The Spectator

The Nabokov Code

A first encounter with Laura, his last, unfinished work.

It shouldn’t be surprising that the forthcoming (Nov. 17) release of the long-locked-away Holy Grail of higher lit, Vladimir Nabokov’s unfinished draft of The Original of Laura, is attended with an air of the clandestine.

In order to read the text now, one cannot simply order a review copy. One must enter the lobby of the Random House building (currently adorned with promotional cards for Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol)and ascend to the 21st floor, where, in an unused office, the only copy shown to outsiders reposes on a table. Once there, one is instructed that one can read it but must not (for several reasons, including a commitment to publish excerpts from the work in Playboy) disclose anything about it that has not previously appeared in print until the Playboy installment is on the stands.

The restrictions were frustrating, but there was something thrillingly forbidden about my first encounter with Laura, whose text, as we shall see, I played no small part in bringing to light. And then there was the shocker on Page xix, which I’ve been allowed to disclose.

If Dan Brown’s latest is The Lost Symbol,you might say Nabokov’s Laura is The Last Symbols: his final written words, the draft he wanted burned if he died before completing it. The one that had been secreted away in a strongbox in a Swiss bank vault for decades. The one that existed in the form of 138 index cards, covered with his pencil-written prose. The one—and this is what made it so seductive, an object of worldwide fascination among littérateurs—that might contain a clue or clues, a code, for all we knew, that would offer new perspective on the often cryptic prose of past Nabokov masterpieces. Perhaps, through a glass darkly, we could glimpse the author’s last reflections on the dazzling corpus that came before.

And so a numinous aura surrounded the object I beheld on the 21st floor—as if it were a newly discovered Dead Sea Scroll. And there was an aura of controversy as well.

It was a manuscript I sought to save from burning, then decided should be burned, and now burned to see, despite my reservations. One that held within it, I would soon discover, something that would come as an unexpectedly personal shock to me.

I burned to see it not because it would decode Nabokov’s work. I don’t believe that literature is something to be decoded in some Rosetta Stone-like fashion. I am a disciple of the “seven types of ambiguity” school of literary interpretation, which contends that mechanical, symbol-translating decoding reduces the potential efflorescence of a work’s beauty and signification.

But ever since I learned about the existence and perilous fate of The Original of Laura, I wondered whether, even in its fragmentary state, it might disclose clues about the nature of a true object of wonder, mystery and intricacy: the mind of Vladimir Nabokov, perhaps seen for the first time in the process of creation, giving us a glimpse of the alchemy with which he transformed pencil lead to gold.

To me, Nabokov’s mind is more worthy of wonder than any that has expressed itself in print in the four centuries since the birth of Shakespeare. (Curiously, the birthdays of both Shakespeare and Nabokov are celebrated on the very same day, April 23. Coincidence? Get Dan Brown on the case, stat: The April Apparitions?)                  

Seriously, I regard Nabokov’s work, Nabokov’s mind, as a labyrinth one could (and ideally should) get lost in for a lifetime. He possessed something, a gift, whose luminescence outshone that of other writers: It made them the palest of pale fire in comparison with his lightning flashes.

Once, as a child, I had a dream that someone was disclosing to me something I remember as “the secret of lightning.” I woke up having forgotten the “secret” but never forgot the thrill of being close to that hidden knowledge. That’s the way I feel when I read Nabokov. Encrypted within his words, encoded indecipherably, ambiguously, is the equivalent of the secret of lightning. Something akin to the secret code of higher human consciousness, the DNA, the genome of genius.

The Original of Laura was Nabokov’s final novel, one he raced death to finish. Death won, and yet paradoxically, death, his final rival, puts in an appearance in what appears to be the subtitle: Dying Is Fun, which is rendered in the Knopf edition with parentheses around it, leaving an ambiguity as to whether it’s an alternate title or just a subtitle with parentheses around it.

