov , Nabokov’s son and literary executor, has provided not just a transcription of his father’s handwritten notecards (complete with grammatical and spelling errors), arranged in sensible, if debatable, order, but facsimiles of the cards themselves, perforated so they can be detached from the book and reordered by scholars who think they know better, or by general readers with time on their hands.
Necessarily, the younger Nabokov’s introduction addresses the question of whether the manuscript ought to have been published in the first place, since his father had directed that the cards be burned were he to die before actually getting the novel written. Nabokov’s wife, Vera, procrastinated — “due to age, weakness and immeasurable love” — until her own death in 1991; should the son have honored his wish? The playwright Tom Stoppard has said yes, the journalist Ron Rosenbaum has said no (in thunder), but it was really never anybody’s business but the Nabokovs’. “To me,” Nabokov fils writes, “my parents, in a sense, had never died, but lived on, looking over my shoulder in a kind of virtual limbo, available to offer a thought or counsel to assist me with a vital decision,” and he ultimately concluded that “in putative retrospect, Nabokov would not have wanted me to become his Person from Porlock.” If that’s good enough for him, it should be good enough for the rest of us; it’s a moot point now, and Nabokovians at least will be grateful that the old man changed his putative mind.
But his son’s analogy is inexact: the never-identified “person on business” who interrupted Coleridge’s opium vision of “Kubla Khan” didn’t destroy the short text we now have; he merely caused the vanishment of the much fuller version supposedly brewing in the poet’s head. Nabokov’s person from Porlock, according to his son’s account, was apparently a “hospital bacillus” — or a nurse who left his window open. A more accurate analogue might be Dickens’s “Mystery of Edwin Drood,” though “Drood” is a far more finished production — Dickens had planned 12 installments and lived to complete the first six — and since he’d been issuing it in serial form as he wrote, his family never had to agonize over its publication. Dickens got far enough with “Drood” to plant ambiguous clues that have enabled generations of readers to speculate, as he meant its original month-by-month audience to do, about how it would have ended. Nabokov liked to make mysteries and plant clues himself — readers of “Lolita” will recall how deftly he hid Clare Quilty in plain sight for most of the novel — and “The Original of Laura” has enough obscure indications to keep his most obsessive admirers arguing about where he was going, though too little conclusive evidence to detain anyone else for long.
In the opening chapters, Philip Wild, a wealthy and grossly fat neurologist, is married to an “extravagantly slender,” unfaithful, much younger gold digger named Flora. She’s said to serve as the model for Laura, the main character in a roman à clef written by one of her lovers, in which “a neurotic and hesitant man of letters . . . destroys his mistress in the act of portraying her.” This novelist-lover, who seems to be the narrator of Nabokov’s novel, may be named Nigel Dalling, or Delling — and may be the “A.N.D.” who, in a fragmentary episode, is told he has a tumor on his prostate. (Or is he the unidentified Eric, who, on the one card in which he’s mentioned, expatiates on his preferred method of achieving orgasm?) Wild, too, is writing a book — “not a work of fiction which one dashes off, you know, to make money,” but “a mad neurologist’s testament” — of which we get extracts in his own voice. He tells of having somehow “hit upon the art of thinking away my body, my being, mind itself.” He achieves this “self-deletion” by putting himself in a trance state, projecting “a mental image of himself upon his inner blackboard,” then mentally erasing it. “To break the trance all you do is to restore in every chalkbright details the simple picture of yourself.”
How did Nabokov plan to connect these two strands of his story — the mistress-destroying lover and the self-annihilating scientist? We’ll never know. Wild’s arcane technique of self-erasure must be connected somehow or other with the novelist’s annihilating his mistress “in the act of portraying her”; the association of depiction with destruction is common to both. But the writer can’t have destroyed her in the literal act of writing, since at one point we see the still-living Flora beginning to read a paperback copy of the novel in which Laura dies. “Let me show you your wonderful death,” says a friend who’s already finished the book. “You’ll scream with laughter. It’s the craziest death in the world.” So does the novel “destroy” Flora in some figurative sense? Perhaps reading it goads her cuckolded husband (who calls it a “maddening masterpiece”) into using his mental eraser on her? We assume that the original of Laura has to die some “crazy” death or other, as her fictive double does, but their creator beat them both to the finish line.
