The Fate of Nabokov’s Laura

A Slate critic helps save Nabokov’s last novel from destruction.

Dmitri Nabokov, son of the Russian novelist Vladimir, has kept the literary world on tenterhooks for years over whether he’d obey his father’s dying wish by burning the incomplete manuscript of his final novel, The Original of Laura, or appease scholars and fans alike by publishing it. In January Slate’s Ron Rosenbaum urged Dmitri to make a decision, to “give us Laura” or “tell us that you intend to preserve the mystery forever.” This week, Dmitri officially announced that he would make Laura available to the public.

Click here for Ron Rosenbaum’s first essay on Dmitri’s choice. His second essay on the subject, “The Fate of Nabokov’s Laura, Part II,” reported in February that Dmitri was leaning toward publishing after a conversation of sorts with his dead dad. That piece is reprinted below.

The latest chapter in the intrigue surrounding The Original of Laura, the elusive, unfinished, unpublished final work of Vladimir Nabokov—a chapter that has unfolded since I last wrote about Laurain Slate—turns out to be a kind of ghost story.  

It involves what might be called the spectral appearance of Nabokov himself to his son, Dmitri, the 73-year-old sole heir who holds Laura’s fate in his hands. This otherworldly manifestation came on the heels of an intense period of worldwide debate among readers and literary figures—debate stirred up by my disclosure that Dmitri was once again inclined to follow his father’s deathbed wish and burn the manuscript, now awaiting its fate in a Swiss bank vault.

Burn it,” cried playwright Tom Stoppard in the London Times. “Save it,” countered novelist John Banville. Slate readers were passionately divided. Bloggers pondered the role of “sleuths and stirrers (like Ron Rosenbaum)”—as one put it. Well, it now seems the sleuthing and stirring has provoked a surprising ghostly resolution. It came in the form of an e-mail from Dmitri Nabokov to a woman named Sarah L’Estrange, an e-mail I only discovered when it was read aloud at the close of theAustralian Broadcasting Company’s Book Show, a literary talk show I was appearing on with Brian Boyd, the world’s leading Nabokov scholar.

I will get to Nabokov’s ghost in a moment. First, I’d like to address the question of why we should care about the fate of Laura, something I came to feel ever more strongly about as I sought to learn more about it. In my sleuthing and stirring, I’ve discovered some of the secrets that have escaped from her Swiss prison cell. I’ve even managed to read two passages from the manuscript! Passages that suggest another kind of ghost story: the way Laura is haunted by the ghost of Lolita.

You’ll recall that when we last left Dmitri Nabokov, he was once again publicly (in the journal Nabokov Online) and privately (to me) hinting that he would carry out his filial obligation to destroy the manuscript, thus abiding by the wishes of a perfectionist father who loathed the idea that a work that did not live up to his exacting standards for completion should be exposed in blemished form to the world.

Dmitri’s threat was the latest episode in the long, twisted saga of Laura, which by then had become the literary equivalent of an old-fashioned serial melodrama, as full of cliffhangers as The Perils of Pauline. The irascible Dmitri would tease us with hints of Laura’s thrilling salience, then suggest he was inclined to destroy it, anyway; following which, the literary world (most of it) would beg him not to. Dmitri would then back off—”reserving judgment”—only to stir things up by giving interviews (or, in my case, sending e-mails) that once again suggested an intent to destroy. (For instance, the irritated e-mail he sent me—A LONG, SINGLE PARAGRAPH ALL IN ANGRY CAPITAL LETTERS—after the publication of my recent Slate piece.)

I’d thought I’d portrayed Dmitri’s Hamlet-like dilemma sympathetically. I had defended his conflict, his need to balance the deathbed wish of his father, one of the great artists of modern times, against the demands of “posterity.”

Shouldn’t the father have the right to expect that his son would carry out his wishes? And yet Dmitri had himself fueled our desire to possess Laura with some of his comments, as when he called it the “most concentrated distillation of [my father’s] creativity” and a “totally radical book.” Who would not wish to get even a sketchy glimpse of the omega point of Nabokov’s artistic evolution? However fragmentary the clues, they might give us a hint of the final stage of his aspirations for his art—or perhaps offer a lens through which to reconsider his published work.

