The Nabokov Mess
Let’s come clean—$35 is at stake, after all. Vladimir Nabokov’s posthumously published The Original of Laura (Dying Is Fun), despite its considerable width (nearly 2 inches) and heft (2 pounds, 11 ounces), its publisher’s description (“a novel in fragments”), and its advance praise (“a fascinating novel” says biographer Brian Boyd), is not a novel. Not remotely. It is not to be confused with Truman Capote’s Answered Prayers, Ralph Ellison’s Juneteenth, or Italo Svevo’s Further Confessions of Zeno—unfinished novels that contain long, continuous sections of writing, from which it is possible to apprehend the larger work’s subject matter, scope, and ambition, however imperfect the execution. To describe The Original of Laura as a novel would be like mistaking a construction site for a cathedral. Yes, the blueprints might call for flying buttresses and oriel windows, but for now it is only a mess of wheelbarrows, uncut limestone, and piles of sand.
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These pages are the embryonic jottings made in preparation for a novel—long before it’s certain there’s even a novel to be written. There are notes to self (“What kind of folklore preceded poetry in Rus?; speak a little of Lom. and Derzh…”); marooned sentence fragments, some of them striking (“The orange awnings of southern summers” and a reference to death’s “tempting emptiness”); and incomplete scenes haunted by faintly drawn characters. Many of the scenes deal with the grim obsessions of old age: sexual futility, corporeal decrepitude, and death. There is also wordplay (“He brought from the favorite florist of fashionable girls a banal bevy of bird-of-paradise flowers”), misspellings (what the Note on Text charitably refers to as “nonstandard” spellings”), and unveiled references to Nabokov’s own earlier stories and novels, Lolita especially. This may indicate some self-referential design; the allusions also might have been private jokes that Nabokov never intended to publish. Who knows?
“I have decided that my father, with a wry and fond smile, might well have contradicted himself upon seeing me in my present situation and said... Say or do what you like, but why not make some money on the damn thing?”
I’ve read summaries of the plot in other publications, but I couldn’t for the life of me offer my own. At one point in the three-year public debate that preceded Laura’s publication, different Nabokov scholars, who had been granted access to the secret manuscript, offered different plot summaries. One talked about a character named Philip Wild, an enormously corpulent scholar, who marries a much younger, wildly promiscuous woman called Flora. In the other version, Flora is the heroine and the model for “Laura,” a character in a novel written by her lover; Laura and Flora then engage in some sort of meta-fictional battle. Nabokovians wanted to know—which plot summary was correct? As it turns out, both describe sections that do appear in The Original of Laura. But that doesn’t mean any of it makes sense.
What is evident, however, is that the furious controversy over the manuscript’s publication was waged on false grounds. The question was whether Dmitri Nabokov, Vladimir’s heir and literary executive, should publish Laura and defy his father’s wish to burn the manuscript upon his death. Ron Rosenbaum, John Banville, Tom Stoppard, and newspaper book reporters the world over joined the debate. Dmitri raised the stakes by declaring Laura “the most concentrated distillation” of his father’s creativity. Now that Laura has been revealed to be little more than a collection of notes, the debate seems silly, meretricious.
It would be unfair to fault Dmitri, who is now 75 and reportedly quite ill, for choosing to publish. Despite its flaws, Laura is not embarrassing to his father because it doesn’t come close to resembling a finished work. In Dmitri’s introduction to the book, he takes a darkly mystical tone when justifying his decision: Laura is described as existing in a “penumbra,” a “disturbing specter” shrouded in “gloom”; he says he doesn’t think “my father or my father’s shade would have opposed the release of Laura once Laura had survived the hum of time this long” and describes being finally overcome by “an otherforce I could not resist.” Otherforce, indeed: Besides a contract with Knopf, there was an excerpt in Playboy (“we’ve never paid this much for a book excerpt, ever,” acknowledged the magazine’s literary editor), and the day before the book’s publication, Dmitri announced he would auction off the very note cards on which Laura is composed (Christie’s estimates a take of $400,000-$600,000). Given these developments, a different comment by Dmitri comes to mind: “I have decided that my father, with a wry and fond smile, might well have contradicted himself upon seeing me in my present situation and said... Say or do what you like, but why not make some money on the damn thing?”
More power to him, though readers may be surprised to find that the giant hardcover of Laura has a text of just 9,000 words (i.e. 25 to 30 standard book pages). The $35 retail price is achieved by an expensive, and impeccable, design, featuring perforated reproductions of Nabokov’s index cards. The publisher’s note advises that the cards can be “removed and rearranged, as the author likely did when he was writing the novel.” It is a shrewd marketing strategy, not because anyone will follow this advice (they won’t), but because it justifies the use of heavyweight paper and the decision to leave every other page blank, thus resulting in a 280-page hardcover and what the industry calls a higher “price point.”
What’s gone missing in the hubbub about Laura is a basic understanding of what makes Nabokov the master he is. It is not his puns, tricks, or allusions, though his high-wire gamesmanship is often thrilling. Nor is it his unusual method of writing notes and early drafts of his novels on index cards; cards written in preparation for other novels can easily be viewed at the New York Public Library and other archives. The publication of Laura makes a fetish out of the obscure and the unknowable, but Nabokov is not that kind of writer at all. He is a genius of clarity, of the surprising detail that illuminates a universe. Take, for instance, his description in Lolita of the “cesspoolful of rotting monsters behind [Humbert Humbert’s] slow boyish smile”; or, in Speak, Memory, the way his childhood nanny would react when a fly settled on her “stern forehead and its three wrinkles would instantly leap up all together like three runners over three hurdles.” There are thousands of additional examples, so this one, from his story “A Guide to Berlin,” will have to stand for all the rest:
“Here lies the sense of literary creation: to portray ordinary objects as they will be reflected in the kindly mirrors of future times… the times when a man who might put on the most ordinary jacket of today will be dressed up for an elegant masquerade.”
Nathaniel Rich is an editor at The Paris Review and the author of The Mayor's Tongue . He lives in New York City.