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Nabokov’s 'The Original of Laura' More About Readers Than Writer
November 17, 2009 - 2:30am
By Ted Hamilton
Vladimir Nabokov’s posthumous The Original of Laura, released nationwide today, is marketed as “A Novel in Fragments.” A more accurate title may have been “Fragments of a Novel” — as a collection of detachable notecards with little continuity, they represent only the bare outlines of the master’s final, unfinished work.
Still, the book’s release is a cause for celebration. Nabokov wanted his notecards burned upon his death 32 years ago, but his son Dmitri, after decades of hesitation (and a good amount of media posturing), decided to publish them in book form. As The Sun reported yesterday, The Original of Laura, was released a day early at The Cornell Store, and two talks by preeminent Nabokov scholar Brian Boyd this Thursday and Friday will revisit the influence of Cornell’s most esteemed professor of literature.
We should be cautious, though, of exaggerating the significance of these events. While Cornell is justly proud of playing host to one of the greatest authors of the past century, and while the publication of previously unavailable material is always a boon to scholarship, The Original of Laura, is no revelation.
The bare outlines of the “story” — the corpulent Philip Wild and his elusive, heartbreaking wife Flora (or Flaura or Laura or Aurora Lee — typical Nabokovian mirroring) are depicted in a book called Laura, they reflect on it, identities are obscured — have been known for some time, thanks to advance releases and savvy publicizing by Dmitri and his publishers. The notecards (Nabokov mentally conceived his novels in full before setting them down in sections on note cards) rarely offer than a few hundred words of continuous narration. The headings marking chapter or thematic breaks (e.g. “Medical Intermezzo”) are somewhat confused, and there are several cards that contain merely a few notes. One reads: “Similarly … spare prose of the author with its pruning of rich adjectives”; another: “D … its tempting emptiness.”
What is required to fill in the blanks, then, is a leap of faith. Dmitri, in his introduction, calls The Original of Laura, an “embryonic masterpiece” with “pockets of genius.” Perhaps. We have hints of an involuted and typically self-regarding text, with Nabokov distorting the name of his female protagonist and suggesting that “the ‘I’ of the book is a neurotic and hesitant man of letters, who destroys his mistress in the act of portraying her.” In an already-celebrated section, Wild wills his own destruction by slowly shutting down his body, starting with the toes. The writing throughout, if not polished, is tantalizing.
But who’s to say what the final product would have resembled? Nabokov was an incessant reviser, and, for all his advance preparation, he often changed the forms of his work. Even the famous structure of Pale Fire, with its poem followed by a commentary, was absent in the first drafts.
What we have then, is more a collection of notes than an “unfinished novel.” That’s fine; our understanding of a writer’s work is enhanced by more material, no matter its relative quality. And the ingenious presentation of the book — readers can tear the notecards out and rearrange them as they please — makes The Original of Laura, more than a mere erratum in a great author’s catalog. Essentially, it’s an exercise in fetishism: an opportunity for Nabokovians and lovers of literary curiosities to escape into a stillborn creation, to tease their minds with what-ifs? and why-nots? By presenting as a united whole what was never meant to be collected, Dmitri has in a sense made his own work of art, one that relies heavily on his father but is equally dependent on its stratified form. Thus scraps and scribbles — like one on an unnumbered card that ends a long list of “and the …” conjunctions with “and the … autosuggestion … autosugetist … autosuggestive” — take on a poetry of their own, unmoored from authorial intent.
The Original of Laura, should never be numbered among Vladimir Nabokov’s works. Its constituent elements, the notecards, will be of great service to academics, but in the form in which it is released today it is a hybrid work, a son’s reassessment of a father’s sketches and a reader-initiated work of scholarly speculation. Qualms over whether the elder Nabokov’s wishes were respected — Tom Stoppard, for one, has called for the cards to be burned — are misplaced: Vladimir is only one author of the book, and its publication marks an act of filial and scholarly piety rather than a “new release” by a dead master. As such, it’s an interesting experiment in participatory art. So let us not forget Nabokov’s lesson that, in literature, the relationship between the reader and the writer is the defining one — especially now, when the author’s presence has never been fainter.
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