“Dying is fun”? Say what? It sounds so un-Nabokovian. And yet I think it is Nabokovian, in the context of the work, although I can’t tell you why, now. Before I was permitted to gaze upon this early, unbound copy of the Knopf edition, I had to sign a three-page contract (including “Rider A,” Parts 1 and 2) that the lawyers for Knopf had hammered out, mandating, if I interpret the legalese correctly, that I not reveal any aspects of the work that had not been previously disclosed. (Die Zeit,the German newspaper, had published photographs of several of the index cards last year.)

I can tell you, however, that the subtitle Dying Is Fun is deadly serious in a deeply disturbing way. Talk about your “death panels”! There have been hints of the book’s dark tone in print, but wait till you see what’s on these index cards. If I can’t disclose any of the words of the text (except the shocker on Page xix), I’d like to talk about my fascination with the “un-words,” the unreadable, scrawled-out effacements, erasures and deletions, apparently made in the process of composition: The Dead Sea Scrawls, you might say, of the Nabokov canon.

But first I have to do a little backtracking here on my attitude toward the publication of The Original of Laura. The saga began when Nabokov found himself fighting death in Switzerland in 1977. As he raced to finish Laura, he burdened his beloved wife, Véra, with a terrible task, enjoining her to burn the draft if he died before it was done. She couldn’t bring herself to do it. She was the one, after all, who had saved the manuscript of Lolita (far more complete and polished) from the incinerator when Nabokov wanted to burn that one.

When Véra died in 1991, the task fell to his sole surviving heir, Dmitri Nabokov. For a while, Dmitri put off a decision, tucking the index cards away in a Swiss safe deposit vault. Occasionally he would make pronouncements about the work being unlike anything his father had done before, offering a new way of looking at his father’s work. And the contents of a few cards had found their way into print in obscure Nabokov journals. But little notice was taken of what the safe deposit box held, and many Nabokovians were unaware or only marginally aware of its existence.

And then a certain writer—OK, it was me—started badgering Dmitri to make a decision. No response.

Then, two years later, I was prompted to return to the subject by some casual but ominous-sounding remarks Dmitri made to an interviewer from Nabokov online magazine. He’d been so incensed by the psychological speculations about his father in certain biographies that he threatened to cast the manuscript of Laura into the flames so that it would never be subject to the molestation of academics.

That second public plea to Dmitristruck a chord, echoed far and wide, from here to St. Petersburg, down to Australia, provoking contentious literary debate. (“Burn it!” Tom Stoppard told the London Times. “Save it,” countered novelist John Banville.)

Dmitri did not seem averse to the spotlight of publicity that shone upon him as it became more generally known that he was in possession of the final work, however unfinished, of the greatest writer of our time. And that he had the power to burn it or bestow it on the world.

But when word came that Dmitri was thinking of having the manuscript published after all, I found myself more conflicted, even going so far as to suggest on one panel that he should burn the book—that his father’s wishes deserved respect. And so I wrote a second piece airing these conflicts.

Dmitri was not entirely happy with this change of heart, especially after he inked a deal with Knopf to publish the book.

I must admit that when an interviewer asked me about it, I expressed conflict over whether I should even read Laura at all. After all, I had eventually arrived at the position that V.N.’s wishes should be obeyed and Laura should be a pile of ashes.

Instead, there it was, a hefty physical object, truly unusual in more than one respect. Knopf and presumably Dmitri have scanned the 138 index cards and presented them one to a page, in perforated detachable form. There’s a transcription by Dmitri below each card. You could detach the cards and shuffle them if you wanted to, although this form implies more randomness than the careful numbering, renumbering, and lettering V.N. has penciled in on most of the cards suggests. And if you were to remove all the cards, the hardbound book would look like a ghost town with all the windows punched in. But you have to admire the daring: The book’s form will allow readers to hold the cards in their hands the way V.N. must have, at one time or another, as he neared completion of this draft.

Needless to say I couldn’t resist reading it. I plunged into reading the cards themselves. It was only when I took a break from trying to follow the multiple characters and their fictional incarnations—Laura, as previous reports have suggested, is the title of a novel within the novel; the “original” of Laura is the character the novel was based on—that I flipped to the acknowledgements page in the front matter, and discovered the shocker on Page xix.

