BOOKS AND ARTS FEBRUARY 3, 2010
The Original of Laura
By Vladimir Nabokov
Edited by Dmitri Nabokov
(Knopf, 304 pp., $35)
So this is what we’ve all been waiting for? The last, lost work of the great master, all but complete, so rumor had it, at the time of his death, sequestered for decades in a Swiss vault, “brilliant, original, and potentially totally radical,” according to his son and heir, “the most concentrated distillation of [my father’s] creativity”--and all that it amounts to, we now learn, is a handful of crumbs, a bit of lint, a few coins. Well, print it in a scholarly journal, sell it to The New Yorker, put it in a catchall collection of unpublished work. I was not for burning, as Nabokov decreed, but after dithering for two decades, after Ron Rosenbaum’s Web-based worldwide plebiscite, after all the prefatory gestures of a small-time conjurer building up to the culminating bunny, is this really what Dmitri Nabokov proposes to foist on us? Scarcely thirty pages worth of text, packaged into a brick of a book (curb weight 2.4 pounds) and modestly priced at, ahem, thirty-five bucks.
It’s a sham, a scam. I don’t think Dmitri did it for the money--Lolita’s child must be rolling in it. But I do think Knopf did, and they must have drafted a platoon of cosmetologists to gussy up this pig. Lipstick? Lipstick, rouge, high heels, falsies, and a little black cocktail dress. Nabokov worked on index cards, and The Original of Laura amounted, at his death, to 138 of them. But rather than simply printing the texts of the cards one after another, or even printing each one on a separate page, Knopf has put the whole thing on heavy, stiff card stock and given us a facsimile of each and every card, its handwritten contents typeset underneath. And on the reverse of each page, a facsimile of the back of the card, almost invariably blank or consisting of nothing more than a large “X” in pencil strokes. Hence the 304 pages, the 2.4 pounds, the thirty-five bucks.
But wait, there’s more. The cards are perforated and, as Dmitri says in a note, “can be removed and rearranged, as the author likely did when he was writing the novel.” I’ll get back to the second half of that statement, a claim both strategic and semi-dubious (not to mention ungrammatical). The first breaks new ground in editorial chutzpah, inviting us to play a kind of Nabokov: Rock Band--the novel as theme park. One can only imagine what dear old dad--the ultimate artistic control freak, not to mention one of the all-time snobs--would have thought of the idea of letting his readers re-arrange his scraps and chapters at will.
The design offers other distractions from the volume’s meager content. Mock perforations in snazzy red, typographical hijinks, little doodads strewn about. The images of two of the index cards reproduced on the covers, one of them so positioned that the title appears on the spine in Nabokov’s own hand. An author photo, twice reproduced, that might have been thought the better of. Instead of the familiar image from the backs of the later novels--head tilted, cheek fisted, forehead furrows cocked, an expression of sardonic impatience as if bracing for the next stupid question--this one gives the writer face-on and near to bald, his look of defensive hostility somewhat undermined by a buxom set of jowls imperfectly hidden by a strategic hand at the chin, the whole producing an impression both babyish and batrachian, a Slavic Truman Capote.
Most prominently of all--it is the first thing we see--a graphic gimmick on the dust jacket: the words slowly fade from left to right, white letters disappearing into black background. The gesture has multiple meanings, some obvious, some revealing themselves only in retrospect. The book itself fades to black, its words incomplete. Nabokov’s life, as he wrote it, likewise evanesced. And within the novel, a different kind of effacement. The story has three strands: Flora, a femme fatale; her husband, Philip Wild, a fat and famous neurologist; her lover, or one of them, the author of a novel named Laura or My Laura (the pronoun seems to have been a late addition on Nabokov’s part), based on Flora’s life. Flora is thus the “original of Laura,” with all the metaphysical, metafictional involutions that the idea entails. But Wild also has a story--indeed, has a book, the record of his experiments in self-erasure, in willed ecstatic suicide. The method is mental: he imagines a vertical chalk line, standing for his body, then slowly, starting at the bottom--the toes, the feet--begins to rub it out, with “more than masturbatory joy,” by a kind of concentration or meditation. Always careful to restore what’s been erased before breaking his trance--the one time he doesn’t he finds that his toes start to crumble off--Wild intuits nonetheless the possibility of blissful self-extinction.
