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The Original of Laura: A Novel in Fragments
Vladimir Nabokov, Knopf
In 1965 Vladimir Nabokov wrote, “the bitterness of an interrupted life is nothing compared to the bitterness of an interrupted work: the probability of a continuation of the first beyond the grave seems infinite by comparison with the hopeless incompleteness of the second.” More than any great writer of his century, Nabokov was exacting about the presentation of his words and works, from his painstaking translations to his routine destruction, by fire, of preliminary drafts once his novels were complete. When he died in 1977 Nabokov left behind many things. Among these were a loving family, international fame, and a last request: the destruction, by fire, of the notes for his final work in progress. All expectations to the contrary, these have now been published as The Original of Laura: A Novel in Fragments.
Less than a year before his death, Nabokov told The New York Times that he was at work on a new novel and that in idle, albeit feverish, moments in the hospital, he read it aloud to “a small dream audience in a walled garden.” “My audience,” he told the Times, “consisted of peacocks, pigeons, my long-dead parents, two cypresses, several young nurses crouching around, and a family doctor so old as to be almost invisible.” This doctor is finer than anything found in the Novel in Fragments, but that does not mean that there are not fine things therein.
A word about the seeming self-evidence of this subtitle is immediately, and exceptionally, in order. As his readers came to learn, Nabokov excelled in the creation of unlikely forms for his novels, from the counterfeit confession (of a “white widowed male”) that is Lolita to the invented “family chronicle” Ada, or Ardor; from the fake autobiography Look at the Harlequins! to the crazed critical edition of a 999-line poemcum treasure hunt Pale Fire. Against this shifting backdrop, A Novel in Fragmentsmight easily seem like yet another novel arrangement. This is, however, not the case. Nabokov’s “novel in fragments” is merely the publisher’s artful way of saying the fragments of a novel—or, to borrow a phrase from Nabokov’s first English novel, “a dazzling succession of gaps.”
These fragments can be better seen in light of Nabokov’s idea of inspiration. From early to late Nabokov discussed the composition of his works in almost identical terms. The idea for each of them came to him “in a stellar explosion of the mind”—blinding, beautiful, and complete. “There comes a moment,” he noted:
when I am informed from within that the entire structure is finished. All I have to do now is take it down in pencil or pen. Since the entire structure, dimly illumined in one’s mind, can be compared to a painting, and since you don’t have to work gradually from left to right for its proper perception, I may direct my flashlight at any part or particle of the picture when setting it down in writing.
What followed the initial inspiration was the laborious process of translating this image into words. Nabokov’s final flash came to him in 1974, and he soon set to work. A year later the 76 year-old declared that he was “returning zestfully to the abyss of my new novel.” That stay would prove, however, all too brief. As Nabokov’s biographer Brian Boyd has written, “although he would have his new novel, The Original of Laura, in his head for three years, a series of accidents and illnesses would keep him from transferring to his index cards more than a patch or two of his bright mental picture.” What the public now has at its disposal are these patches.
Given these fragmentary facts, remarkable editorial measures needed to be taken so as to make a book out of these bits of light and their surrounding darkness. The result lies halfway between a scholarly edition and a children’s book. The scholarly element comes from the facsimile reproductions of the index cards which make up the manuscript. But, the facsimiles are also perforated, so the reader can remove them, fold them, file them, and, should he or she wish, play Nabokov.
The final group of fragments focuses on a corpulent philosopher practicing the fine art of wishing himself away—literally.
The text’s very incompletion has an evocative power proper to fragments, offering as it does blank spaces for the imagination to fill in. As Nabokov’s century discovered like none before it, fragments have a poetry all their own—from the bits of Sappho found in an Egyptian garbage heap or of Catullus used to bung up a medieval wine cask, to the intentionally fragmentary forms of Ezra Pound or, more recently, Anne Carson. While not intentional, the haunting poetry of what is taken by time is present at many points in The Original of Laura, though nowhere so much as in the final fragment. It provides not only something of an ideal ending to the notes, but an ideal beginning to their discussion. It reads, in toto:
[long word or phrase crossed out and illegible]
Nabokov circled the first of these words—“efface”—as the mot juste; the others follow in its train like receding attendants. What makes the card such a compelling point of both departure and arrival is that the reader recalling the conditions of publication finds in it a reminder of the refusal to do the author’s bidding. And yet, in the context of the sketched story, it plays a far different role.
