Saturday, May 3, 2008

Laura is the face in the misty light

Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov (1899-1977), professor of literature, lepidopterist, and great 20th-century author, may have died over thirty years ago, but he's been in the news a lot this year. It seems that when he died, Nabokov left behind an unfinished novel called the Original of Laura. On his death bed he gave instructions that the manuscript should be burned since, as a perfectionist, he did not want it published in its incomplete, imperfect state.

Carrying out the deed first fell on his beloved wife, Véra, but for one reason or another she had failed to do so before her death in 1991. Instead, she locked up the 50 or so index cards on which Laura was written in a Swiss bank vault. It then passed to their only son, Dmitri Vladimirovich, who in addition to being the executor of his father's estate and the translator of his Russian works also had a career as an opera singer (his 1961 debut was as Colline in La Bohème so he must be a bass).

Dmitri's dilemma

Dmitri was conflicted about committing this act of bibliocide libricide so he kept the manuscript locked away as he mulled it over for another 15 years. But recently the septuagenarian decided that the time to resolve Laura's fate was drawing near. He teased the literary world, saying first that he had typed up Laura on to about 30 standard pages, then that he was probably going to destroy it, and then that he was leaning towards publishing it. Literati and Nabokovians everywhere begged him to spare the master's last work from the flame while others, like playwright Tom Stoppard, wrote that he should not give in to the wishes of greedy fans and that the author's last wishes must be respected. Journalist Ron Rosenbaum led the voices calling for Dmitri to shit or get off the pot: either publish Laura or make with the matches already! For his part, Dmitri complained that all this unwanted attention wasn't making his difficult choice any easier.

What was a good son to do? The obvious historical parallel seems to be the case of Franz Kafka who told his friend and executor, Max Brod, that he wanted his unpublished works (everything he wrote save for a few short stories such as the Metamorphosis) to be destroyed. But Brod ignored his friend's wishes and instead published the rest of his oeuvre, giving the world such classics as The Trial, The Castle and Amerika. As a professor of literature (who discusses the minutia of the Metamorphosis in his published lectures), Nabokov was obviously familiar with this story.

But the analogy begins to crumble when you consider that if it were not for Brod's intervention the world would never have known the bulk of Kafka's genius whereas Nabokov has already left us plenty of completed novels and stories to ponder and enjoy. Also, Kafka was shy and insecure while Nabokov was anything but. Furthermore, in defending his initiative, Max Brod stated that when Kafka said he wanted the works destroyed Brod said he wouldn't do it and that thus Kafka should/would have named another executor if he was serious about making sure they never saw the light of day.

To add to the dilemma, Dmitri made statements to the effect that Laura in someway represents "the most concentrated distillation of Nabokov's creativity" and that it "would have been a brilliant, original, and potentially totally radical book, in the literary sense very different from the rest of his oeuvre." Hmm. On the other hand, Dmitri wanted to spare Laura from being ravished at the hands of "Lolitologists." I felt that this was a reference to the fact that, although Nabokov is recognized as a 20th-century master by writers and literati, there are still many philistines out there who associate him only with his most famous novel (which they may or may not have actually read). Likewise, many of them associate Lolita with pornography and assume that the author must have been an old perv. Rosenbaum points out that some readers, subjecting Lolita to a psychological analysis (Argh! The Freudians -- Nabokov's old enemies!), have gone so far as to suggest that Nabokov himself must have been sexually abused as a child.

Great Nabokov's Ghost!

So how did Dmitri finally reach his decision? It seems that his imperious father came to him in a vision. The author seemed amused with the tricky situation he'd left behind for his son and heir, and in the end he was like "Ah, fuck it, you might as well make some money out of this mess." Thus, last month (April 2008), Dmitri officially announced that he would go ahead and publish Laura rather than assume the role of "literary arsonist."

