Vladimir Nabokov was one of the most influential writers of the 20th century. Now, 30 years after his death, his last novel is finally to be published. But should it be? On the eve of his death, fearing it was imperfect, he instructed his wife to destroy the manuscript, sparking a fierce controversy that embroiled family, friends and the literary establishment, writes Robert McCrum
Vladimir Nabokov, the acclaimed author of Ada, Pnin, Pale Fire and that transgressive bestseller Lolita, is a writer whose imaginative mastery continues to torment successive generations. Behind the imminent publication of his posthumous 18th novel is an extraordinary story, a literary magician's spell.
On 5 December 1976, the New York Times Book Review published a pre-Christmas round-up in which a number of famous writers selected the "three books they most enjoyed this year". Vladimir Nabokov's response to this routine inquiry was at once moving and mysterious. Having revealed that he was seriously ill, he listed "the books I read during the summer months of 1976 while hospitalised in Lausanne": Dante's Inferno in the Charles Singleton translation, The Butterflies of North America by William H Howe (Nabokov was a world-famous lepidopterist) and, finally, The Original Of Laura. This, he wrote, was "the not-quite-finished manuscript of a novel which I had begun writing and reworking before my illness and which was completed in my mind".
With artful cunning, Nabokov proceeded to reveal a mystery that is only now, 33 years later, on the brink of being solved. "I must have gone through it [The Original of Laura] some 50 times," he confided, "and in my diurnal delirium kept reading it aloud to a small dream audience in a walled garden."
Those for whom Nabokov is, in the words of Martin Amis, "the laureate of cruelty", see his deathbed decree as peculiarly vexing. But it was not unique. Virgil instructed his heirs to destroy The Aeneid, and was defied by the emperor Augustus. Kafka asked his friend Max Brod to burn all his papers, which included the novels we know as The Trial and The Castle. "Fortunately," said Nabokov in his own lecture on Kafka, "Brod did not comply with his friend's wishes." This remark has been used by the Nabokov estate as a prescient approval of its failure to destroy The Original of Laura.
The burden of administering the Nabokov estate had fallen to the writer's beloved son, "my dearest Dmitri", who was also known to his father as Mitya, Mityusha, Mityenka, Mityushenka and Dmitrichko. An only child, Dmitri has always expressed a quasi-tribal loyalty to the Nabokov name, but that is not the whole story. Vladimir loathed music and never learned to drive; Dmitri is a one-time opera singer with a love of fast cars. In the narrative of what happened next, the complexity of the father-son relationship has played a vital part. Last week, his cousin Ivan Nabokov described to the Observer the executor's anguish. He remembers Dmitri telephoning for support. "If you're asking me, I replied, you've already made up your mind: your instruction was to destroy it. ."
Ron Rosenbaum is a New York journalist who happens to believe, as he told the Observer, that Vladimir Nabokov is "the greatest writer of the 20th century, the only one close to William Shakespeare's level". In November 2005, Rosenbaum, who enjoys a reputation as a literary gadfly, wrote a column, "Dear Dmitri, Don't burn Laura!" in the New York Observer.
Having rehearsed the history of "Tool", Rosenbaum reported an email exchange with Dmitri Nabokov about the manuscript ("He will probably destroy it before he dies!") and closed with a passionate plea: "Won't some university library step forward with a detailed plan for funding the preservation of The Original of Laura, this irreplaceable literary treasure ?"
The teasing went both ways. In 1991, an American librarian published a literary critical essay, apparently by a Swiss professor, entitled "A first look at Nabokov's last novel", which was quickly exposed as a brilliant spoof. Others became entangled in the debate. "It's perfectly straightforward," said Tom Stoppard. "Nabokov wanted it burnt, so burn it."
Novelist Edmund White, whose early work had been championed by Nabokov, was equally blunt. "If a writer really wants something destroyed," he told the Times, "he burns it." John Banville said that this situation was "a difficult and painful one". Conceding that The Original of Laura may turn out to be inferior, Banville decided that it should be saved from the flames. "A great writer is always worth reading," he said, "even at his worst."
So how good was The Original of Laura, and what was its place in the Nabokov canon? Ron Rosenbaum, who had begun to exhibit some of the symptoms that afflict everyone who approaches this manuscript, was now on a mission to find out and it left him wanting, he said, "to spend the rest of my life trying to evaluate its relationship to the rest of VN's work". But when he spoke to the Observer recently, Rosenbaum admitted that he was "deeply conflicted" about what he had seen.
Kurt Vonnegut (d.2007) Look at the Birdie: Unpublished Short Fiction This collection of 14 short stories includes one about insect-sized people and one about an evil machine that tells listeners what they want to hear. A second collection is scheduled for autumn 2010.
William Styron (d.2006) The Suicide Run: Five Tales of the Marine Corps To be published next year is a book of five tales loosely based on Stryon's experience in the US Marine Corps. They include the first chapter of an unfinished novel and a previously unpublished short story.
David Foster Wallace (d.2008) The Pale King Also published next year, but already extracted in Harpers and the New Yorker, this is Foster Wallace's unfinished novel about the "intense tediousness" of working for the Internal Revenue Service.
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