The Spectator

Shakespeare’s Bootlegger, Dylan’s Biographer, Nabokov, and Me

When should an unauthorized version be authorized?

There’s a new Dylan album —well, the eighth volume in the so-called “Bootleg Series”—coming out Oct. 7. The albums in the Bootleg Series, you probably know, each contain a selection from the vast corpus of unreleased tracks, variant versions, live performances, and the like that had previously been circulated, if at all, on unauthorized, semi-legal tapes and CDs. The Bootleg Series is the authorized version of the unauthorized versions.

I personally have never bought a bootleg, but I’ve listened to some. (There’s even a bootleg titled with a memorable Dylan quote from an interview with me: “Thin Wild Mercury.”)

With the Bootleg Series, though, the Dylan organization has cleverly managed to monetize a significant portion of the vast congeries of unauthorized recordings by giving fans access to cleaned-up versions of the outlaw music. Depending on your point of view, the black market in unauthorized bootlegs—as opposed to authorized unauthorized bootlegs—either democratized the distribution of the music or denied the artist his hard-earned dues. Or both.

For my money, I hope both enterprises continue to thrive. Dylan’s selection of particular works for “authorization” can perhaps provide clues to what he values about his work, hints about the evolution of his writing and performance—recasting our view, for instance, of what he called his shift from unconscious to conscious songwriting.

And I’m glad the authorized bootleg profits have helped to stabilize the once-chaotic financial arrangements in Dylan-world, serving to support his quixotic “Never Ending Tour” and allowing him to take on nonmusical projects like the still-astonishing autobiography Chronicles. (Dylan plans to deliver the second volume next spring, according to a source at his publisher, and mine, Simon and Schuster.)

In the course of checking on this, I learned of another forthcoming Dylan release: In November, Simon and Schuster will issue a recently rediscovered Dylan literary effort, a book of some 23 poems from the ‘60s inspired by photographer Barry Feinstein’s moody black-and-white shots of Hollywood. Not exactly a bootleg (you may have seen two of the poems excerpted in The New Yorker recently) but new light on his mind at the time.

But this isn’t primarily a column about Dylan—although it’s interesting the way Dylan is turning into a kind of never-ending artist, the Philip Roth of iconic singer-songwriters. But Dylan culture, especially Dylan bootleg culture, figures into the way we assess “authorized” and “unauthorized” work by other great artists such as Shakespeare and Nabokov. (No, I’m not equating them.) Let me explain.

I recently learned from one of the foremost Dylan biographers, Clinton Heylin, that he has a book coming out next year on Shakespeare’s sonnets, which he believes will illuminate an enduring—and significant— Shakespeare mystery: whether the original 1609 edition of the sonnets was authorized by Shakespeare or is, in effect, an unauthorized, 17th-century bootleg. Heylin told me he plans to argue that the 1609 edition was a bootleg. Not (please!) an edition authored by “someone other than Shakespeare,” as the “anti-Stratfordian” (or someone-else-wrote-Shakespeare) cult believes but an edition published—authorized—by someone other than Shakespeare. (Some have argued that Shakespeare circulated the sonnets only privately among friends because of the potentially scandalous homoerotic content of some.)

Why does it matter whether the sonnets were authorized or bootlegged? Because if the sonnets were not published deliberately by Shakespeare, perhaps we would spend less time arguing about the order of the 154 poems. And there would be less justification for the enormous amounts of time the biographical fetishists devote to spinning stories from that order, figuring out the identities of the real “fair youth”—the subject of a number of homoerotic sonnets—and the real “dark lady”—the subject of a number of embittered ones.

We might instead pay closer attention to each individual sonnet as an aesthetic whole, rather than trying to assess what each one “means” in relation to the sonnets that come before and after and the supposed relationships they parallel and chronicle.

I don’t deny that there are linkages in imagery, theme, and language among the sonnets. But it would be helpful, I think, to get rid of the distortions of gossip.

Heylin believes he will prove who, in fact, bootlegged the sonnets, but he wants to keep the identity—and motive—of the culprit secret until closer to his publication day next year in May 2009, the 400th anniversary of the sonnets’ first publication.

This new challenge comes at a time when two other sonnet controversies have reawakened. One is about whether or not Shakespeare really wrote “A Lover’s Complaint,” the long lyric poem appended to the 154 sonnets in the 1609 quarto edition. I dealt with the “Complaint” argument in a previous column and tend to agree with Brian Vickers and Jonathan Bate (who left the poem out of the new Royal Shakespeare Company’s edition of The Complete Works of Shakespeare) that Shakespeare didn’t write the poem. But who wrote it, and why it was included in an edition titled Shakespeare’s Sonnets,remains a mystery. One that Heylin, who agrees with Vickers that the “Complaint” was written by an obscure hack named “John Davies,” claims to have solved. (Not all scholars have turned against the “Complaint.” Oxford’s Katherine Duncan-Jones is a strong advocate for it being “authorized” and includes it in her new Arden edition of Shakespeare’s poems.)