Hence the third meaning of the jacket’s design: the letters mimic Wild’s chalk-stroke effigy, on its way to deletion. But there is a further implication, central to Dmitri’s claims about the novel, which, though never completely spelled out, are insistently insinuated, most clearly in a curious phrase that also appears on the jacket (though nowhere in the volume proper). At the bottom, in small letters, this: “A novel in fragments.” Not “fragments of a novel,” which is what the volume clearly is: two numbered chapters in fair copy; three more in somewhat less finished condition; a few other pieces, labeled but not numbered, in various states of construction; and about a dozen and a half miscellaneous singleton cards--notes, scribbles, superseded drafts, scraps of research. This mess, Dmitri would have us believe, adds up to a novel--or, as his introduction puts it, all but “the last few card lengths needed to finish at least a complete draft.”
The claim, in other words, is that Nabokov wanted the final product to look more or less like this--that he planned to create a fragmentary work, a thing of gaps and interruptions, false starts and aborted scenes, broken chapters and missing words. A postmodern work, we are to understand, conceived beneath the sign of postmodernism’s holiest ideas: aporia, aphasia, deferral, displacement, deconstruction. And all, implicitly, so as to embody the theme of Wild’s experiments and create a novel that exhibits itself in the process of erasure, crumbling away as it proceeds, fading out like the letters on the jacket. Were this hypothesis correct, The Original of Laura might not be a “masterpiece,” as Dmitri wants us to think, or even “the most concentrated distillation” of his father’s creativity, but it certainly would be “unprecedented in structure and style,” a “potentially totally radical book, in the literary sense very different from the rest of his oeuvre.”
Which is, of course, the best reason not to believe a word of it. Nabokov, in theme, had always indeed been what is called a postmodernist, performing Olympianly gymnastic variations on ideas of authorial disappearance, epistemic instability, the inaccessibility of origins, and endless, nameless others. But he was never anything other than a classicist in the perfection of finish that he gave to his work. Pale Fire may yoke together a foreward, a poem, a commentary, and an index, all warring like the principalities of a madman’s soul, but the terms of their struggle are worked out to the last comma. The man built racing machines. To think that he would hand us a bucket of parts--and even more, leave us to fumble around with their order, the implication of Dmitri’s invitation to re-arrangement (deconstruct this book!)--is to commit an outrage against the spirit of his art.
But that’s Dmitri’s story, and he’s sticking to it. Not content to nudge us with introductory nods and typographical winks, he stacks the deck of interpretation by playing one particular index card as if it were his ace of spades--and playing it, like a crooked dealer, again and again--when it is, in fact, nothing more than a joker. The card consists of a vertical list of synonyms:
“Efface” is circled; the x’s here represent a phrase that has been blotted out with pencil strokes (as have many words throughout the volume). Dmitri prints the card last, as if it were the novel’s final note--even a flourish of defiance, as its author sails into the great beyond; he prints it first, facing the copyright page and before the table of contents, as if it were its governing conceit; he prints it on the cover (not the jacket), as if it were a kind of alternative title.
It is none of these. It is a piece of scrap. The lines on the card form a grid, like graph paper. There are only two similar cards in the entire set of 138, and both are among the miscellaneous singletons. One appears to be the first draft of a single sentence--the spelling and punctuation are careless--not immediately connected to any other card. The other is manifestly scrap, a set of phrases, heavily blotted and crossed out, that appear in finished form on a different card (as Dmitri acknowledges in a footnote). And this card and Dmitri’s trump also share a characteristic that none of the others do. They are positioned vertically, the writing running the short way--which means that they cannot be stacked with the other cards and thus, that Nabokov could not possibly have intended to include them in the final manuscript, but only grabbed them for a quick jot. In fact, “efface expunge...” is written at a slant, exactly as if the words had been dashed off--as is the case on only one other card, and that, too, a clear piece of scrap.
The evidence, then, is overwhelming. Dmitri has tried to cook his books with nothing more than the remains of a brainstorming session. Nabokov was apparently trying to come up with a list of alternative expressions for what is, of course, a thematically central idea, and “efface” seems to have won out for whatever his purposes were at the moment, as signaled by the fact that it is circled. (Elsewhere he uses versions of a number of the other words, as well as “dissolve,” “destroy,” “annihilate,” and, with a nice pun, “eraze.”) The whole thing is a red herring, and a very fishy one at that.
