NABOKV-L post 0018844, Tue, 24 Nov 2009 13:41:51 +1300

Re: Brian Boyd review of TOOL in Financial Times
Brian Boyd has also written a longer review of TOOL forthcoming in the Toronto Globe and Mail and an essay on Nabokov's Literary Legacy, with a more substantial discussion of TOOL, for the American Scholar (spring 2010) and an essay on TOOL for a special issue of La Revue de Deux Mondes (spring 2010).

The Original Of Laura

Review by Brian Boyd

Published: November 23 2009 03:41 | Last updated: November 23 2009 03:41


The Original Of Laura
By Vladimir Nabokov
Penguin Classics £25
Knopf $35, 304 pages
FT Bookshop<> price: £20

In my role as Nabokov's biographer, I was the first person other than Nabokov, his widow and his son to read The Original of Laura. After years of imploring Véra Nabokov for access to the manuscript, so that I could write accurately about the novelist's last years and his final but unfinished novel, she allowed me to read it in 1987, 10 years after her husband's death - once only, without taking notes, and under her eyes, which were trained on me like a drill. When Véra and her son Dmitri later asked me what I thought they should do with the manuscript, which Nabokov had told Véra she must destroy, I said, to my own surprise, "Destroy it." How glad I am that they ignored my advice and that their attachment to Nabokov's work overrode even their respect for his wishes.

[]The Original of Laura could have been published badly, as if it were a new Lolita. Instead it has been better published than I could have imagined.

Nabokov famously composed in pencil, on index cards, and not in sequence but working on any part of the image already firmly in place in his mind. The Original of Laura reproduces each index card, front and back, perforated so that it can be taken out and reshuffled according to the reader's sense of the ideal arrangement. Spoiler alert: you might think that the card on page 189, "First a," in Nabokov's private number code, for instance, should be taken out and inserted almost within the card on page 1, which bears the novel's title and Nabokov's "Ch. One."

Nabokov's careful hand could hardly be more legible, but the bottom half of each page also prints an edited version of the text. Sometimes a rapid thought, a new phrase written over a smudgy erasure, or a preoccupied mind's careless spelling blurs the handwritten edition and makes the printed text particularly welcome.

Subtitled "A Novel in Fragments" on the cover and "(Dying is Fun)" on the title page, the publication of The Original of Laura rightly flaunts its unfinishedness. Readers should not expect a new story to rival Lolita's intensity or a new character to match Pnin's pathos but, instead, glimpses of a famously challenging writer still challenging himself and his readers in his late 1970s, with death closing in.

Death also closes in on the two main characters in very different ways. Philip Wild, lecturer in experimental psychology at the University of Ganglia, enormously fat but teetering on tiny feet, experiments with willing his own death, shutting off his body from his feet upwards, but restoring himself again at will. Death takes him anyway by surprise: Wild's death, after all, will be unwilled.

His much younger wife, the deliciously unlikable and dizzyingly unfaithful Flora, is the original of the heroine of a kiss-and-tell novel, My Laura, by a thoroughly elusive, thoroughly self-erasing lover. A bestseller, it also proves to be, to Wild, "a maddening masterpiece". In what seems as if it would have been the last chapter of The Original of Laura - "Last" and "Z" in Nabokov's code - one of her friends notices Flora on a railway platform on a bench with a soft-cover My Laura on her lap. Flora doubts whether she will be able to read it, but her friend insists she must read the story of her life. "And there's your wonderful death ... You'll scream with laughter. It's the craziest death in the world." But Flora will have none of it.

I mentioned an alternative card for the opening of the novel. But just as it is, the opening shows Nabokov at the peak of his powers. The Original of Laura starts with a breathless haste it maintains for five chapters: "Her husband, she answered, was a writer, too - at least, after a fashion."

We never learn the question she is responding to, and we never quite keep up with the pace of the story.

The Original of Laura reminds me of the myth of Atalanta and the golden apples. At top speed the narrator, if there is one, picks up a stray fact, darts aside, nonchalantly drops one subject, gathers up another, and still races ahead.

Nabokov has a reputation, not undeserved, of being a great prose stylist, perhaps even the greatest. The Original of Laura makes us rethink.

His style may be most extraordinary not so much as prose but as story. That opening sentence wins no prizes as prose - plain diction, and a double concession that weakens the force of the statement - but as storytelling it astounds.

For centuries, I predict, scholars of narrative will focus on the opening chapter of The Original of Laura as proof of the new finds to be made in fiction - in characterisation, setting, action, speech, narration.

Right now, readers will be amused and appalled at Flora's heartless sexuality; dizzy at the speed of the action and disappointed when it peters out into drafts; teased and tantalised by the other strands of story. Some will be fascinated by peeks into the workshop of genius and by playing at a puzzle with pieces missing. And everyone who buys the book will love Chip Kidd's design: its cover a haunting echo of Wild's self-erasure and Nabokov's erasure by death, its pages showing Nabokov's revisions and cross-outs and his dying, as it were - and it was no fun - into the pages of his book.

Brian Boyd is author of 'Vladimir Nabokov: The Russian Years, Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years' (Princeton) and editor of 'Nabokov's Verses and Versions: Three Centuries of Russian Poetry' (Harcourt)

Copyright<> The Financial Times Limited 2009.

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