Another sonnet imbroglio showed up in the Aug. 15 edition of the Times Literary Supplement in an essay by Bate, who believes he has figured out who the sonnets were really dedicated to—a solution to a puzzle created by ambiguity in the dedication of the 1609 edition, which reads (in part):

To. The. Onlie. Begetter. Of.
These. Insuing. Sonnets.
Mr. W. H. All. Happinesse.
And. That. Eternitie.
Promised. By.
Our. Ever-Living. Poet …

This is, of course, a rat’s nest of ambiguities. What is an “onlie begetter,” who is Mr. W.H., and what did he “beget”? Is the dedication from Shakespeare to a patron, who may or may not appear in the poems? Or is it from the printer to a patron?

Bate believes he’s found another candidate for the sonnets’ mysterious dedicatee “Master W.H.” One longtime candidate for “Master W.H.” is William Herbert, third Earl of Pembroke. Relying on the fact that an earl is not addressed as “master”—the address used for a lesser “gentleman”—Bate points us to a previously unheralded “William Herbert,” this one from Wales, who is distantly related to the earl of that name but who is only a gentleman and fits other characteristics of “Master W.H.,” including potential contact with Shakespeare. Two W.H.s! Which is the bootleg dedicatee? Bate’s argument seems convincing, but in the last line of his essay, he says something true about most Shakespearean biographical controversies:

The instant someone says: Yes, it is plausible that Master William Herbert of Glamorgan might really have been the Master W.H. of the dedication to the sonnets—that will be the moment when the idea will cease to be of interest.

And so Bate’s conjecture might excite the biographically inclined, but to those of us who feel that the meaning and resonance of the language in the sonnets is the heart of the matter, the “bootleg question,” which Heylin raises, is more important. I’d never met Heylin, but his massive, well-respected biography, Dylan: Behind the Shades (Revisited)contains a generous mention of my long-ago Dylan interview—the one in which he defined his “thin wild mercury sound.” I was intrigued when I got an e-mail from Heylin saying he was coming to New York and wanted to discuss not Dylan but Shakespeare. (He’d read my book The Shakespeare Wars and wanted my opinion on his sonnet theory.) Although I was a little leery, because there are so many nutty books about the sonnets, I was looking forward to talking to him since I admired his biography and I was doing a brief Dylan book for Yale University Press. (As it turns out, Heylin is publishing another massive Dylan opus as well as his sonnet book. Next year, he’s coming out with the first of a two-volume study of some 600 Dylan songs, establishing what he believes to be the order in which they were written—although not necessarily recorded or performed—an absolute prolegomena to any future study of Dylan’s evolution as an artist.)

In any event, I was curious about Heylin’s take on the sonnets and my curiosity grew greater over a lunch at the downtown Cafe Spice as Heylin—a native Mancunian who got his degree with a thesis on Irish revolutionary poetry and seemed well-versed in Shakespearean lore—began to outline his theory.

If his theory settles the authorization controversy—and I say “if” since few Shakespearean controversies ever seem to be resolved—we may finally be freed of the fictional love story arcs so many want to impose on the sonnets. At lunch, Heylin and I spoke of the number of women who thought certain Dylan love songs were written especially for them, implying he’d told them so. One wonders whether Shakespeare played that game, too. More power to them, but we don’t have to play along.

Last Sunday in the New York TimesWeek in Review section, A.O. Scott reminded us of the late, lamented David Foster Wallace’s complaint about biographical criticism of another great artist, Jorge Luis Borges—whose stories, Wallace once wrote, “so completely transcend their motive cause that the biographical facts become, in the deepest and most literal way, irrelevant.” Yes!

When it comes to the sonnets, as my exegetical hero Stephen Booth, editor of the Yale University Press’ edition of the sonnetsput it: “William Shakespeare was almost certainly homosexual, bisexual or heterosexual. The sonnets provide no evidence on that matter.”

In other words, the sonnets should be read as poems, not diary entries. And to cram them into some crusty, procrustean biographical bed is to read the life out of them by trying to read the life into them.

Why is there doubt Shakespeare authorized the sonnets? It’s complicated. For one, the pamphlet’s title is “Shakespeare’s Sonnets,” rather than “Sonnets,” by William Shakespeare. There’s the fact that the 1609 edition was never reprinted (suggesting an intervention by the author). And then there’s the mystery of its dedicatee, the “onlie begetter.” (Is the “onlie begetter” a sly way of saying the one who begot them by bootlegging them?)

