Perverse Nabokov Characters ...
Perverse Nabokov Characters Torment Each Other in Final Novel
Review by Craig Seligman
Nov. 18 (Bloomberg) -- Vladimir Nabokov made it clear before he died that he didn’t want his notes for his unfinished final novel published; he wanted them burned. But here they are 32 years later between hard covers, in a volume edited by his only child, Dmitri Nabokov , and it seems unlikely that very many people are going to complain.
“The Original of Laura (Dying Is Fun)” is magnificently packaged (the design is by Knopf’s resident genius, Chip Kidd), bizarrely plotted (adultery, suicide, girth) and a short, fast read.
The double plot, reflected in the double title, involves the incompatible partners in a perverse marriage. The adulterous young wife, Flora, becomes the basis for the central character in a novel called “Laura” or “My Laura” -- hence Nabokov’s title.
Her husband, Philip Wild, is a neurologist “of great corpulence and fame” who has become obsessed with “auto- dissolution,” a version of fantasized suicide that leads to “the greatest ecstasy known to man.” Hence Nabokov’s subtitle.
While anyone familiar with Nabokov’s late work knows that his meanings (and sometimes even his plots) can be maddeningly elusive, if you can’t make sense of something in this one you can console yourself by blaming its fragmentary state.
What the novelist left at his death, in 1977, was a small stack of index cards. Some were effectively manuscript pages, others just notes. The new volume offers careful reproductions of all 138 of them, front and back, one per sheet of heavy-gauge paper.
They’re easy to read -- Nabokov’s penmanship (pencilmanship, actually) is beautifully legible, though with some cursory punctuation and a few eccentric spellings (“erazed,” “stomack”). For good measure the contents of each card have been typeset beneath it.
And not only that: Their edges are perforated, so you can rip them out and shuffle them around as the author might have. I doubt that many owners will want to deface such a good-looking book, but if you have children in the house, watch out.
Nabokov, it’s clear at once, was a writer who paid careful attention to his first drafts, as opposed to one who vomits everything onto the page and then, little by little, cleans up. (Why am I not surprised?) Generally the sentences in “The Original of Laura” are polished to a Nabokovian luster:
“Her bare insteps were as white as her young shoulders.”
“The fountain took quite a time to get correctly erected after an initial series of unevenly spaced spasms.”
And my favorite:
“A cloudless September maddened the crickets.”
The puns and word games, the fixed sneer (“Malraux, Mauriac, Maurois, Michaux, Michima, Montherland and Morand ... were stunning mediocrities”), and the delectation of cruelty make the provenance unmistakable. Nabokov was the anti-Henry James: Kindness figured low on his scale of values, and the characters in “The Original of Laura” torment one another entertainingly.
(Judging by Dmitri Nabokov’s brief, absorbing introduction, he has inherited his father’s gift for superciliousness.)
There are also winking allusions to earlier work: a Mr. Espenshade who may be a nod to John Shade in “Pale Fire,” an Aurora Lee and one Hubert H. Hubert who refer (one probably, one certainly) to Annabel Leigh and you-know-who in “Lolita.”
Obviously if you haven’t read Nabokov this is the wrong place to start. Otherwise, the author’s qualms notwithstanding, these ghostly notes can only add a few more inches to his pedestal.
“The Original of Laura (Dying Is Fun)” is published by Knopf (278 pages, $35). To buy this book in North America, click here.
(Craig Seligman is a critic for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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Last Updated: November 18, 2009 00:01 EST
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