Reading the Original of Laura is like watching a fine old movie while fighting off sleep. As you turn through the unfinished novel’s card-stock pages, each replicating the author’s handwritten index cards with its printed counterpart below, you find yourself drifting in and out of a narrative too intricate to interrupt. Something about a book, and a painting … and Laura, and Flora … and sex and self-destruction …
And you can’t TiVo it.
For the complete work existed only in Platonic ideal for Vladimir Nabokov. He once told his former student and later scholar, Alfred Appel Jr., that he conceives a novel “in some other, now transparent, now dimming dimension, and my job is to take down as much of it as I can make out and as precisely as I am humanly able to.” He managed to transcribe a box full of cards, some with text, some with notes, and left instructions for his wife, Vera, to burn them should he not finish.
She did not, and here a second story starts: “Dmitri’s dilemma,” as Nabokov’s son, Dmitri, calls it in his introduction. For years, Dmitri Nabokov debated semi-publicly, in an online journal, whether to violate his father’s wishes or to disappoint his father’s fans. In recent years, the debate intensified, thanks in part to Slate’s Ron Rosenbaum, who wrote about the manuscript several times while corresponding with Dmitri Nabokov, and eventually called upon him to put the question to rest. And so he did, thanking Rosenbaum on the acknowledgements page for the unintended “publicity campaign.”
- The Original of Laura
- Vladimir Nabokov, edited by Dmitri Nabokov. Alfred A. Knopf, $35
- Amazon: The Original of Laura
The question of whether Dmitri Nabokov did the right thing has a moral and a literary side. From the literary perspective, there’s no question. For fans and scholars of Vladimir Nabokov, deprived of his exquisitely mischievous prose since his death in 1977, these ghostly fragments are a godsend. The plot is difficult to decipher, but it might have remained as opaque, or at least problematic, in the completed work. Flora, the promiscuous gadfly daughter of a Russian painter, is married to an obese academic named Philip Wild. She is also the model, apparently, for the title character in a novel, My Laura. At one point, it is unclear which narrative Nabokov is advancing when he refers to “FLaura”—and yes, there it is penciled on the index card, apparently changed from “Laura.” Several cards devoted to definitions of Buddhist terms might have something to do with Wild’s meditative self-obliteration (he says he can make parts of his body disappear by concentrating on them). So while we’re dealing with paintings and books, ways of counterfeiting characters, Wild is absorbed in erasing his.
Wild receives the novel My Laura—a middling success, thanks to “the librarious fates”—from a painter and “rejected admirer” of Flora, Rawitch, “pronounced by some Raw Itch, by him Rah Witch.” (Ah, yes … Vlad the Imp.) How he acquired Rawitch’s painting of Laura/Flora, says Wild, “is a separate anecdote in the anthology of humiliation to which, since my marriage, I have been a constant contributor.” His wife, represented in paint and prose, also appears to be a stand-in for an early, lost love, Aurora Lee, whom fat old Wild fantasizes ravaging, “… while you stood perfectly still, as if considering new possibilities of power and pleasure and interior decoration.” Elsewhere, Nabokov hints of another manifestation of Flora—as a child, sick in bed, she kicks away her mother’s advancing beau, an elderly Englishman named Hubert H. Hubert. Hmm …
Who could regret this?
The thornier moral dimension of Dmitri Nabokov’s decision is not so easily dismissed. Perhaps his father deserved to have Laura experienced only in completed form and not in flickering scenes. The finicky émigré, who had fled revolutionary Russia and Nazi Europe, adopted English “as a wistful standby for Russian,” and he carefully tended everything he wrote in his adopted tongue. In the introduction to his translation of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, he writes, “In art, purpose and plan are nothing; only the result counts,” and insists that writers should destroy all manuscripts.
And yet … he preserved his, including Laura. He must have had a reason. Dmitri Nabokov concludes his father would not have minded the freeing of the long-caged Laura. We have to take him at his word.