Best to revisit old Nabokov than fragments ...
Best to revisit old Nabokov than fragments of new
November 21, 6:42 PM
A peculiar item adorns the shelves of bookstores this weekend. Sealed in plastic, bound in an austere black cover and published for the first time, “The Original of Laura (Dying is Fun)” is the last—and severely incomplete—labor of Vladimir Nabokov. The entire work consists of 138 handwritten note cards, which the publisher, Knopf, copied onto each page. Most remarkable is not the story itself, but the intimacy of observing so closely a work in progress; of being able to look in on Nabokov’s penmanship, pencil scratches and scrabbled synonym-hunting.
The story is atypically fragmentary and disjointed for a Nabokov piece, and it is a shame it has been published in such a state. (He requested that it be destroyed upon his death.) Instead of struggling to pull coherency from “The Original of Laura,” Nabokov fans will be better served by revisiting an old favorite.
The short story “Natasha,” published in English for the first time in a June 2008 issue of The New Yorker, is another posthumous (but completed) release. It can also be found in the latest edition of his collected short works, “The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov.” Written circa 1924, “Natasha” is multidimensional and well deserving of a second, and even third, reading. The story concerns an ill father (“old Khrenov”) and daughter (Natasha) who share a small apartment in Berlin after being forced to leave their homeland during the Russian Civil War. The story spans two days, and on the first day Khrenov announces to his neighbor (Baron Wolfe) that he knows “perfectly well” that he’ll die tomorrow. Wolfe passes this off as “nonsense,” and Natasha does not seem too concerned either, since the doctor gives her no such alarm.
The remainder of the story deals with how each character copes—or not—with Khrenov’s impending death, which in turn reveals their contrasting perspectives on life. The difference is largely generational. Khrenov, who spent the greater part of his life in old Russia and lost his two sons in the war, was never able to accept his new life in Berlin. As his memory fades, he struggles to hold on to his last sweet recollection—the pleasure of walking through their old village. Very much grounded in reality, Khrenov’s only qualm about dying is that he must die in the “strange city” of Berlin, the city that has made him passive and indifferent to life.
In a sense, Berlin has also made Wolfe and Natasha indifferent, but only to reality. They escape boredom through storytelling, dreams and fantasies. Wolfe tells travel stories concerning places he’s never been. Natasha claims the power of levitation and is most happy in her dreams. For Khrenov, reality haunts him even in his dreams. He is unable to escape his past horrors, and awakes in the night after dreaming a rifle was pointed to his head.
In one sense, father and daughter are opposites. While Natasha is dreaming, “laughing into her pillow,” Khrenov is having a nightmare. The next day, while Natasha is falling in love, Khrenov is dying. But despite their conflicting experiences, they understand each other. Khrenov recognizes Natasha’s need to escape and only wishes he could do the same. Natasha knows her father doesn’t believe her embellishments, but goes on telling them anyways, because “he’ll understand.”
All in all, the story relays the idea that dreams trump reality. Yet it doesn’t fail to also capture the sadness of this fact.
The depth of “Natasha,” and the additional layers of meaning that are revealed with a close re-reading, exemplifies the high standard to which Nabokov adhered. There was a time when “Natasha,” like “The Original of Laura,” also existed as a handful of scrabbled note cards. It is unfortunate that he never got the chance to make “Laura” bloom.
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