I won’t oversimplify Heylin’s complex and apparently carefully researched solution, which depends on several kinds of evidence, but when he used the “bootleg” comparison his inclination made sense. As editor of a leading Dylan fanzine, he spent a lot of time trying to make sense of the burgeoning bootleg culture of the ‘60s and ‘70s.

Bootlegging is, of course, a long artistic tradition. It’s one Shakespeare himself alludes to in The Winter’s Tale, written shortly after the 1609 sonnet book, in the character of the con man Autolycus, who sells stolen ballads as his own: English lit’s first bootlegger.

For me, though the strongest evidence that the 1609 volume was unauthorized is its inclusion of “A Lover’s Complaint,” which just doesn’t sound like Shakespeare to me. It sounds like a bad, false bootleg. There’s bad Shakespeare—I’m no bardolator—but even bad Shakespeare is not this bad. The “Complaint” is wretched. I can’t imagine a Shakespeare who would want an atrocious poem (see excerpts in my column on the subject) that (I believe) he did not write to be attributed to him.

And if Shakespeare didn’t want “Complaint” included, then the edition must be unauthorized. He wouldn’t have told a printer to tack a hideous travesty of poetry onto a collection of his most exquisitely wrought gems. But even if the 1609 edition was bootlegged, that doesn’t, of course, mean the order couldn’t be his. It just renders it conjectural.

Poor Shakespeare, his most exquisite lyric poems, the sonnets, shackled for centuries to an atrocious fake. Oddly enough, in the aftermath of my talk with Heylin, I began to think: Poor Vladimir Nabokov.

Readers may recall I wrote two columns earlier this year about Dmitri Nabokov, Vlad’s son, and the decision he faced about whether to publish his father’s last unfinished work—even after his father had, on his deathbed, asked his family to destroy it. The work, known informally as The Original of Laura, exists only on some hundred or so early-draft index cards, long held in a Swiss safe-deposit box by Dmitri, who couldn’t bring himself to decide what to do.

Apparently the publicity generated by my Slate columns pressed the Hamlet-like Dmitri to make a decision, and the manuscript of Laura will be published about a year from now.

And while Dmitri has the legal right to publish Laura, he will still be violating his father’s injunction. Laura will be an even more complex creature, a legal but unauthorized (by the author) bootleg!

From the excerpts I have read, I can understand why V.N. might have wanted them burned. He’s getting into Lolita territory, at least in one excerpt published by The Nabokovian. And then there’s the mystifying sentence fragment about “intercourse” that The Nabokovian excerpt stopped just short of but that turned up recently in the German newspaper Die Zeit. One could imagine that if Nabokov was reworking that kind of material, he might not have wanted a raw draft printed until he perfected it. Particularly since it involved the most incendiary aspect of what was his most incendiary work. He might well want an incendiary early draft set on fire. I’m now thinking the manuscript of Laura is the Nabokovian equivalent of “A Lover’s Complaint,” in the sense that the prospect of its attachment to the finished, polished canon of this perfectionist’s art might well have been as disturbing to him (even if it was his own early draft) as the bad, fake Shakespeare of “A Lover’s Complaint” would have been to Shakespeare.

And then I came across something that Harvard’s Helen Vendler—coincidentally, or maybe not so coincidentally, one of the premiere interpreters of Shakespeare’s sonnets—said about the unauthorized publication of poems Elizabeth Bishop didn’t consider finished and didn’t want published:

“If I had asked somebody to promise to destroy something of mine,” Vendler told Rachel Donadio of the New York Times, “and they didn’t do it I would feel it to be a grave personal betrayal.”

So here’s a “Nabokov-lover’s complaint” to Dmitri, inspired by all this Dylan and Shakespeare authorized-and-unauthorized cogitation: The New School is holding a symposium on the 50th anniversary of the publication of Lolita, and I’m on a panel about Laura, and I’ve been thinking about what to say. Those who read my Slate columns can see how conflicted I was then about publishing Laura. I wanted Dmitri to make a decision, rather than leaving it to lawyers after his death. But I wasn’t sure what his decision should be.

When he opted to publish (inspired, he’s told us, by the ghostly reappearance of his father who fortuitously urged Dmitri to cash in on Laura), the decision was widely applauded. I’m sure I’ll read the book when it’s published. But it seems to me that all too many who considered the question seemed to dismiss the notion that Nabokov’s request should be respected, finding all sorts of rationales. (“He should have burned it himself!”) So many seem to think that because of Nabokov’s greatness he deserves less respect, that he forfeited his right to have his last wishes carried out to a “posterity” greedy for any and all half-digested scraps from his table.

Why can’t we respect his wish to erase a draft he didn’t want to see the light of day? For all we know, it might, in its unfinished state, mislead us about Lolita and the rest of his canon.

It’s probably too late, but I’m now thinking of calling for Dmitri to change his mind and carry out his father’s wishes. Don’t authorize a bootleg; burn it, Dmitri!