Piecing together Nabokov’s 138 handwritten index cards.
The Original of Laura
By Vladimir Nabokov
Knopf, 304 pp.
Vladimir Nabokov wished one could read a novel the way one looks at a painting, taking it all in at once, “without the absurdity of beginnings and ends…for thus the author saw it at the moment of its conception.” Little did he know he would go on to achieve something close to this, albeit from the grave and against his wishes. The Original of Laura, the novel Nabokov was working on when he died, was recently published despite his explicit instruction to his family to burn it. Critics have complained about the book’s existence, as if by publishing his father’s incomplete work, Dmitri Nabokov has revealed the man behind the wizard’s curtain. But really The Original of Laura gives us a striking look at the creative process of an artist whose primary subject was the creative process.
The book is not really a book at all. Physically, it is an ordered collection of hand-written note cards, one allotted to each page, with the text printed below. Its brilliant design has every note card reproduced and perforated, allowing the reader to punch out all the cards and rearrange them as he or she sees fit. Their correct order is uncertain, and the reader is thereby freed from “the absurdity of beginnings and ends,” for better or worse. We get a good look at how Nabokov constructed his fiction in a way that he never would have allowed us.
The work has two primary plots: the first centers on Flora, a philistine, a revolving door of a woman with a barrage of lovers and family members entering and exiting her life; the second is a slower study of her husband Philip’s experiment in “auto-dissolution,” a trance-induced procedure he discovers for making oneself slowly vanish into thin air.
Death in Flora’s story is dealt with rapidly as characters are dismissed in one or two sentences. The first death is that of Flora’s grandfather, which is treated regretfully: “What can be sadder than a discouraged artist dying not from his own commonplace maladies, but from the cancer of oblivion invading his once famous pictures…?” Flora’s father makes the next exit:
Adam Lind had always had an inclination for trick photography and this time, before shooting himself in a Monte Carlo hotel (on the night, sad to relate, of his wife’s very real success in Piker’s “Narcisse et Narcette”), he geared and focussed [sic] his camera in a corner of the drawing room so as to record the event from different angles. These automatic pictures of his last moments and of a table’s lion-paws did not come out to [sic] well; but his widow easily sold them for the price of a flat in Paris to the local magazine Pitch which specialized in soccer and diabolical faits-divers.
With the publication of The Original of Laura, readers are able to witness Nabokov mulling over death as he himself drew closer to it; they see him toying with it and experimenting with it. What they do not get, however, is a clear or direct statement on death. Nabokov had already written a great deal about death earlier in his career, as he had about artifice and the ordering of life’s trifles, but in his old age he applies artistic manipulation directly to death, exploring what it would be like to control death’s details. And so one of the most fascinating things about The Original of Laura is that it is an incomplete contemplation of death and artifice that reveals Nabakov’s creative process in a startling way.
It seems Nabokov intended to comment in some way on his own past work with this book, for as the story progresses a man named Hubert H. Hubert makes a brief appearance. And as anyone familiar with Lolita might guess, Hubert H. Hubert is fond of Lolita-like nymphets. Flora happens to be just such a nymphet at the time of his cameo. He enters the picture as a lonely friend of Flora’s mother but is immediately attracted to young Flora. Unlike Lolita, however, Flora is not amused by such a gentleman, and so when Hubert timidly touches her shin one morning, she screams and kicks him in the crotch, spilling their breakfast all over. Hubert is portrayed with pity and dies in two sentences “of a stroke in a hotel lift after a business dinner. Going up, one would like to surmise.” It is unclear what exactly Nabokov intended to do with this obvious Lolita parallel, but he was certainly setting The Original of Laura’s contemplations of death in the context of his life’s work.
The last death in Flora’s story, that of her mother, begins Philip’s story of meditative self-erasure. At Flora’s college graduation, her mother collapses during the ceremony, and as Flora bends over her mother, the obese Philip Wild watches her, falls in love with her and soon marries her. At this strange introduction, the story’s focus switches to Philip, and Flora is suddenly referred to as Laura. Flora becomes the real-life original of Laura, a character in the thinly disguised autobiographical novel that Wild begins writing. Here, at the point where the fictional Laura is merged with the living Flora, Philip Wild’s story begins, a story in which he eventually gives up attempting to bring order to his life and his unfaithful wife by fictionalizing them; he turns instead to his newly discovered process for controlled self-destruction.
He begins experimenting, and the method he arrives at for “auto-dissolution,” as he calls it, is thus: he finds a quiet place, closes his eyes, and goes into a trance. Next, he structures an image of his body and mentally erases himself, slowly, from the toes up. He goes through this procedure countless times, and eventually he begins the habit of mapping the image of his body along the shape of an “I”, then gradually dissolving the ego. As long as he does not completely erase himself, he can stop, restore the erased appendages, and wake from the trance unharmed. This Cheshire cat business gives him the most ecstatic pleasure he has ever experienced, ecstasy derived from the force of will controlling death. Philip notes that pleasure “comes from feeling the will working at a new task: an act of destruction which develops paradoxically an element of creativeness in the totally new application of totally free will.” But Philip never actually goes through with complete self-destruction, and in the context of Nabokov’s oeuvre, we should put a question mark on the end of Philip’s story. As Nabokov faced his own effacement, he was asking questions about the relationship between artistic control and dying. This absolute control over the particulars of one’s death is significant in light of Nabokov’s efforts to elevate life’s trivialities with his art.
One of the most frequently occurring words in Nabokov’s short stories is “trifles”. A Russian émigré who fled the Bolsheviks, revolutions repulsed him, and at best, grand ideas bored him; it was the infinite minutiae of the universe that intrigued him, the microscopic over the macroscopic. When lecturing at Cornell on great works of literature, the novels that he praised most highly, such as Ulysses, were those which effectively brought order to a chaos of incongruous trifles. The most lively works of fiction for Nabokov were those that examine trivial detail with the most voracious curiosity. The trifle is the point of irreducible complexity in human experience; in his memoir, Nabokov speaks of memory as an instrument with which the human being arranges minor images and fashions these countless trifles into a coherent and meaningful narrative. The trifle is the Holy of Holies in art, the point where a person’s experience of the infinite (love, despair, joy) interacts with the limited and limitable sensations of the mind (the scent of an orchid, an azure sky). A work of literature, or any work of art, is a microcosm of life in which the artist constructs a labyrinth and leads his audience through thousands of these trifles. The capacity to be enchanted by such experiences in art and in life is the germ of all pleasure.
For Nabokov, controlling trifles creates art, and art creates new reality. John Updike notes in his introduction to Lectures on Literature that “for Nabokov, the world—art’s raw material—is itself an artistic creation, so insubstantial and illusionistic that he seems to imply a masterpiece can be spun out of thin air by pure act of the artist’s imperial will.” For the artist of strong will, the wall between art and life is weak. In Nabokov’s earlier novel Pale Fire, the poet speaks of “man’s life as a commentary to an abstruse/unfinished poem.” The Original of Laura, even as it exists against the author’s will, is the unfinished poem commenting on a man’s life and work. Nabokov died in the process of examining the relationship between artistic creation and death, and through this incomplete assembly of notes, we have a more complete image of his method to ordering the chaos of life’s trifles.
Luke Hodina lives and writes in the Chicago area.