The Elusive Laura

So what's this book about? Apparently it has nothing to do with either Petrarca's poems to his muse or with Otto Preminger's classic film. What we do know is that two passages "provided and copyrighted" by the late author's estate, and allegedly taken from Laura, were reproduced in The Nabokovian in 1999 as part of a "Nabokov Prose-Alike Centennial Contest" where the goal was for fans to identify the genuine unpublished Nabokov among the imitators.

In the first passage a man is caressing a "fragile, docile" (childlike?) woman of whom he says "only by identifying her with an unwritten, half-written, re-written difficult book could one hope to render at last what ...." That's the end of the excerpt. In the second passage, a man named Mr. Hubert is playing chess with his lover, a young woman named Flora. This all suggests that in Laura, Nabokov was on some level revisiting or reimagining the content of Lolita (where the narrator's name was Humbert). This would also explain why Dmitri was hesitant to deliver it into the hands of the Lolitologists.

One other possible clue lies in an essay written by a Professor Lara Delage-Toriel from the University of Strasbourg entitled "Brushing through 'veiled values and translucent undertones': Nabokov's Pictorial Approach to Women." The Professor claims she was given permission to read the manuscript by Dmitri and in her essay she gives a rough synopsis of the story: the main female character is named Flora and she's married to the narrator/protagonist. Flora also appears to be the inspiration for the heroine of a novel called "My Laura" which was sent to the narrator by a painter who had once been her lover and who had painted a striking oil painting of her. In the novel within a novel Laura somehow ceases to exist while the narrator sets about capturing her in yet another novel. To add yet another layer of reality to the mix, in the "5th chapter," she says that we are introduced to FLaura who is an amalgam of the "real" woman Flora and the fictitious Laura.

For all we know Professor Lara might be some sort of elaborate hoax (she wouldn't be the first!), but if her account is to be believed it sounds pretty interesting right? But then wait, remember how the Laura manuscript is only around 30 pages? So how much could it really delve into the deep themes suggested above? And that brings us back to the likely reason that Nabokov ordered it to be destroyed in the first place: it had the potential to be an awesome novel, but he wasn't allowed enough time on Earth to complete it.

Regardless, I'm anxious to read Laura. But then I guess there are still a bunch of fully-formed novels by Nabokov that I have yet to read (including Pale Fire! I know, I know). If you're looking for a good place to begin I would maybe recommend Bend Sinister which is the first work of his I read (and one of my favorites). I was inspired to read it in college when my friend Britta was so shocked by the ending that she could hardly speak. Oh, and check out Dmitri's blog if you're interested -- his last entry seems to be a rant against Hillary Clinton.

TODAY'S BEER OF CHOICE: Abita Strawberry Harvest Lager

Image is c1975 photograph of V. Nabokov in the hills of Switzerland (Horst Tappe/Hulton Archives/Getty images) taken from

1 comment:

nola32 said...

i honestly can't wait to read it. then again, you know all about my love affair with vladdie (that's my pet name for him. he doesn't like it much at all).
and, you know, i have to say- i know that so many people are on the Lolita bandwagon for all of the wrong reasons (chief among them being the movie(s)- ugh, i can't even think about that newer version without feeling ill), but it really is one of the best books i've ever read. you know how much i love it. i'm not going to psychoanalyze vladdie about humbert humbert and his tendencies, nor am i going to say that it was his best work (i'll wait until i'm finished with ada and a myriad of other works of his that i haven't gotten through yet until i make that call), but let's give credit where credit is due. it's a fantastic book. it's an amazing study of human nature, action and reaction, and how the seemingly random events in our lives lead us down paths that we never thought were possible. it has to be read to be truly appreciated. the way it's written is just... i only wish that i could write even a fraction as well.
you can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.
ladies and gentlemen of the jury, this is what the seraphs, the misinformed, noble-winged seraphs envied. look at this tangle of thorns.

ok, i might have totally misquoted that second line there, but even in a misquote it's the most gorgeous opening! how can you not read the book after you've read that!! give me a break! the man was brilliant (and boy, did he know it).