nd here’s a puzzle for hard-core Nabokov obsessives. From a free-standing paragraph headed “End of penult chapter,” we infer that after Wild dies of a heart attack, the novelist-lover gets hold of his “testament” — they seem to have the same typist — and arranges for its publication, though we don’t know how, where or why. Are we to suspect that the lover has invented Wild’s mystic manuscript? And even Wild himself? (Readers of “Pale Fire” still argue over whether Shade invented Kinbote or vice versa.) Yet the lover has already made Wild a character in the “Laura” novel, under the transparent name of “Philidor Sauvage.” Would even a trickster like Nabokov invent a character who invents a character and then invents a pseudonym for him? Nabokovians are welcome to take it from here, as long as I don’t have to go with them. And while they’re at it, who’s the oddly named Ivan Vaughan, who seems to know Flora and who appears in one uncompleted chapter to tell us that “the novel My ‘Laura’ ” was “torn apart by a book reviewer in a leading newspaper”?
Had “The Original of Laura” fully existed anywhere but in Nabokov’s head, it might have been as ingenious as “Transparent Things,” which was narrated from beyond the grave, and it probably would have been more fun than the listless anti-self-portrait “Look at the Harlequins!” But none of the characters here, to the extent we get to know them, inspire much affection, whatever fondness Nabokov might have felt for his “poor Laura.” Philip Wild, with his stinking feet, graphically described digestive problems, grotesque bulk and sentimentally remembered first love — this one is called Aurora Lee, in a deliberate echo of Humbert Humbert’s Annabel Leigh — veers between disgusting and pitiable. Flora seems to have no redeeming features, even for him, beyond her “cup-sized” breasts and “narrow nates of an ambiguous irresistible charm.” Her callous nymphetry and her attempted victimization at the hands — literally — of an aspiring pedophile named Hubert H. Hubert suggest that Nabokov is either (best case) winking at his readers or (worst case) running out of ideas. Even he seems bored by his now-obligatory swipe at “a certain Dr. Freud, a madman.”
The younger Nabokov’s introduction claims that “despite its incompleteness,” “The Original of Laura” is “unprecedented in structure and style.” Brian Boyd recently made a similar claim to The Wall Street Journal: “The opening few words just blew me away. 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.” I just can’t see the evidence. The absence of a plot — what we have here is all setup for unknown events to come — indicates that we don’t know what structure Nabokov had in mind. So, in fact, does his son’s implicit invitation to reshuffle the cards. And what’s the unique narrative device in those opening words? “Her husband, she answered, was a writer, too — at least, after a fashion.” Does Boyd mean the device of beginning a novel in medias res, with a character answering a question we don’t get to hear? Virginia Woolf did the same thing in the first sentence of “To the Lighthouse.”
The style of Nabokov’s very last work hardly seems “unprecedented” either, but especially for an aging, ailing man, he was in fine form. This, rather than imputed formal innovations or supposed insights into his writing process — we’ve known for years that he wrote on index cards, and that, like other mortals, he revised and deleted and made notes to himself — makes “The Original of Laura” worth the frustration of reading it. In one passage he slyly melds two of his best-known obsessions: in a miniature chess set, with holes on the board to fix the pieces, “the pin-sized pawns penetrated easily, but the slightly larger noblemen had to be forced in with an ennervating joggle.” In others, he’s still playing with English words as if they were brand-new toys: an abdomen, for instance, is “so flat as to belie the notion of ‘belly.’ ” And not even in “Lolita” did he write a description more visually and verbally inventive, or more simultaneously heartbreaking, than his glance at Wild and Flora’s necessary mode of copulation: “he reclining on cushions, she sitting in the fauteuil of his flesh with her back to him . . . and he holding her in front of him like a child being given a sleighride down a short slope by a kind stranger.” Aside from these small, if genuine, pleasures, “The Original of Laura” probably won’t go over any bigger with real-life readers than it did with that dream audience of peacocks, pigeons and parents. In neither case, of course, would its reception be the author’s fault. I’m willing to believe that the real novel — not the one we now see through a glass darkly — was Nabokov’s last-minute masterwork, but I’m in no hurry to see it face to face.
David Gates’s most recent book is “The Wonders of the Invisible World,” a collection of stories.
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