The final group of fragments, which the card brings to a close, focuses on a corpulent philosopher practicing the fine art of wishing himself away—literally. Like a sanguine cousin of Beckett’s Murphy, Nabokov’s metaphysically minded hero “strongly object[s] to the bipedal condition,” and, consequently, begins to cultivate an unheard-of art. If Thomas DeQuincey had gone far in writing of “murder as one of the fine arts,” Nabokov’s Philip Wild goes still farther in his ideas on suicide. Like more traditional forms, his “art of self-slaughter” proves harder than it looks, and all the more so as it is to be done without any physical violence whatsoever. Wild wishes to end his life through the mere motions of his majestic mind. “To think away thought—luxurious suicide, delicious dissolution!” becomes his motto. Nabokov has his hero believe not only that this is possible, but that it would be “fun”—that the “process of dying by auto-dissolution afforded the greatest ecstasy known to man.” This is an ecstasy he dedicates himself to attaining. Like the irrational philosopher Ivan “Van” Veen in Ada, Philip Wild believes, above all, in mind over matter. Whereas Van wants to touch the texture of time, Wild wants to delight in death—or, in his own words, to “stand vitality on its head.” In the process he not only means to take away death’s sting, but to make its approach a sensual and intellectual delight. The list of terms with which the story breaks off is part of this protocol.
The novel in fragments ends with Wild’s willing death, but it begins with something altogether different—his wife Flora. And it is Flora, as we gradually learn, who is the original of Laura named in the title. Flora is Laura’s original in the sense that one of her lovers (she is far from faithful), Ivan Vaughn (perhaps not unrelated to Ivan Veen), has written a novel based on their illicit affair entitled My Laura. This “roman à clef with the clef lost for ever” becomes a bestseller and thanks to its notoriety the clef is recovered, with Philip Wild (thinly veiled in My Laura as Philidor Sauvage) recognizing both himself and the original of Laura in the “maddening masterpiece.” It is in this context that we read:
Only by identifying her with an unwritten, half-written, rewritten difficult book could one hope to render at last what contemporary descriptions of intercourse so seldom convey, because newborn and thus generalized, in the sense of primitive organisms of art as opposed to the personal achievement of great English poets dealing with an evening in the country, a bit of sky in a river, the nostalgia of remote sounds—things utterly beyond the reach of Homer or Horace. Readers are directed to that book—on a very high shelf, in very bad light—but already existing, as magic exists, and death, and as shall exist, from now on, the mouth she made automatically while using that towel to wipe her thighs after the promised withdrawal.
The move from lyric to lurid so masterfully achieved in Lolita and parts of Ada is here attempted and might have succeeded—eventually.
The Original of Laura opens with the author of the book within the book, the then-unnamed Ivan Vaughn and his beloved Flora (whom he will later fictionalize as Laura), and ends with the cuckolded husband’s project of making dying fun. In the interim we learn something of Flora’s past. Like Ada’s Marina, Flora’s mother, “was not strong enough to survive the loss of her good looks.” Echoes of Nabokov’s earlier works soon threaten to drown out the specific story as a mysterious stranger enters the scene of her childhood. “He was,” we are told, “what used to be termed a charmeur. His name, no doubt assumed, was Hubert H. Hubert.” As had been Lolita with Humbert, Flora
was often alone in the house with Mr. Hubert who constantly ‘prowled’ (rodait) around her, humming a monotonous tune and sort of mesmerising her, enveloping her, so to speak, in some sticky invisible substance and coming closer and closer no matter what way she turned. For instance she did not dare to let her arms hang aimlessly lest her knuckles came into contact with some horrible part of that kindly but smelly and ‘pushing’ old male.
