The Original of Laura


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The Original of Laura

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Editat: gen. 18, 2008, 10:09am

A friend pointed this controversy out to me, and I thought several here would be interested:

Read it, and then decide: burn or publish? I’m on the burn side – Nabokov was a strict and highly disciplined writer – he gets last say. I’m rather surprised that Dmitri has second thoughts.

However, this line from the article gives me pause:
"Who controls its fate? The dead hand from the grave?"

And lo and behold, I recognize something – do you?

Yes, old VNN kept the manuscript to test the Pale Fire hypothesis! He’s with us yet or not. If you agree with Brian Boyd’s reading of Pale Fire, you’ll know that the deceased John Shade guided the hand of Kinbote in the re-telling of Shade’s poem – three stories in one, the triptych of the living Shade’s poem, the soon to be dead Kinbote’s tale of Zembla, and the dead Shade’s retro-criticism of the entire work.

Vera once said that the afterlife was VNN’s grand theme and , considering this, I am certain that VNN was hoping to exert his own posthumous influence on the Laura manuscript. So, unless Dmitri has been given a sign – and it would be butterflies, yes? and not cabbage moths – then he should burn the book.

Unless, of course the whole brouhaha is being orchestrated by VNN himself – causing his critics and admirers once again to lose sleep and spend more time gushing over his playful brilliance.

Nabokov, the fun never ends.

What do you others say?

gen. 18, 2008, 10:06am

I really should add this touchstone - but I'll assume everyone has read Nabokov's Pale Fire: the Magic of Artistic Discovery by Boyd.

gen. 18, 2008, 11:09am

I read the article yesterday and found it so troubling. Like you, I was very surprised Dmitri was having second thoughts. It seems in a situation like this the only right thing to do is to follow the wishes of the artist, even though it is no less than heartbreaking to go through with it. Of course I selfishly want to read Laura--desperately. And the idea of actually destroying the manuscript rather than leaving it locked in a bank vault for eternity is enough to turn my stomach.

What did you think of the comparison in the article of the first lines of Pale Fire with Petrarch? I don't know the Canzonieri at all but it sounded interesting despite Dmitri's objections.

gen. 18, 2008, 11:12am

If my father had had the chance to askme to do something before he died, I'd like to think I'd have done it, regardless of my personal feelings. So I'd say get the matches out.

gen. 18, 2008, 12:01pm

#3 Nperrin: here’s more, for your pleasure:

Here is the opening quatrain of Petrarch’s poem No. 141:

The way a simple butterfly, in summer, will sometimes fly, while looking for the light, right into someone’s eyes, in its desire, whereby it kills itself and causes pain ….

And here is the famous first line of Pale Fire:

“I was the shadow of the waxwing slain…”

The “uncanny” comparison with Pale Fire cannot be dismissed. Laura (Petrach’s) was an enigma: real or a figment of Petrach’s imagination. Does she lack corporeal essence? Her name evokes the laurels of poetry which points again to Shade’s poem (Nabokov wrote early poems but is most famous for Shade’s, yes?). She also rebuffs a lover, deliciously, for perhaps – she (Nabokov’s Laura) is the transposed, transfigured, made-beautiful Hazel of Pale Fire.

That’s my hunch. And I think it is a good one, when you read further on in Petrach’s 141:

“And truly I see how much disdain they have for me,
and I know I am certain to die of them,
since my strength cannot counter the pain”

God, I love Nabokov, and puzzles, and worlds within worlds….

gen. 18, 2008, 12:29pm

The request was made in 1977, and to the wife, not the son. She, for some reason, didn't do it in the 14 years of her remaining life. Maybe she knew something about Nabokov's temperament that caused her to not carry out his wishes. One may also wonder why He didn't destroy the cards himself. Who knows?

The dead will not get any benefit or loss from the publishing of the work, but the living stand to gain a lot in having this work available to read. So, I guess I would have to say that the artwork should live on for the living, and if an artist wants something destroyed, they should make sure to get the job done themselves.