Does even Dmitri believe his theory? It is hard to say. The man comes across, in the introduction and other prefatory material, as a thoroughgoing crank: obsessive, possessive, touchily defensive about his father’s work yet simultaneously willing to bend his words wherever his own operatic psychodrama needs them to reach. English had become for Nabokov, says the son raised by Russian parents in the United States, “a new ‘softest of tongues’”--the very phrase with which his exiled father had evoked his original language in elegiac contradistinction to his adopted one, words now expropriated by Dmitri to serve the very opposite meaning. There are whiffs here of The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, Nabokov’s first English novel, with its struggles over language and patrimony, Russian and English, but the inevitable analogy is Kinbote, Pale Fire’s lunatic editor-narrator, wrenching the eighty index cards of John Shade’s eponymous poem into the shape of his needful fantasies. Indeed, Dmitri’s failure to mention that specter, if only to exorcise him--or at least to give himself a shot at not resembling him quite so thoroughly--suggests a fatal lack of self-awareness.
The son has apparently arrogated the full measure of his father’s superciliousness, perhaps to compensate for the fact that he inherited so little of his verbal ability. The introduction is graced with phrases such as “lesser minds,” “halfliterate journalists,” “individuals with limited imagination,” “some asinine electronic biography,” “the trashy tropics of Cancer and Capricorn,” and, the true Nabokovian note, “fashionable morons,” but also with gems such as this: “an embryonic masterpiece whose pockets of genius were beginning to pupate here and there”--an entomologically addled metaphor to which his father would never have allowed himself to give birth. Like others admitted to the highest artistic circles on the basis of something other than talent, Dmitri seems a special kind of fool, as blind as he is vain. “I did a great deal of thinking,” he says of the time that followed his mother’s death, when he inherited the task of deciding the manuscript’s fate, and we can appreciate how strange the experience must have been.
A mind like that can convince itself of anything. Still, there are reasons to believe he knows better. A couple of years ago, Ron Rosenbaum reported in The New York Observer that Dmitri told him that “the manuscript consists of approximately fifty index cards,” which corresponds to the length, fifty-four cards, of the five numbered chapters. Rosenbaum also noted, however, that Dmitri had earlier said that “the text amounts to some thirty conventional manuscript pages”--a contradiction, though Rosenbaum could not have known it at the time. Nabokov’s fullest cards contain no more than eighty or ninety words. Fifty-four of these would make about fifteen manuscript pages; thirty pages, as we noted, is more like the length of the whole set of 138. So Dmitri seems to have been vacillating as to whether the other eighty-four were part of the work and was thus presumably still trying to persuade himself of the “novel in fragments” theory. (This may also be the place to note that thirty manuscript pages--fragmentary, fair, or final--does not a novel remotely make. Nabokov never published one less than at least three times that long. The Original of Laura would have to be a novel in miniature, too.)
There are other contradictions of which Dmitri must be aware. In the second volume of his authoritative biography, Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years, Brian Boyd reports the following intriguing facts. In February 1976, nearly a year and a half before his death, Nabokov wrote in his diary: “New novel more or less completed and copied fifty-four cards. In four batches from different parts of the novel. Plus notes and drafts.” This clearly does not mean that he had finished the novel, only that he had completed four sections totaling fifty-four cards--which may or may not correspond to the 54 cards of the five numbered chapters. In April, he wrote, “transcribed in final form 50 cards=5000 words”--again, perhaps our fifty-four, though the word count would be a bit high, or fifty of them, or perhaps our fifty-four condensed to fifty.
In any case, here’s where things get really interesting. That same week in April, Nabokov noted that he was composing at the rate of five or six cards a day, and he informed his publisher, a couple of weeks later, that he had passed the hundred-printed-page mark. Arithmetic optimism being one of the great lubricants of the writer-editor relationship, we need not take the last number too literally, but it is reasonable to assume that he had something close to that much material by then. (It is also perfectly clear that he expected the final product to be at least that long--in other words, a good four times as long as what we have--and probably a good deal longer.) And nearly a year later, in February 1977, he was speaking to friends “as if his new novel was almost completed.” Boyd notes throughout his account of the development of The Original of Laura that Nabokov worked his novels out in his head before committing them to paper, so “completed” here could mean only mentally. Still, we are left with the fact that, as early as April 1976, Nabokov already seems to have had far more material than our entire volume represents. And yet we know that he continued to work on the novel, and work on it vigorously, for almost another year.
