When Vladimir Nabokov died in Switzerland in 1977, he left explicit instructions for his heirs to destroy the penciled index cards that made up his work to date on his unfinished 18th novel, The Original of Laura (Dying is Fun). Véra, his loyal wife and amanuensis, who died in 1991, couldn’t bring herself to do it. And, fortunately, after much debate, neither could their son, Dmitri.
Of course, it’s one thing not to burn the partial draft, and another to publish it. But, although Nabokov may be squirming in his grave, Nabokov fans and scholars have reason to thank Dmitri for his brave parental defiance in publishing this invaluable glimpse into the way his brilliant father worked.
All too often, publications of half-cooked literary fragments are not just disappointing in literary terms, but seem motivated as much by greed as by the heirs’ desire to keep their famous forebear alive in print. But whatever one thinks of Nabokov’s emphatically unfinished book – and we’ll get to that – it certainly hasn’t been rushed into print in an unseemly fashion. Thirty-two years after Nabokov’s death at 78, its publication feels more like a generous gift to readers than a ploy for fame or fortune.
This is in great part due to the dazzlingly clever presentation of the material. By reproducing facsimiles of Nabokov’s 138 penciled index cards at the top of each page and printing typeset transcriptions with minimal editorial changes and notes below, Chip Kidd, associate art director at Knopf, has designed a format that reminds us forcefully, in graphic terms, that “The Original of Laura” is a work in progress and not an ordinary manuscript.
The photographed cards are perforated, to encourage us to stack and shuffle them – as Nabokov apparently did – into an order that might make more sense. Nabokov’s neat handwriting is punctuated by eraser smudges, inserted phrases, and emphatically crossed-out or scribbled-over words.
But it becomes fainter, sketchier, and more sparse as he races against time and illness in a Lausanne hospital, trying to net ideas and pin down a draft, a goal as elusive as some of the butterflies he chased and collected around the globe.
Although Nabokov’s last novel is especially intriguing to his devotees, readers whose familiarity with Nabokov’s work is limited to his most famous novel, “Lolita” (1955), will also find plenty of interest. The story – such as it is – involves “an extravagantly slender girl,” Flora, whom we meet at age 24 in the act of cheating on her older husband. Her current lover is a writer who, shortly after their affair ends, writes a critically attacked but bestselling novel (as was “Lolita”) about her, called “My Laura.”
Flora – thus the original of Laura – is the daughter of a ballerina named Lanskaya (as in land and sky) and, probably, her husband Adam Lind, a photographer also of Russian extraction who shoots himself over a jilted homosexual love. Raised by her flighty mother in Paris, lovely 12-year-old Flora is pestered by the too-close attentions of her mother’s creepy older English lover, Hubert B. Hubert – a clear echo of Lolita’s Humbert Humbert.
Flora’s cuckolded husband is an obese, brilliant neurologist and lecturer named Philip Wild. Flora is “mesmerized by his fame and fortune” but otherwise indifferent to his wit and accomplishments.
Despite its limited word count– each card contains barely a paragraph or two of prose – the book is filled with sly wit and memorable images, many of which evoke Flora’s girlish body, in sharp contrast with her hard, emotional detachment. A lover “pinafores” her stomach with kisses, a phone rings “ecstatically,” and during sex, “A tear of no particular meaning gemmed the hard top of her cheek.”
The manuscript gets stranger and more fitfully elliptical in the second half, which largely concerns Wild’s description of his weird psychological experiments. These involve putting himself into a trance and willing the dissolution of various parts of his body, beginning with his painful toes – “suicide made a pleasure.”
Wild dreams of a high school crush, Aurora Lee, whose “cold gaze” reminds him of his wife (and whose name evokes Flora, Laura, and Poe’s Annabel Lee). But he confesses wistfully to loving “only one girl in my life, an object of terror and tenderness.”
Perhaps Wild’s desire to “think away thought” and himself and make dying fun by “auto-dissolution” stems from a broken heart over wayward Flora. But it isn’t a stretch to imagine a wretched Nabokov in his Lausanne hospital bed, wishing to “efface/expunge/erase/delete/rub out/wipe out/obliterate” his offending body parts. These are the words listed on the last card of this tantalizing, fascinating, occasionally perplexing manuscript. Pity he didn’t get to finish it. Fortunate we get to see it at all.
Heller McAlpin, a freelance critic in New York, is a frequent Monitor contributor.