If we recall Humbert Humbert’s insane charm, his incessant prowling around his “prey,” his alternate pseudonym Mesmer Mesmer, the fact that he described his presence like a spider’s, able to sense all parts of the Haze house by means of invisible filaments, the charming alarming harming Carmen tune he hums when Lolita first comes into contact with his adult desire, then we find ourselves indeed in familiar fictional territory. Allusions to Lolita continue apace in this group of notes as Hubert
told [Flora] stories about his sad life, he told her about his daughter who was just like her, same age—twelve—, same eyelashes—darker than the dark blue of the iris, same hair, blondish or rather palomino, and so silky—if he could be allowed to stroke it, or l’effleurer des levres, like this, thats [sic] all, thank you. Poor Daisy had been crushed to death by a backing lorry on a country road—short cut home from school—through a muddy construction site—abominable tragedy—her mother died of a broken heart.
Effleurer is French for “to graze gently,” but literally means “the touch of a
flower”—a Flora in the fleurs of effleurer whose hair he wishes to brush with his lips. Another flower—Daisy—is then suddenly cut, with a jarring rapidity like that of Humbert’s Annabel (typhus, Corfu) or of his mother (picnic, lightning).
While the imperative efface is the close of one story, it is the beginning of another—that of Nabokov’s last wishes.
HH soon, however, becomes a burden and is dispatched with the same alacrity as his daughter. Not, however, before “poor old harmless Mr. Hubert” tries to molest Flora. She screams, kicks him “in the crotch,” her mother arrives on the scene and scolds her. HH wants to marry young Flora and is prevented from doing so a year later as he dies “of a stroke in a hotel lift after a business dinner. Going up, one would like to surmise.” Puns like this one, still in an early stage of maturation, feature prominently in this section, from the bad English one, “Games of blindman’s buff would be played in the buff,” to the more subtle though still searching “Montglas de Sancerre girl,” around whom there is too little context to deduce whether she bears a glass of wine (my glass of Sancerre), is native to Glass Mountain, is “my sincere death-knell” (glas is French for death-knell) or was meant to strike some other multilingual note. Meanwhile, faithless Flora is portrayed after the fashion of Laughter in the Dark’s Margot, and we loose sight of her in the following fashion:
This is Flora of the close-set dark-blue eyes and cruel mouth recollecting in her midtwenties fragments of her past, with details lost or put back in the wrong order TAIL betwe[e]n DELTA and SLIT, on dusty dim shelves, this is she. Everything about her is bound to remain blurry, even her name which seems to have been made expressly to have another one modelled [sic] upon it by a fantastically lucky artist. Of art, of love, of the difference between dreaming and waking she knew nothing.
After a discussion of the best-selling My Laura, the notes sink deeper and deeper into the congenial consciousness of the immaterial husband and anti-materialist thinker, elephantine Philip Wild. And with him it ends. More sinned against than sinning, effacing yet not effaced.
• • •
While Wild’s imperative (“efface”) is the close of one story, it is, as noted above, the beginning of another—that of the last wishes of his creator.
Nabokov expressly forbade posthumous publication, but this injunction had already been disregarded long before negotiations concerning Laura began. Despite his declarations on the matter, Nabokov’s Lectures on Literature, along with his Lectures on Russian Literature and Lectures on Don Quixote, were, with the approval of his wife and son, published after his death. They do not, however, represent unpolished or unfinished work. Nabokov composed the lectures before his arrival in America in 1940 (in preparation for an academic career) and revised them over the course of the next ten years of teaching. As a violation of wishes general (no posthumous publication) and specific (burn The Original of Laura), the novel in fragments is an order of magnitude greater.
In a certain sense, a violation is a violation, but this one appears particularly grievous considering the Horror Nabokov expressed at having his incomplete work put on public display. What then is the justification for publishing Nabokov’s novel in fragments? One answer has become standard, and might be called the Virgilian defense—or, alternately, the Kafkan. On his deathbed, Virgil asked his friends to burn the unfinished manuscript on which he had spent the last ten years of his life working. Their dilemma was, it is told, soon resolved: the emperor Augustus, eager for the glory The Aeneid would bring his reign, demanded publication.