But my empathy for the difficulty of the choice—and my offer to share Slate reader comments with Dmitri—seemed to exacerbate his irritability, and, alas, to place Laura in greater jeopardy.

In Dmitri’s ALL-CAPITAL-LETTERED E-MAIL, he said that my column calling on him to end the suspense and to make a decision one way or another had complicated his life as literary executor of the Nabokov estate by drawing too much media attention to him.

Indeed, the issue did seem to draw media like moths to a flame. I was invited to do interviews on NPR, the BBC, the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) and the ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation), and it was during this last interview that Dmitri himself weighed in with a surprise decision.

It was a surprise to me, anyway, because in his ALL-CAPITAL-LETTERED E-MAIL he had told me that he’d decided to make a decision about what to do but that he would not disclose publicly either the decision or the deed. He would make the choice in private, on his own timetable, and not reveal it to anyone. A private burial for Laura? Or a secret reprieve?

His e-mail conjured a suspenseful scene in the future when the door of the vault would swing open, a moment until which we would not know whether we’d find Laura or a pile of ashes that once was Laura.

Before getting to Dmitri’s imagined visitation and his surprise verdict, though, let me dwell for a moment on what my “sleuthing” has turned up. After my Slate piece ran, I spoke with Jeff Edmunds, the editor of Zembla, a Web site devoted to Nabokov hosted by the University Libraries at Penn State University. Edmunds facilitated my reading of two apparently genuine—and highly provocative—passages from the Laura manuscript.

In addition to being a Nabokov specialist, Edmunds has a unique role in the controversy over Laura. Back in 1998, he wrote a brilliant Nabokovian pastiche, one that he initially introduced in the pages of a bogus scholarly paper supposedly written by an invented scholar (invented, that is, by Edmunds) called “Michel Desommelier.” “Desommelier” claimed he had received the fragments of Laura from a young nurse who’d attended a fatally ill Nabokov, who, in his delirium, was reciting passages from his unfinished work.

I’ve read Edmunds’ pastiche, and it’s impressive and smart, but Edmunds had more up his sleeve. He called my attention to the fact that a scholarly print publication called The Nabokovian had printed, in 1999, under curious circumstances, two nearly page-long passages that the editors of The Nabokovian claimed had been taken from Laura. In fact, the editors explicitly say the two passages were “provided and copyrighted by the Nabokov Estate,” and there has never, to my knowledge, been any dispute about their provenance from the estate in the decade that’s followed.

The passages appeared in The Nabokovian as part of a “Nabokov Prose-Alike Centennial Contest,” conducted in coordination with the respected Nabokov-L listserv. The contest involved publication of five passages of prose, three of which were fake—imitations of Nabokov—and two of which were said to be real. In the subsequent issue of The Nabokovian, in which the contest results were announced, the magazine stated that the two real passages were excerpts from The Original of Laura.

Reading them, I felt as if I had discovered buried treasure. (Nobody had identified them correctly in the contest, by the way.) It was thrilling to encounter these two passages from the last efforts of the greatest novelist of the past century. The first one is particularly resonant.

It describes a man kissing—and handling—the naked body of a “frail, docile,” childlike woman as she’s bathing. The man is admiring “the irresistible charm” of her “narrow nates” (nates = buttocks), among other arcanely named body parts. (“Omoplates”?) And then there is a sudden shift to this:

“Only by identifying her with an unwritten, half-written, re-written difficult book could one hope to render at last what …” [end of excerpt].

“Render at last what …”? What a cliffhanger! Nonetheless, consider this reading of the passage; Nabokov is giving us, in his last novel, what might be seen as a kind of outtake from Lolita: the actual, physical side of the relationship. My colleague Michael Weiss recalled for me that Kingsley Amis complained in a contrarian way that Lolita was “not pornographic enough,” that there was too little description of what Lolita and Humbert “actually get up to.” Here in this second excerpt there is the kind of sexualized handling that might have made Amis happier—and, of course, that reopens the debate about the novel’s moral attitude toward the relationship.

Another, more metafictional, allegorical interpretation: Nabokov is rehandling the novel Lolita, turning it over, revisiting it, revising his thoughts about how he managed the material the first time around. The original of The Original of Laura might be called Lolita.