It is not fair for one to ask others to destroy something they see as beautiful or culturally valuable, especially in a "wait 'til I'm dead" situation. If you can't pull the trigger yourself, let the dog live.

gen. 18, 2008, 12:41pm

Bookish: do you see Nabokov's hand behind all this? I do. I think, in this case, the "story" is being written as we speak - a story without a manuscript. I think he is still writing it, and it is taking shape in the pages of the New York Observer, The Beau and the Butterfly, Wickipedia, Slate, etc...

We are living the book as it is being written. The actual cards - well, that's Dmitri's dilemma. Vera, I'd guess, was acting under strict directive.

gen. 18, 2008, 12:51pm

And imagine, just imagine, if they were blank. Or a transcript of Jabberwocky, or something.


gen. 18, 2008, 1:12pm

Kafka asked that all his work be destroyed upon his death.

His best friend went ahead and published it.

What are friends for?

gen. 18, 2008, 1:18pm

If it is a game, it's been played before and better. Harold Brodkey convinced the whole of US publishing that he was writing a book sequence to rival Proust - people wrote him and the book, he was the greatest writer in America, it was the greatest novel. In the end however it all collapsed because eventually you have to deliver something or accept the backlash.

Personally, I think this is story is either just to generate some interest in Nabokov in the public or, assuming there is a manuscript, the publishers.

gen. 18, 2008, 2:24pm

Played before, perhaps. Better? I doubt it. I'm guessing Nabokov set up this chess game from the beginning - and he knows that not only will a work materialize from the discussions, but that we - his slavish readers - will go back and read, at a minimum: Pale Fire, Look at the Harlequins!, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight - and as we reread we will be reading entirely different works with new eyes.

He also throws a bone to Petrarch, as he leads us to the Canzoniere and perhaps, to Shakespeare - but do we really, really have to read Hamlet again? I may beg off the last one.

And I thought Proust was demanding...

gen. 18, 2008, 2:42pm

Sir Richard Burton's wife destroyed a great deal of his writing on his death because it was too racy and embarassing.

gen. 18, 2008, 2:45pm

That's a different kettle of fish - she was exercising editorial control, and unless he asked her to do so, she was stepping out of bounds.

But, don't mess with the Mrs., I guess.

gen. 18, 2008, 2:58pm

And we have to mention the precedent of that fateful day in 1950 when Vera stopped VN from burning the Lolita cards.

If there was ever an example of when a spouse could say "I told you so!", this is one.

I speculate that her refusal to burn Laura cards in her lifetime was a continuation of that attitude.

The article's allusions to the dumber types of Lolita-ologists also invite speculation that there's something there that makes Dmitri anticipate similar misunderstandings. His filial sense might not only involve respecting his father's wishes, but also protecting his father.

Quite the quandary indeed.

gen. 18, 2008, 3:17pm

I just told my boyfriend that if he asked me to, and I liked the book, I wouldn't burn his manuscript. Maybe, like children and other long-term future plans, these things should be discussed early in a relationship. :)

gen. 18, 2008, 3:23pm

Did he kiss you or scowl?

gen. 18, 2008, 3:40pm

Well, it was actually done by email. And I told him I would, once my heart healed from losing him, be collaborating with my new, inappropriately young lit-major boyfriend. Never got a response. Hm.

gen. 18, 2008, 3:46pm

Maybe he's busy with his lovely new editor...

gen. 18, 2008, 3:57pm

He'd have to find one, first. It's his first book and he doesn't plan on publishing (at least that's what he said last night).

I hate that, though. Much like the Nabokov thing, who knows what can come of it. I have another friend who wrote a book about 15 years ago that got rejected by every publisher, but today, it's the kind of book people would snap up immediately. But he just gave up and said he didn't want to take the chance of rejection, anymore. At least I was honored to be able to read it all, I guess. And it was close to one of the best I've ever read. ::sigh::