Kafka’s case is less apocryphal and more difficult. When the retiring writer died of tuberculosis in 1924, he left behind a small body of published work and a large body of unpublished novels, stories, parables, epigrams, and fragments. They were placed in the care of his friend Max Brod with the explicit instructions that Brod was welcome to read as much as he liked, but that once he was done reading he was to burn everything. Kafka’s case is closer to Nabokov’s in that the executor was forced to make the decision alone, whereas Augustus was as near to an actual deus ex machina ending the executors’ dilemma as one might imagine. Brod could weigh Kafka’s injunction (“Burn after reading!”) against a few mitigating factors. He was asked not only to destroy Amerika(which, while incomplete, is both a good deal longer and a good deal more polished thanThe Original of Laura), but The Trial, The Castle, and the finest short prose pieces of the century. Had he done Kafka’s bidding, the vast majority of the life’s work of his friend would have disappeared and, although Kafka had repeated his request, there was some reason to believe that his feelings were mixed and his judgment clouded by a characteristic underestimation of his abilities.
Nabokov, however, was not someone who suffered from bouts of depression or was inclined to underestimate his accomplishments. Nabokov was a genius, and he knew it (the first words of Strong Opinions are, “I think like a genius”). Nor was there any uncertainty as to his last wishes. He was not feverish, and they were made not once, but repeatedly. For all these reasons, the decision to ignore his dying wish was clearly not an easy one. Nabokov’s widow could not bring herself to destroy the manuscript, and, upon her death in 1991, it passed into the hands of their only child, Dmitri Nabokov. With the exception of an excerpt published in a specialist journal (concealed amidst counterfeits as part of a contest to judge the best imitation of Nabokov’s style), the work was kept from public view, secreted away in a Swiss safe deposit box.
In the acknowledgements to The Original of Laura, Dmitri Nabokov thanks journalist and scholar Ron Rosenbaum, “who could not have set off a better publicity campaign had it been planned (it was not).” Rosenbaum had learned of the existence of Laurafrom an article in the Village Voice commemorating Lolita’s 50th birthday. In the weeks and months to follow, he led a one-man campaign to pressure Dmitri Nabokov to declare his intentions. Had the manuscript been burned? If not, was fire on its horizon? Was it destined for a library archive to be opened to scholars in ten, twenty, one hundred years? Was a nonprofit scholarly press to publish it someday? An increasingly public debate was played out on a number of stages, culminating in the announcement last year that Dmitri Nabokov had left his long-standing literary agent for Andrew Wylie (aka “The Jackal”) and, shortly thereafter, had sold the cards to Knopf.
Whatever the reason or rationale, the choice to publish Nabokov’s notes has now been made and a new set of questions follows in its wake.
Having played an accidental, and then anecdotal, role in the drama of Laura’s publication, I was asked some time ago to take part along with Boyd and Rosenbaum in a radio show dedicated to the question of Nabokov’s last work in progress. When posed the question of what I would do were I in Dmitri’s position, I said what I thought then and think now, which is that I like to think that I would have placed family concerns over public ones, would have preferred a dying father’s last wish to all others; that I would have chosen fire. I was alone in this on the panel (though Boyd, the only one of us who had then read the manuscript, had initially been in favor of flames). The real point, however, then as now, is that the choice was not to be made by referendum, but by a party of one.
Dmitri Nabokov might have published the work with no treatment of this matter, or very little. Instead he has written an introduction that goes into the matter at some length and is bound to look a bit like bad faith. In the run-up to the publication of the work, the questions publicly posed to Dmitri Nabokov were, by and large, the following:Why didn’t you do as your father wished and burn the manuscript? Why, on the contrary, are you not only preserving, but publishing it? Moreover, why, instead of publishing it at a nonprofit university press, did you sell it for a large, albeit undisclosed, sum, negotiated by a literary agent whose nom de guerre is The Jackal?Though Dmitri Nabokov does not eschew these questions (or, at the least, milder versions of them), he begins elsewhere. His point of departure is not with the question on the tip of readers’ tongues, Why am I violating my father’s dying wish?, but Why did my father have this wish?