This is conjectural, of course, but, in the first Laura excerpt in The Nabokovian, Nabokov certainly seems to be writing about writing Laura, suggesting that the novel Laura—the unfinished, “unwritten,” “half-written” manuscript he was still in the middle of composing—was somehow like Lolita the character: A not-yet-fully-formed woman, alluring to him and yet not what the mature Laura will become.

A bit more of a hint is given by the second excerpt in The Nabokovian. In this one, we are introduced to a Mr. Hubert (one “m” short of Lolita’s Humbert, of course) who seems to be engaged in a Lolita-like relationship with a young girl (presumably the same one as in the first excerpt), here named Flora, of whom we learn little. In the scene, Hubert and Flora play chess with one of those cheap little plastic sets in which the pieces are pegged into holes on the board. There is some sexualizing description of the “tickly-looking little holes [which] … the pin-sized pawns penetrated easily.” And of the young girl who—double entendre warning—”knew the moves.” On the relationship of Flora to Laura, though, the passage is mum.

However, there are apparently two people besides Dmitri who have read the whole of the Laura manuscript. The first is Brian Boyd, Nabokov scholar and biographer. He obtained permission to read the manuscript with a promise not to disclose anything about it, and on the Australian literary talk show he declined to say anything about its content—although he did say he had great respect for its literary inventiveness—because he felt that, in getting specific, he would, in effect, be violating V.N.’s deathbed dictum.

The second civilian to claim to have laid eyes on Laura is a professor at the University of Strasbourg named Lara (!) Delage-Toriel, who says she was granted the privilege by Dmitri Nabokov.

(I have e-mailed Dmitri to verify this, but I’m not sure he’s still speaking to me. And I’ve e-mailed Delage-Toriel to ask her about the circumstances in which she saw it, but I have, as yet, not heard back. So in this bewildering Nabokovian realm of pastiches and fragmentary excerpts from invented professors, caution is advisable, although I have never seen any repudiation of what you might call Lara’s Laura.)

In her essay, Delage-Toriel does more than increase our knowledge of Laura:She offers a reason why V.N. might have wanted it destroyed in its unfinished state.

Delage-Toriel points to passages in Nabokov’s published work that suggest he often first saw what would later become his novelistic creations as completed pictorial images—and only then struggled to render the perfect picture in his mind into imperfect but perfectible words.

Which might explain his desire to burn Laura: It was not as if he were in the process of discovering its possibilities in words—he knew how good it might turn out if he had time to work on it. He’d already glimpsed the dazzling possibility; he was just struggling to realize its perfection in another medium and had not yet succeeded. When he saw death about to snatch the chance away, Delage-Toriel implies, V.N. didn’t want people to see something that didn’t live up to the luminous painting in his mind.

But she also offers what she says is a firsthand outline of Laura’s plot:

Its central female character seems to be Flora, the wife of the narrator and, most likely, the “original” of Laura, who is the eponymous heroine of a novel titled My Laura. This novel is sent to the narrator and main protagonist of The Original of Laura by a painter, a rejected admirer of his wife, Flora, of whom “he did an exquisite oil a few years ago.” In My Laura, the mistress is less lucky: She is destroyed by the “I” of the book whilst “in the act of portraying her”—”literally,” as a writer. Apparently “the portrait is a faithful one,” its features being “absolutely true to the original.” Our desire to peer through the frame—like the unfortunate protagonist of Nabokov’s short story “La Veneziana”—is thwarted by the elusive nature of this “original”: Does it refer to the mistress of the “I,” the Laura of My Laura, or to the probable mistress of this novel’s author, the Flora of The Original of Laura? The manuscript’s playful juxtapositions obviously incite the reader to fuse both “originals” into a single original, a gesture which Nabokov graphically performs in “chapter” 5, by contriving an amusing hybrid, “Flaura.” On close observation of the manuscript, one notices that the name contains in fact two capital letters, “F” and “L,” as though Nabokov had been loath to give precedence to either name and had instead opted for some typographical monster, a bicephalous cipher of sorts.

Sounds simple enough, right? Then she goes on to say how Laura and Flora team up to find a clue to the location of the Holy Grail in a late painting by Leonardo da Vinci. (Kidding!)

