Hands Off Nabokov

Why The Original of Laura should never have become a book.

Back when I was a young viewer of Sarajevo TV, there was a cult show along the lines of Monty Python that once featured a skit with a poem presumably found in the papers of a deceased genius poet. An actor ponderously declaimed the newly discovered verse—“Bread/ Milk /Cooking oil …”—as it became clear that the masterpiece was in fact a grocery list. The last, crushing line was: “And some fish, if you can find any.”

Nabokov’s The Original of Laura (Dying Is Fun) is far from being a grocery list, but it is just as far from being a novel. The master began it in 1975 and was working on it in 1977 when he fell ill and died, leaving instructions that the manuscript be destroyed. A few decades later, the would-be novel has been resurrected by a crafty agent-publisher alliance that has orchestrated a high drama around it, complete with an unusual half-embargo on advance reading copies: Critics interested in a pre-publication look could flip through the manuscript only in the publisher’s offices.

At a mere 9,000 or so words, The Original of Laura is at best a short-story sketch, at worst a collection of 138 notecards (which Nabokov preferred to use to compose, leaving it to his wife, Vera, to type the manuscript), slapped together in just enough of a semblance of order to afford the reader a peek at a possible structure and a hint of the underlying ideas. Indeed, the book contains facsimiles of the notecards—which can be detached and shuffled, turning Nabokov’s writing into a kind of game for the literati, complete with a bonus card: The last one contains a scribbled list of synonyms for annihilation—”efface, expunge, erase, delete, rub out, wipe out, obliterate,” including an indecipherable word, scratched out by Nabokov’s pencil. In an era when few use pens or pencils to write, the crossed-out word might look like a kind of creative knot, an intriguing drama played out on paper. But as someone still clinging to pre-computer methods, let me remind you that X-ing out words is a banal, age-old feature of writing procedure.

This list of synonyms for obliteration acquires pertinence over the course of the text. The central character is Philip Wild, a morbidly obese intellectual deteriorating in the obtuse corner of a love triangle (not unlike those in Nabokov’s early Russian-language novels) while his young wife, Flora, and someone named, possibly, Eric occupy the other two corners. Eric was one of Flora’s many lovers, who then distinguished himself from the lurid crowd by writing a novel called My Laura, which described their affair in detail.

Flora is, thus, the original of Laura. Or is she? The confusing game of negotiating reality is played yet again, as it was, pleasantly, in many a Nabokov work, including his last completed creation, Look at the Harlequins!, an imaginary autobiography, or in Speak, Memory, a memoir in which remembering is the ultimate creative process. But in The Original of Laura, the toys required for the game are missing many of their parts and cannot be assembled even provisionally: The manuscript is indelibly, and in no way deliberately, incomplete.

In any case, Philip plots some sort of revenge for his public, literary humiliation, all the while admiring My Laura as a masterpiece. For reasons not entirely clear, he embarks upon a “process of self-obliteration conducted by an effort of the will”: Part by body part, he thinks himself out of existence. This “process of self-deletion” would have presumably been reflected on the pages of the finished novel/story, with empty spaces replacing the vanishing words, so the text would be self-deleting as well.

One also has a sense that a few clever references to Nabokov’s earlier works would have served a similar purpose: A character prone to humming and named Hubert H. Hubert, for example, makes a brief appearance as Flora’s stepfather, clumsily trying to molest her. But she fends him off, he backs off, and then he simply dies off, never becoming the diabolical Humbert Humbert. Similarly, a painting made by Flora’s talentless grandfather is called April in Yalta, as though it were the original for Nabokov’s great short story “Spring in Fialta.” And Flora attends a class by a professor of Russian literature (“a forlorn looking man bored to extinction by his subject”) who asks the same questions Nabokov liked to discuss in his classes and The Lectures on Russian Literature. It is as if Nabokov were also bent on effacing his own creations. Luckily, they seem capable of sticking around.

Philip Wild’s “dying by auto-dissolution” is a clever device of a particularly Nabokovian sort, with the added heft of Nabokov’s actual dying looming over it. The editing and packaging of The Original of Laura, complete with the subtitle Dying Is Fun and the obliteration list at the end, suggest a concerted effort to exploit to the hilt this possible relation to Nabokov’s own disintegration: His illness and suffering are meant to enhance the weak text and fuel the industry-orchestrated drama. Otherwise, the fragments dealing with Wild’s self-eradication traverse the border between plain silly and ridiculously serious—and are, at times, sloppily prolix. Here is Wild describing part of his self-erasure process: “To ensure a complete smoothness of background, care must be taken to eliminate the hypnagogic gargoyles and entopic swarms which plague tired vision after a surfeit of poring over a collection of coins or insects.” If ever a sentence begged for self- or other-deletion, surely this is one.

Moreover, Flora/Laura/Flaura (yes, there is punning) is a flimsy sketch at best, and Eric, if indeed that is his name, is entirely obscure. Shuffle the notecards and the narrative voices are even more unevenly developed, interrupting one another and creating confusion in a manner that is an insult to the artistic control Nabokov exerted in all of his finished work.

Here and there, however, a perfectly cut Nabokovian gem sparkles: “A cloudless September maddened the crickets.” Or take Flora’s earliest lover “drawing junior-size sheath over his penis, which has its head turned somewhat askew as if wary of receiving backhand slap.” It is also good to see that the master never lost his passion to dress down one Dr. Freud or address the inherent mediocrity of the writers (in this case Malraux, Michima [sic], and some more obscure ones) who pretend to represent an era, whereby “such represéntants could get away with the most execrable writing.” Such flashes of light only make the fog around them look thicker, a fog that would probably have been dispersed had the great Russian managed to forestall the process of dying by organ failure.

Although there is a spark of creative excitement discernable in the manuscript, suggesting that Nabokov was up to his old brilliant tricks and making one wonder how he would have pulled off a self-deleting book, The Original of Laura can’t escape the musty air of an estate sale: The trinkets that piled up in the attic; the damp books from the basement; the old man’s stained cravat; the lonely figurines that used to be part of a cherished set; the mismatched, overworn clothing—all are brought out in the hope that there might appear a buyer for those sad objects, someone blinded by literary nostalgia and willing to rescue the family possessions from the waste basket.

It would be ridiculous, of course, to blame the deceased for the estate sale. Nabokov was not merely unequivocal in his desire that his notecards be destroyed. He was also adamantly clear in his views on excavating unfinished manuscripts and the drafts preceding final, published versions—as well as on the absolute value of a finished work of art. In the introduction to his translation of Eugene Onegin, he wrote: “An artist should ruthlessly destroy his manuscripts after publication, lest they mislead academic mediocrities into thinking that it is possible to unravel the mysteries of genius by studying cancelled readings. In art, purpose and plan are nothing; only the results count.”

It is safe to say that what is published as the novel titled The Original ofLaura(Dying Is Fun) is not a result Nabokov desired or would welcome. Not only does it go against his expressed wishes, it goes against his very aesthetic sensibility, against his entire life as an artist. Too sick to destroy the notecards that contain The Original of Laura, the master is now eternally exposed to a gloating, greedy world of academics, publishers, and all the other card-shuffling mediocrities titillated by the sight of a helpless genius. It is unlikely that dying was that much fun, but it is certain that reading The Original of Laura is crushingly sad.