So what is going on? I don’t think Dmitri is hiding anything, but I do believe it is possible that his father really did get within “the last few card lengths needed to finish at least a complete draft” and for unknown reasons the great bulk of the material was lost--deliberately destroyed, by who knows whom, or tragically misplaced. All we can say for sure is that The Original of Laura that we have is not remotely the one that Boyd’s best researches led us to expect. Perhaps Dmitri, when he finally managed to bring himself to open the box that contained the manuscript in the wake of his mother’s death (he speaks of needing “to traverse a stifling barrier of pain before touching the cards”), felt a similar sense of dismay, only incomparably more devastating than the rest of us could possibly experience, and perhaps the “fragments” theory represents an attempt, like the absurd claims about the manuscript’s merit--“concentrated distillation,” “potentially totally radical,” “embryonic masterpiece”--to juggle away his grief. Kinbote’s wish-fulfillments also serve to stifle pain.
The problem, however, is not what Dmitri believes. The problem is that there are likely to be plenty of readers who will be only too happy to go along with him. Rosenbaum himself, in a piece published in Slate last September--Knopf, priming the publicity pump, offered a sneak peek at the finished volume--inadvertently suggested why:
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--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.
Rosenbaum himself is too intelligent to buy into the notion of literary skeleton keys. “I don’t believe,” he hastened to add, “that literature is something to be decoded in some Rosetta Stone-like fashion.” But even as clear-sighted a reader as Rosenbaum apparently allowed himself to be blinded, quite literally, by the prospect of esoteric revelations. “I spent a lot of time trying to make anything out,” he reported in reference to Nabokov’s many deletions (the erasures, cross-outs, and spiraling strokes that mark almost every card):
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.”
Well, the phrase is certainly there, Nabokov’s spirals (not erasures) being unusually faint at that point. But so, on that very card, are at least a few other legible deletions: a “tea,” a “made,” a couple more “the’s.” And so, on other cards, are any number of additional ones: “as Tony says” on page 225, “completely” on 213, “the corner of” on 183--and those are only the first ones we arrive at working backwards from 233. The suspicion strongly arises that Rosenbaum’s numinous phrase was the only one he saw because it is the only one he wanted to see. And even if he again went on to downplay its significance (“I just couldn’t avoid noting it”), others won’t so readily forebear from reading this and other “clues.” Slate, knowing a good hook when it sees one, titled Rosenbaum’s report “The Nabokov Code.”
The hunting of Rosetta Stones is one of the great vices of the reading mind. The interpretation of secular texts descends from the exposition of sacred ones, and inherits its feelings and ways. There are the Talmudists, the exegetes, who seek the slow unfolding of wisdom in the endless play of commentary, and then there are the Kabbalists, the mystics, who hope by abstruse means (catching a glimpse around the corner of a sentence, tracing a mark along the underside of a phrase) to startle out a final esoteric answer to the questions of existence--to uncover, as it were, the secret name of God.
Modern literature in general and Nabokov in particular are especially dangerous places to which to carry such expectations. It was modernism itself, after the collapse of traditional systems of explanation, that invented the “religion of art” by claiming the sacerdotal functions of spiritual and moral instruction. (“The priest departs,” said Whitman, “the divine literatus comes.”) The idea did indeed often carry a mystical charge--among the Symbolists, for example, with their doctrine of the unpronounceability of truth, their murky hieratic idealism. But modern fiction never took the notion of transcendental disclosure as anything other than an object of play. Joyce, creating a kind of parody Bible in Ulysses, teases us with recondite conundrums--“the word known to all men,” the man in the macintosh--as if daring us to believe that such enigmas somehow hold the key to “everything,” whatever that might mean (and spawning a legion of Joycean Kabbalists who make the mistake of taking him seriously). Nabokov does the same throughout his work, leading us up to moments of apparent revelation--in dreams, in puzzles, in epiphanies--only to make them end in metaphysical pratfalls, the gem of truth slipping out of our fingers like a diamond bouncing down a kitchen drain. V., in The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, dreams that his dying brother is about to disclose the secret of existence, only to be thwarted from reaching him in time by a nightmare of practical frustrations. John Shade, searching for proof of the afterlife in the published account of a near-death experience, falls victim to a misprint.