There was a list of six people thanked, and the last was:

“Ron Rosenbaum, who could not have set off a better publicity campaign if it had been planned (it was not).”

I was floored. Did I detect a slight edge to the mention? “A publicity campaign”? I suppose there’s some truth to that; I did want what I wrote to generate publicity, first one way and then the other. And looking back upon the entire saga—Dmitri’s threats to burn the manuscript, my plea that he not, his changing his mind and deciding to publish, my changing my mind and deciding it was wrong to—I can see how our exchanges kept the drama and suspense going in a way they might not have otherwise.

It certainly increased awareness, curiosity, anticipation, and the manuscript’s worldwide value as a commodity when it had not previously been much in the spotlight.

And I think Dmitri appreciated my genuine empathy for his Hamlet-like dilemma. I think the claim could be made that Slate saved Laura. Because, if Dmitri had not been prodded to make a decision and—God forbid—succumbed to illness before he did, for all we know the estate might have felt compelled to carry out Vladimir’s original wishes or kept the manuscript accessible only to a few academics, a fate worse than death.

But what of my reservations? My late-breaking fealty to Nabokov’s wishes? Could they be wiped out by this generous gesture?

In a word, yes.

What can I say? The act has already been done, committed. And I had been conflicted, and I had devoted considerable time to something that might have ended up a pile of ashes. And I am certainly glad there are no lingering bad feelings on Dmitri’s part. Still: The part of me that agonized about whether the book should be published wonders, Was I wrong or was I right? Will the vengeful ghost of Vladimir Nabokov haunt me from now on?

What may have tipped my thinking on the subject was the sight of Nabokov’s scrawl-outs. Somehow, without giving the impression that he was frenetically trying to conceal his process, he has completely obscured various words and phrases that it appears he’s altered or deleted from the text. These fragments are all but impossible to decipher beneath the scrolling, spiraling curls of his scrawls, which look like Slinkys (although I know that many in future years will try).

It was pretty remarkable. I spent a lot of time trying to make anything out, and I swear the only effacement I may have deciphered occurs in the faint shadow of the erased smudge on the index card on Page 233. It’s not in Dmitri’s transcript, and V.N. himself obviously decided he didn’t want it there (at the time, anyway), but I thought I could make out two words in the deletion the transcript may have missed: “the coded.”   

I’m not going to go in a Dan Brown direction with this and try to solve some literary mystery, however tempting it is (The Nabokov Code!). I just couldn’t avoid noting it (perhaps for future editions).

No, the indecipherable scrawls moved me for a different reason. I’d known about them from the photos in Die Zeit, of course, but this time they struck me more deeply. They were evidence of the drama inherent in the creative process, a process whose heart is revision. I devoted a substantial portion of The Shakespeare Wars to the scholarly controversy over whether Shakespeare revised his play scripts. Ben Jonson famously said that Shakespeare never “blotted out a line,” but a substantial case has been made in recent years that he did rewrite on occasion, sometimes altering single words or phrases, sometimes making more substantial edits.

Shakespeare’s revisions (and Nabokov’s) matter for two reasons. Revision indicated that even these writers shouldn’t be considered godlike figures from whom the muse poured forth perfection on the first try, but writers who are—in some ways—like other writers, in at least this respect: They were subject to second thoughts. And distinguishing what those second thoughts might have been and why they focused on rethinking this or that word or phrase or scene offers a window into the meaning of the work.

But—and this is the second but not secondary meaning of the blottings out—revisions also offer a window into the humanity of the author. That even the greatest of geniuses (and yes, I believe the term is valid for these two) were not superhuman; they live in the same world of error and doubt that the rest of us inhabit. The fact that they think they’ve made “mistakes” makes their work even more perfect than it would be if they never blotted a line or scratched out a word.

And it would be an error on my part if I didn’t close by saying: Thank you, Dmitri.