NABOKV-L post 0018834, Sat, 21 Nov 2009 19:36:45 -0500

Nabokov's incomplete last novel shows flashes of brilliance ...

The Original of Laura by Vladimir Nabokov
Nabokov's incomplete last novel shows flashes of brilliance, but why it was published remains unclear, says William Skidelsky

William Skidelsky

The Observer, Sunday 22 November 2009
Article history

Vladimir Nabokov and his wife Vera, 1965. Photograph: Getty Images

This is a book that wouldn't exist if its author had had his way. Shortly before his death in 1977, Vladimir Nabokov instructed his wife, Vera, that she should destroy the novel he'd been working on if he didn't live to complete it. When, having spent the rest of her life procrastinating, Vera died in 1991, responsibility for the unfinished manuscript devolved to the couple's son, Dmitri. He too spent many years fretting before deciding, in his seventies, to go against his father's wishes and publish the book. This undeniably handsome – but also problematic – volume is the result.

The Original of Laura: (Dying is Fun) a Novel in Fragments (Penguin Modern Classics)
by Vladimir Nabokov
Penguin Classics,

Buy The Original of Laura: (Dying is Fun) a Novel in Fragments (Penguin Modern Classics) at the Guardian bookshop

Nabokov drafted his novels in pencil on index cards before handing them over to a secretary to type up. In order to reflect The Original of Laura's embryonic nature, the publishers have reproduced all 138 written-on cards, setting each in its own right-hand page, with the text running in type below. They have come up with the further ingenious trick (or gimmick, depending on how you look at it) of giving the cards perforated edges. This means that the reader can, if so inclined, detach them from the pages and rearrange them in his or her preferred order.

Actually, though, you'd only conceivably want to do this with around half the cards, because the first 60 or so are clearly in the right order. They tell a coherent story which suddenly breaks off and the remaining cards are little more than a collection of jottings. Presumably, some of these would have found their way into the completed novel, but many others would have been discarded. This is why the phrase "A novel in fragments", which is how the publishers have chosen to describe The Original of Laura, is slightly misleading. The book is actually a completed draft of roughly half of a (very slim) novel and a series of notes towards the rest.

In his introduction, Dmitri Nabokov describes the work as an "embryonic masterpiece". Is it? Well, it certainly is in many respects a fascinating document. At first, the story centres on an affair between an unnamed "man of letters" and a nubile 24-year-old with "squinty nipples" called Flora. This is hardly new territory for Nabokov, but he gives it a clever twist: the story he is telling emerges as only the "original", or raw material, of a novel that has subsequently been written about the affair, in which Flora's name has been changed to "Laura". The narrator informs us that this other book, My Laura, "was begun very soon after the end of the love affair it depicts, was completed in one year, published three months later, and promptly torn apart by a book reviewer in a leading newspaper". He notes that it went on to become a bestseller.

What we are being presented with, then, is a kind of literary conjuring trick. We are invited to believe that we are reading not a made-up story but a slice of real life, before it was brushed up, elaborated upon and turned into fiction. Only, of course, this is nonsense, because the work that we are reading is also a fiction, itself presumably based upon some other "original" whose nature we can only guess at. The book thus poses a chain of "originals" and duplicates, potentially stretching into infinity. If Flora is the original of Laura, who is the original of Flora?

There is something rather brilliant about this idea, which is at once simple and dizzying, as postmodern conceits should be. And Nabokov pulls it off with the nonchalance of someone tossing a ball in the air. It seems likely that, had Nabokov finished it, The Original of Laura would indeed have been an important work, if not necessarily a masterpiece.

Yet the problem is that he didn't finish it and, in fact, he was a long way from doing so. About halfway through the book, it seems that Nabokov ran into creative difficulties, because the initial narrative breaks off and the text mutates into something different: the agonised internal monologue of Flora's fat neurologist husband, Philip Wild, who, we gather, suffers from unbearably sore feet. (Nabokov, at this time, also suffered from recurring foot pains, in addition to the bronchial illness that eventually killed him.)

Wild, we learn, has a recurring fantasy of "self-deletion": he imagines himself as a stick drawing on a blackboard, which he then begins rubbing out, from his painful feet upwards, a process that brings him "ecstatic relief". Once again, this is an interesting idea, but it is hard to see how, in the context of this novel, it could have been fully realised. Wild's fractured monologue doesn't easily slot into the story that Nabokov has thus far been telling; it is almost as if it belongs to another book.

There are other things to appreciate about The Original of Laura. The style is not vintage Nabokov (he was by this point in sharp decline), but there are some nice touches. A pre-coital Laura locates a pair of morocco slippers that are "foetally folded into their zippered pouch", an image that manages to be both sweet and faintly obscene. And Nabokov's ornate vocabulary is predictably fun, especially when applied to body parts. Referring to Flora's naked back, Nabokov writes of the "mobile omoplates of a child being tubbed", which, again, is creepily delicious.

Further entertainment is provided by Dmitri Nabokov's pompous, atrociously written introduction. Having laboured all his life in the long shadow cast by his father, Dmitri is clearly determined to make the most of his minute in the spotlight. He casts himself as a latterday Max Brod, charged with a decision of monumental importance whose consequences will reverberate through literary history.

For a man with such an obvious inferiority complex, his tone is remarkably haughty. He harps on about the "lesser minds" and "individuals of limited imagination" who have presumed to conjecture about Nabokov's true wishes in relation to the manuscript. Yet he reveals his own literary ignorance by having an absurd pop at Henry Miller, whose Parisian publisher, he grudgingly notes, Nabokov was forced to share – the indignity! – when Lolita was rejected in America. The thing that you really want Dmitri to provide – an honest account of his reasons for publishing The Original of Laura – is missing. Instead, he takes refuge in windy evasions, telling us that he was guided in his preservation of the manuscript "not by playfulness or calculation, but by an otherforce I could not resist" – whatever that means.

He also doesn't say anything about money, which is surely no accident. It seems likely that this book will have a more significant impact on the size of Dmitri Nabokov's bank balance than it ever will on the world of letters.

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