After treating this matter, Dmitri Nabokov’s introduction takes a still more unexpected turn. Over the past few years, Dmitri Nabokov has made a variety of public statements. They invoked otherworldly communication with his departed father and did so in playful terms. The introduction to The Original of Laura picks up where these messages left off and again suggests that his father has communicated with him from beyond the pale. “If it pleases an adventurous commentator,” he declares, “to liken the case to mystical phenomena, so be it.”
It hardly requires a very adventurous commentator to qualify communication with the departed as mystical, but more important is that to this very private reason are added considerations couched in more uncertain form. These are a “compulsion” followed by a “decision.” The compulsion is what kept Dmitri Nabokov from destroying the manuscript, its “survival” being something “to which I may have contributed, motivated not by playfulness or calculation, but by an otherforce I could not resist.” In other words, the compulsion to hold on to the manuscript came not so much from within, from his own desires, as from without—and was all the more irresistible because, in a sense, supernatural.
As the compulsion in question only concerns the survival of the manuscript, to it he must add a rationale for publication. This decision involves two considerations. The first is Dmitri Nabokov’s doubt that, “[his] father or [his] father’s shade would have opposed the release of Laura once Laura had survived the hum of time this long.” Dmitri Nabokov then writes “that, in putative retrospect, Nabokov would not have wanted me to become his Person from Porlock or allow little Juanita Dark—for that was the name, destined for cremation—to burn like a latter-day Jeanne d’Arc.”
The reader has to bend these references more than a little to put them into perspective. The person from Porlock who interrupted Coleridge’s composition of “Kubla Khan” found the poet writing (not deceased) and interrupted his composition, rendering it thereby a fragment. As for the still more cryptic “little Juanita Dark,” this is one of the names with which Nabokov toyed before deciding on Humbert’s Lolita. Famously, Véra Nabokov stopped her husband from burning a draft of Lolita that he despaired of ever finishing. In the short space of his introduction Dmitri Nabokov alludes to this event twice, and it is clear that he would like the reader to view the cases as kindred: his saving of Laura from the flames is like his mother’s saving of Lolita. At the close of the Introduction, Dmitri Nabokov finally poses the question it is meant to answer: “But why, Mr. Nabokov, did you really decide to publish Laura?” He answers that it is because he is “a nice guy” and wanted to “alleviate the suffering” of others—which sounds silly, is probably meant to, and is disappointing in any event.
Whatever the reason or rationale, the choice to publish Nabokov’s notes has now been made and a new set of questions follows in its wake. Mr. Hubert aside, is Laura much like Lolita? No. Does the volume’s Introduction raise more questions than it answers? Yes. More importantly, is real and irrevocable harm being done to Nabokov’s literary reputation? By no means. The danger it presents is slight and could only consist in someone picking up Laura, and Laura alone, concluding that Nabokov was not so interesting a writer as they had heard tell and never reading the masterpieces that areSpeak, Memory and Lolita. But that is unlikely. If the risk then is slight, what of the reward?
Shortly after Nabokov’s death, Martin Amis visited the first person to bear the burden of Nabokov’s last wishes, the dedicatee of every one of his books. When Amis asked Véra Nabokov about the exceptionally close tie that bound them, she replied, “What should I answer? We had a very unusual relationship. But that you knew before you asked. Anything else?” Amis then asked, “Was he—was he great fun?” to which Mrs. Nabokov replied, “Oh, yes. His humor was delightful. He was delightful. But that you knew too.” Most forcefully, The Original of Laura is likely to tells its reader two things: that there will be no more novels by Vladimir Nabokov and that a few of those he wrote are among the finest ever written. But, then again, we knew that already.
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