Editat: gen. 20, 2008, 8:24am

I think Dmitri should burn it.
I don't think the selfish interests of all the pundits, critics, biographers and publishers who are eager to write and talk about the manuscript to burnish their own reputations and coffers sholuld be considered at all. They'll find other things to engage their interest.
As for the ardent readers and admirers of Nabokov among us, who would be only to glad to read it, we'll just have to learn to do without. That can't be so hard.
Overall, I hope everyone can realize that Dmitri is an actual living human being, and an interested party, with his own thoughts which are certainly closer to the matter than any stranger who presumes to offer advice. He is certainly not just a receptacle and arbiter for everyone else's thoughts which are being poured into the bin.
He will certainly be hounded forever for comment and justification of whatever his decision may be, and I'm sure he knows that also. So let's give the guy break and let him do what he thinks is appropriate. He is after all the current and legitimate owner of the manuscript, despite all the blather about who 'owns' it. He does.
I still say burn it.

gen. 20, 2008, 8:57am

Of course every person that loves all things Nabokovian wants to read "The Original of Laura", selfishly so do I, and if Dimitri ever published, I would be compelled to read it in spite of feeling an interloper. All that said, I still think Dimitri Nabokov should burn it, it was what his father wished, he has read it and that is enough. The work belonged to the creator, VN, now it belongs to his son Dimitri, straight line of succession through Véra. It is DN's to do with as he wishes of course being the owner but I feel he has an obligation to his father to follow his wishes.

I doubt there was any puzzle, subterfuge in VN's not destroying it himself, he'd been ill for quite a while and more than likely literally was unable to do it himself.
As for why Véra didn't destroy it.....I can understand that, she who had lived with VN for 50ish years, they were two sides of the same coin. I feel sure she was as unable, for different reasons as her husband to destroy the manuscript index cards. I cannot blame her one bit. I understand.

I hope Dimitri destroys it. If only for his own peace of mind.

gen. 20, 2008, 9:38am

#20 & 21: given both the wife's devotion, and the son's to VNN, I can't help but think they are following his wishes, to the dotted i and the slashed sevens.

I think they'll do just as he intended. And my hope in humanity - or at least literary humanity will be restored.

Editat: feb. 24, 2008, 6:58am

Here's a link to a very good discussion on the matter, including the writer of the article on saving/burning the manuscript & Brian Boyd - Should Laura Be Burnt?

Unfortunately, enevada, it suggests that Nabokov didn't do this to play any games: it was his standard instruction on any unfinished work, and some of his other papers.

Editat: feb. 24, 2008, 10:51am

Boyd and Koval, from the manuscript:

"Boyd: Nabokov is such a meticulous craftsman, he creates such intricate machines, and if the machinery just isn't there it's very hard to imagine how it would run smoothly. There are so many trapdoors in every one of his novels, it's just full of lacunae. On the other hand, I do think now, having read it more recently in less unpropitious circumstances than on Vera's couch, that there are wonderful things in it. There are new fictional devices that...

Ramona Koval: New for him or new for the whole world?

Brian Boyd: New for anybody. I mean, he was always pushing the boundaries really of what was possible in fiction. So yes, new for everybody."

I think my version still stands, and in this particular case the machinery is supplied by the readers (not of the manuscript but of the 'ruckus' - Dmitri's word).

Like Kinbote, my version is a complete fabrication and unique to me. Also, like Kinbote, I prefer my version to all others.

Unlike Kinbote, I am sane.

Word for the day: lacunae. That's fun to say, slowly.

So burn the damn thing, already.

feb. 24, 2008, 11:53am

According to the message they read from Dmitri he has successfully used this non-event to push up the bidding for the manuscript, so there will be no burning.

I wonder about Boyd's position as well - his initial reaction was that there was so little there that it should be burned, yet now he claims it is something special.

The truth of the matter is that if Vera had followed her husband's instructions no-one would even have known about the manuscript. If it does have a story, or a moral, it must be that families, and academics, of the famous will cannibalise every aspect of that fame in order to maintain their lifestyle. It is good to know that in death "celebrities" as diverse as Elvis, Nabokov, and Charles Manson are treated equally.

feb. 24, 2008, 12:01pm

Good to know?!

I'm plugging my ears and closing my eyes and humming loudly. I hold the Family Nabokova in higher regard.

Vera did follow directions.
Dmitri continues to do so.
And Boyd is playing along.

hmmm hmmm hmmm....

feb. 26, 2008, 12:00pm

>25 Jargoneer: Too much too fast here. There's plenty of evidence that the N family plays to higher standards.

feb. 26, 2008, 4:09pm

Just wondering. When it is burnt, do you think the ashes will have some value, if they are collected into an envelope? :)

feb. 26, 2008, 4:46pm

Perhaps as much as a piece of Virgin Mary toast?

