Nabakov’s New Novel: The Original of Laura

JILLIAN LOVEJOY LOWERY: It’s easy to see why it was tempting to (very, very posthumously) publish Vladimir Nabokov’s final work-in-progress, The Original of Laura.  Nabokov’s a literary icon, one of the greats of the 20th century.  But when is it right to go against a man’s dying wish?  And what if the end result turns out to be disappointing and brings with it a significant amount of backlash?

Granted, Nabokov seemed to have a thing for threatening to burn his work – that was the original fate that he wanted to Lolita until his wife convinced him otherwise.  And, clearly, that was a decision that worked out well for him.

This decision, ultimately made by his son, Dmitri, after encouragement from scholars at Cornell University, might not have been as sound.  The “book” is supposedly cobbled together from about 30 pages of actual manuscript and a multitude of index cards.  The release, which the BBC once referred to as “likely to be the literary event of 2009,” has garnered more controversy than positive reviews.  Beginning about a decade ago, portions were excerpted and published in journals and magazines, but the whole, incomplete manuscript was just released last week.

It feels slightly yucky to me, to disregard a man’s dying wishes.  And yet, I understand the draw, to a certain extent.  This a clearly a decision to be weighed very heavily, and, not matter what’s decided, people will be alienated.  It’s polarizing; it’s risky.  And in this case, it doesn’t seem that the gamble paid off.

Don’t get me wrong – I’ll one day read The Original of Laura, because I love Nabokov’s prose, and if there’s something else out there, finished or not, I’m eventually going to succumb.  But I’ll likely feel pretty grimy as I’m doing so.

AKIE BERMISS: I was never a huge Nabokov fan for reasons too many and varied to go into.  My first tastes of Nabokov were heavy doses of his work paired with virulent myopia and over-bearing personalities.  I’ve admired him, if at all (and sometimes begrudgingly) only from afar.  As a spectator of those who adore him senselessly.  And I have no desire to impugn the author or his body of work with something like ignorant cynicism (though that is often the accusation) — but maybe in another life, I may come to love the words of Vladimir Nabokov.

In this life: I am on the outside looking in.

So, that said, I can’t claim to see him as part of the literary pantheon in my mind — those writers who’s work changed my life and changed the way I write and have marked me for good.  But I do think  that, in an objective sense, he’s probably in their company as one of the unassailable greats.  And that is all that really matters for the basis of my arguments.  If there is one thing I did glean from my short interaction with Nabokov’s work it is the unmitigated originality, the cleverness, the singular mastery of form and function.  The signs of true genius.

And one thing that true genius has over all the rest of is that it IS above all the rest of us.  There is an almost magical shift — a step not-seen — that the great genius can make and leave us all wondering how they ever came up with it.  That is, even a really great mind at work, while it may be faster or more agile than ours, is something that can be seen, understood, and measured.  Genius is an immeasurably quantity.  Observing a genius at work is probably is pointless.  Genius makes the quantum leap.  It can be many places at once.  It is unpredictable and undependable.

And, yet, for all the wonder that a magician’s performance may inspire in its audience, there is still the niggling desire to know: how its done.  As if, thereby, to either reduce the awesome power of something so foreign or to get a glimpse at some sort of rosetta stone that can translate our average-ness into something divine.  Alas, seeing the workings behind the illusions rarely give us any cathartic thrill.  And its infrequent that we’re able to do anything with our illicit knowledge.  Knowing how a trick is done doesn’t make one a magician.

And the same is true for all arts and crafts.

So some years back, when I heard about Nabokov’s unfinished final novel I was not at all interested in getting my eyes on it.  To see what would amount to notes and scrawls, scribblings of elemental pieces does not sound like a treat at all.  Anyone can lay the ingredients out, but on the chef can prepare the dish.  Knows just how much flame is required, how long to let it sit, at what temperature its best served, or how to arrange it on the plate.   What good to me are Nabokov’s notes?  Even the sketches of this last and final novel — what good are they if Nabokov’s craft had so little to do with who dies on page 79, or who slept with whom, or who the narrator turns out to be on the last page?

For some of the serial pulp novels I love to read where the author dies before he can complete the series — well, then really the conclusion of the story is lost.  Then lost notes might illuminate things and leave us with a sense of completion (I hasten to remark, however, that in the case of Frank Herbert’s DUNE series — this was not the case.  The subsequent novels by his son and Kevin J. Anderson destroyed the characters story for me.  I practically wept over those horrid books — while I did, indeed, read on.)

But in the case of The Original Of Laura — this final “book” of Nabokov’s that finally been published — all that is revealed is what, perhaps, we already new: He was working on a book when he died.  It was about this or that.  And he didn’t actually ever write it.  Do we still so misunderstand genius as to think these final scrawls, that we not at all mean to be final scrawls, will give us a chance to see through to the gardens of greatness?  Alas, I am sure that they will not.  In fact, its a step in the wrong direction.  We fall further and further from the mark.  Proving ourselves unable to contend with the hanging mystery.

What, indeed.

And the final trespass is perhaps the most insulting.  The artist asked the work to be destroyed on his death-bed for what I suspect was precisely this reason.  That hungry, unthinking enthusiasts would push for its publication regardless of what conditions the story was in.  As an artist myself, I know the attachment one feels to their work.  Putting out an unfinished work is like leaving a baby unattended in a crowded downtown mall. Worse: its premature birth in a dark and filthy street. There are few more hysterical feelings than when I’m letting someone see or hear something that is not ready to be see or heard.

Why it would seem at all OK for us to get our eyes all over the writer’s private notes is beyond me.  For a fan of Nabokov, it has to be the greatest betrayal.  And the rationale that he was going to burn Lolita before his wife stopped him holds no water.  The Nabokov that wanted to burn Lolita in the 1950s is not the same one who died in 1977 — I’m sure he had his reasons for wanting the work to be destroyed. Its not being a complete work — could be one of them.  And when that excuse is used it so belittles the artist.  Like he was some child who didn’t know what he wanted, didn’t know what was good for him, and should have more reasonable people making decisions for him.

Oh please, people.

Just who the hell do we think we are, anyway.

Now, the damage is done.  One is confronted with the choice to either read it or abstain.  But, of course, that’s just a symbolic choice.  Its been published now — for better or worse.  The crime committed.  It cannot be reversed. So read on, friends.  And drink deep the betrayal, hypocrisy, and charlatanism of the modern age — when that’s all there is left to do.

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