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Nabokov’s Scraps: The Original of Laura

By posted at 6:29 am on March 19, 2010 6

coverI planned to review The Original of Laura back when it first came out last year, but I found that I didn’t have much to say.  The book was marketed as the final unfinished novel of Vladimir Nabokov, and as a “masterwork that was nearly destroyed.”  Really, though, it’s just a jumble of disconnected fragments, in such rough form that they can’t be evaluated.

Still, some reviewers have been extraordinarily hostile to The Original of Laura, and have given Nabokov absurdly harsh treatment for this batch of handwritten index cards that he specifically insisted should never be published.  It seems only decent to remind everyone that this isn’t the volume to use as proof of much of anything about Nabokov’s writing.  The Original of Laura doesn’t show a falling-off in Nabokov’s powers as a novelist.  It shows little except that he died before he could put the novel on paper in anything even hazily resembling publishable form.

coverReading some of the reviews, you can come away with a sense that the text is far closer to completion than it actually is.  Not a single sustained sequence, not a single fully developed character, not a single clear line of narrative emerges from these short, disjointed scraps of writing.  Nabokov is one of the least straightforward novelists in history, and his books can’t really be understood in isolated or incomplete pieces.  Imagine evaluating Pale Fire on the basis of, say, early drafts of Nabokov’s handwritten index cards from thirty or forty pages of the least revealing parts of Kinbote’s commentary, without even a single index card from the main poem.

The fragments of The Original of Laura have something to do with someone named Flora and someone named Wild, and something to do with some book called My Laura, and something to do with Wild’s notion of mentally dismembering his body as a form of death-by-willpower.  Yet since this is Nabokov, it’s not only possible but probable that the relationships among these elements are far from obvious.  Even the most seemingly clear aspects of the fragments are part of larger patterns that we will simply never recover, and that it’s irresponsible for us to pretend we can examine.

I understand why some of the reviews have been so nasty.  The book has been brought out in an expensive, ornate edition, accompanied by a lot of off-putting pre-publication hype.  Yet Nabokov isn’t responsible for that hype, and his son Dmitri Nabokov has acted with integrity by insisting that the book appear in a form where its incompleteness can be seen and instantly grasped.

Indeed, Dmitri Nabokov has taken some weirdly disproportionate hits for the aspect of the book that deserves the greatest praise.  He hasn’t hidden the unpolished, provisional state of the text.  Instead, he has heightened it, reproducing the handwritten index cards so we can inspect for ourselves just how far the book is from being done.  Critics who have attacked him for his textual decisions should lighten up (and should keep in mind that he’s a first-rate translator who has earned his place as the protector of his father’s legacy).  Besides, would we really be happier with an edition of the novel where a team of editors had quietly cleaned up the prose and attempted to pull everything together into a falsely unified story?

Whether the fragments should have been published at all is a harder question.  I think Nabokov’s last wishes should have trumped our curiosity, even if the writing had been in a more nearly finished form and had amounted to a great final work.  Again, though, Dmitri Nabokov has been savaged for his open, decades-long struggle with a decision that many other literary estates have made much more secretively, often ignoring or downplaying the author’s desires in an attempt to avoid criticism.  Outsiders might not agree with Dmitri Nabokov’s decision to publish, but it was his choice to make, and he had the courage to make it without trying to minimize the difficulties of his position.  It seems to me he’s being punished mainly for his honesty, for doing in a straightforward and honorable manner what many literary estates do with cynical, calculating furtiveness.

This isn’t a minor point.  With the publishing world’s old standards and traditions dissolving all around us, why should we go out of our way to rip into people who make a special effort to take their literary duties seriously?  Dmitri Nabokov is, after all, responsible for bringing out, among many other books, The Enchanter and The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov—two valuable posthumous Nabokov works where the son’s editing and translating are exemplary.  Indeed, Dmitri Nabokov’s lifelong dedication to his father’s writing deserves a far more appreciative assessment than it has lately generated.  This will be corrected in the long run, but why not just go ahead and correct it today?  Vladimir Nabokov has every reason to be grateful for his son’s devotion.

Anyway, The Original of Laura is out now, and we can see that Nabokov was right to believe his final fragments weren’t yet ready for publication. This knowledge should remind us how high Nabokov’s standards were for his craft.  It should also free us to turn back to the books that he actually saw into print.  From The Eye to Lolita and Pnin, from Glory and Laughter in the Dark to Speak, Memory and Pale Fire, Nabokov’s best writing will last long after The Original of Laura is properly forgotten.

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6 Responses to “Nabokov’s Scraps: The Original of Laura”

  1. Matt Evans
    at 12:58 pm on March 19, 2010

    Other than Brian Boyd’s recent American Scholar piece, “Nabokov Lives On” (http://www.theamericanscholar.org/nabokov-lives-on/ ), this is the single best TOoL review I’ve seen. Mr. Frazier should be commended for cutting through the bullshit and ink-anger and Amis-inspired weirdly moralistic finger-pointing and telling it like it is. Dmitri Nabokov has honorably performed his literary-executor duties, especially as regards TOoL, and I’m glad someone (= Frazier) has said so — and said it so well. This comment represents the applause a piece like Frazier’s deserves.

  2. Kevin
    at 2:34 pm on March 19, 2010

    Thanks, Matt — that’s very generous of you. Also, great idea to link to the Boyd piece, which is, as you say, by far the best thing anyone has written on The Original of Laura so far. Martin Amis is often a terrific literary critic, but his essay on The Original of Laura doesn’t really show him at his best.

  3. Robin
    at 3:40 am on March 20, 2010

    Nice review. But are you honestly saying that Ada isn’t one of the best Nabokov novels?

  4. Kevin
    at 11:45 am on March 20, 2010

    Robin — I admire Ada but it’s not one of my personal favorites. I put it in the same category as Melville’s 18,000 line poem Clarel and Thomas Hardy’s 900-page closet drama The Dynasts — ambitious late-career works that can be very satisfying for readers who care deeply about these writers but that can be alienating for everyone else. I feel a special fondness towards The Dynasts, for instance, because it shows Hardy going off in some new directions and also takes on some of the themes that you find in his most successful short poems. But I’ve tried for many years to get friends of mine to read The Dynasts in full, which is the only way to appreciate it, and nobody has ever been able to get past the first ten or twenty pages. I think the same might be true with Ada in the long run.

  5. Literature News | Dark Sky Magazine
    at 5:03 am on March 23, 2010

    […] in stone, even as The Origin of Laura is slammed by critics. Kevin Frazier thinks the book’s format was Dmitri Nabakov’s duty as a literary executor. Poet Derek Walcott sees his burgeoning legacy fly as high as a flock of White Egrets. David Foster […]

  6. Dmitri Nabokov
    at 5:47 am on June 20, 2010

    Dear Kevin Frazier,

    I’m touched by your kind words.

    DN

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