Don't sneeze.

abr. 23, 2008, 12:48pm

abr. 23, 2008, 2:35pm

Now somewhat overtaken by events, but the Australian Radio Service's "The Book Show" did a marvelous program on it, with Brian Boyd. It ends with a letter from Dmitri hinting he wouldn't burn it.

Editat: abr. 23, 2008, 2:56pm

I still find it difficult to believe that VVN would make a tactical error - and I hope that reading the Original will prove me correct. If not – I see the lesson here, burn as you go or before you go, but don’t leave it to someone else.

As for “how to hold on to the joys of love in old age” , well, we can hope it is a tennis manual and not some chicken soup for the jaded ex-expat’s soul.

Didn’t Ada and Van already show us how to hold on to love in old age?

abr. 23, 2008, 3:36pm

The radio show revealed that VN did the same thing for Look at the Harlequins too. That is, he wrote something to the event of "If unfinished at my death, destroy this" on the top card, then crossed it out when he was finished.

Editat: abr. 26, 2008, 8:53am

I don't think there were any mercenary motives on Véra's part, I feel it was more a not wanting/being able to let go of the last creative breath of VN. I can't and won't blame her a bit. I wish she had, but we can only do what we are capable of. As far as Dimitri is concerned, I have no idea what his motives are, only that they must be mixed to say the least.

Anyone that has read "The Real Life of Sebastian Knight" knows beyond a shadow of a doubt what VN thought of this sort of thing.
People love to bring up the almost burning of "Lolita" and Véra stopping him...ok, but it was his decision in the end to keep the manuscript. The finished manuscript.

I feel it should be destroyed, but I'll probably read it, although I can't say for sure if my conscience will allow it.

abr. 26, 2008, 9:21am

I'll pass - I'm tired of it already.

But I will go back to Petrarch's canzoniere, there's still something green there, after all these years. Spring. And the original Laura, who perhaps never existed.

abr. 26, 2008, 2:55pm

I'm not at all optimistic but I suspect I'll read it.

And who knows, maybe there will be the pleasure of being wrong. I first encountered N as an immature reader and had reservations--and of course I was dead wrong.

Hope I'll be lucky again.

maig 1, 2008, 10:21am

It is all about motivation. What was it that inspired Nabokov to request such a drastic measure regarding his The Original of Laura? What was it inside of Vera that made her maintain possession of the manuscript, or perhaps go against her husband's wishes? Why would Dmitri not only hang on to the original of The Original of Laura, but also go as far as to have it published posthumously, incompletely and without permission? From mere impressions, I have to stick up for poor Dmitri who seems to be catching a great deal of criticism and untoward speculation. Initially, I was surprised to hear he had made the decision to publish this work. He has, in the past, been so protective of his father's works and name. I see nothing so far that would go against his integrity, nothing to prove he has changed. Whatever his current motivation, we have always known him to be devoted to his family, indeed to both parents. Regardless of how complete and (im)perfect VNN's final novel is, it must be a plus to the literary world.

Will I read it? Absolutely!

maig 1, 2008, 10:43am

Yes, so will I. Who was I trying to kid?

But that’s it. This is the end. This is the last book of his that I’ll read. My slavish adoration of VVN ends with it.

Or not. We’ll see. Surely, he left some more note cards around, a shopping list or two, some dry cleaning receipts, something??

maig 1, 2008, 4:44pm

Interview with Dmitri Nabokov on NPR yesterday:

maig 2, 2008, 4:49pm

I think the motivation is clear. VN had a horror of unfinished stuff. As I recall he says somewhere in Strong Opinions that he doesn't pass around rough drafts any more than he passes around samples of his sputum. And as DN noted, he wrote the same destroy-if-I-die note on the cards for Look at the Harlequins, until he finished the book and crossed it out. I don't think there's anything deeper—any special reason he didn't want this book published.

I think DN's description of his mother not wanting to destroy this piece of his last years with her husband is also sufficient.