Seriously, this summary has all the characteristic complexity of Nabokov’s last two novels, Transparent Things and Look at the Harlequins!, taken to some exponentially dizzying new level. And for all we know, it may, from that empyrean perspective, cast new light on what came before. On the other hand—and perhaps this is what troubled V.N. to the point that he wanted it destroyed—its imperfect state might, if used as lens through which to examine past work, prove seriously misleading.

But Lara’s Laura isn’t the only plot summary out there. A month after my Slate piece appeared, a writer for the London Times published an article containing a different summary of Laura that she claimed she had cobbled together from discussions with Nabokov scholars she didn’t identify. Here’s what she presents:

Talk to enough Nabokov scholars and the outline of a plot emerges: Philip Wild, an enormously corpulent scholar, is married to a slender, flighty and wildly promiscuous woman called Flora. Flora initially appealed to Wild because of another woman that he’d been in love with, Aurora Lee. Death and what lies beyond it, a theme which fascinated Nabokov from a very young age, are central. The book opens at a party and there follow four continuous scenes, after which the novel becomes more fragmented. It is not clear how old Wild is, but he is preoccupied with his own death and sets about obliterating himself from the toes upwards through meditation. A sort of deliberate self-inflicted self-erasure.

The differences are rather significant. Are there two Lauras? It is possible to conceive they are parts of the same novel examined from different angles. But the man making himself disappear by meditating himself into oblivion from the toes up?

Maybe that’s why Nabokov wanted it burned.

In any case, my encounters with these various fragmentary apparitions of Laura left me wanting more than ever to read the whole manuscript and spend the rest of my life trying to evaluate its relation to the rest of V.N.’s work, but things were looking grim in the period between Dmitri’s ALL-CAPS E-MAIL to me threatening a private cremation and the very end of my appearance on that Australian talk show.

Ramona Koval, the program’s host, had spent a half-hour eliciting opinions from Boyd (who’s now in favor of saving Laura), Harvard scholar Leland de la Durantaye (in favor of burning), and me (still conflicted). And then she sprung her surprise: an e-mail from Dmitri to one of the show’s producers, a woman named Sarah L’Estrange (could there be a better name in this Nabokovian perplexity?), that offered what looked like a decision at last.

The full e-mail can be found at the end of the show’s transcript. But the essence is this: Dmitri says he reached a decision after an imagined ghostly conversation with his dead father—one in a far different key from Hamlet’s talk with his dead dad.

“I have decided,” Koval quoted Dmitri, “that my father, with a wry and fond smile, might well have contradicted himself upon seeing me in my present situation and said, “Well, why don’t you mix the useful with the pleasurable? That is, say or do what you like but why not make some money on the damn thing?’ “

And so the imagined shade of V.N., demonstrating indulgent and affectionate fondness for his son’s “present situation” (it’s not clear what exactly that means, but it could refer to financial or heath problems or just the worldwide outcry to save Laura), gave him ghostly permission to raise some funds with it.

That’s putting it far too vulgarly, of course. For one thing, selling Laura might be best for the manuscript. I’m sure there are respectable scholarly institutions, museums, and foundations that would pay considerable sums to take on the guardianship of the last fictional creation of the greatest novelist of the past century, perhaps limiting access to scholars and—alas—probably excluding the “sleuths and stirrers” responsible for their windfall.

But still I found myself a little surprised by Dmitri’s revelation. It certainly could be interpreted as an opportunistic communion, what with his father’s spirit so genially granting Dmitri the right to discard his original wish and giving him permission to enrich himself.

But then I had an argument with my girlfriend over Dmitri’s motivations, and she insisted she sensed something else going on. “It’s not about the money,” she insisted, “There’s more to it.”

And after a couple of days thinking about it, I decided she might well be right. This incident could be just as much—or more—about Dmitri creating for himself (and us) a fond image of a loving father lovingly indulging his son. It might be about him, the way he’d like to see his father as a parent. How faithful this vision is to the original we can never know. But who could begrudge the son this image?

So it’s a ghost story, but it’s also a kind of love story. I await the next ALL-CAPITAL-LETTER E-MAIL.