As these examples suggest, Nabokov’s novels offer unusual temptations to the code-seeker. There is really only one mystery that people finally care about: the possibility of life after death. The question preoccupied Nabokov as well. Many of his works, including most of his later novels--The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, “The Vane Sisters,” Pale Fire, Transparent Things, Look at the Harlequins!--adumbrate or speculate about some form of ghostly survival. For Nabokov, death was an accident, an interruption, and this life merely a “kindergarten” compared to what comes next. Or so he wanted to believe. He recognized, of course--this is one of the meanings of Shade’s disappointment--that one can never really know, at least not on this side of the grave. But combine that preoccupation with the allusive, elusive nature of his art, his delight in narrative riddles and traps; add a lost “final” work (note the slippage in the word’s meaning, from accidentally last to intentionally definitive), one whose very incompleteness opens the barn door of speculation; factor in the ancient superstition of deathbed prophecy (the dying, approaching the abyss, catch a glimpse over the brink)--and you have the makings of a great deal of nonsense.
Needless to say, The Original of Laura does not contain “the code” of cosmic truth. Does it meet Rosenbaum’s (and surely others’) more modest, though still monumental, hope that it reveal at least Nabokov’s secrets, constitute “the author’s last reflections on the dazzling corpus that came before,” “the lens through which ... we might retrospectively refocus our vision of Nabokov’s art”? It would be awfully surprising if it did. Nabokov, born in 1899, had been slowing down ever since the twin peaks of Lolita in 1955 and Pale Fire in 1962. Even Ada (1969), conceived on the scale of a magnum opus but plaqued by longueurs and other symptoms of enfeeblement, falls below the highest mark. Transparent Things (1972) is taut but thin. Look at the Harlequins! (1974) is almost flatulent, an apt farewell.
The odds that Nabokov would produce another masterpiece at that point in his life, let alone a definitive one, were long. Besides, what would “last reflections” even mean, beyond what Nabokov had already provided in Look at the Harlequins!, that pseudo-autobiography? Do novelists “reflect” in novels, or novels reflect on one another? A career is not a lecture series, with a scheduled ending and a predetermined point to make. After well over two dozen books, should we really expect that one more would revolutionize our understanding of an entire corpus, disclose some definitive interpretive scheme? The idea is merely a secularized version of the faith in deathbed prophecy, and equally null.
Here is what The Original of Laura, as we have it, actually is: the beginning of what might have been a very interesting piece of work. The characters and premises are too briefly sketched to say more than this, though far from being unprecedented, the novel’s props and themes are as familiar as the faces at Thanksgiving dinner. The title suggests Lolita, of course, for that figure, too, had a template, the teenage lover whom Humbert refers to as Annabel Leigh. (Nabokov, completing the trans-Atlantic poetic acrostic, drops an “Aurora Lee” into The Original of Laura as Flora’s husband’s lost teenage love and, in that respect, her own original.) Flora, deflowered in a bower, has her first sexual experience, like Humbert, on the Riviera, a couple of years after her own Lolita-like tussle--in a Parisian flat, another stock Nabokovian setting--with a gentleman lodger called Hubert H. Hubert (whose name seems to cross his famous predecessor with a certain ill-starred American politician who was much in the news circa 1976).
But Nabokov plays some tricks on us. Hubert, despite what we are seduced to believe, is no pedophile, just a sad old man--far more Pnin than Humbert--who’s lost his family. He really is in love with his landlady, who reminds him of his wife, rather than with her daughter, a copy of his own, and he really does treat Flora “with a father’s sudden concern.” As always, Nabokov asks us to search for emotional complexities beneath the conventional moral surface, even when the conventions are drawn from his own fiction.
As for Flora, she is far, at fourteen, from the starry-eyed lover that Humbert was around the same time and place. She refuses to let her ballboy boyfriend kiss her on the mouth, “observe[s] with quite interest” as he struggles with the inaugural condom, then dumps him when, tired out and “stinking more than usual” after a hard day’s work, he suggests a movie in lieu of their nightly caresses. “Stinking more than usual,” of course, is Flora’s phrase. Nabokov’s powers of implication are matched, as always, by the perfect tact with which he allows them to operate. We have already seen, in the briefest of glances, “a young man with a mackintosh over his white pajamas” wringing his hands in an alley by the house that Flora later shares with her husband, and needed a moment to identify him as the lover she had just dismissed, forever, by phone.
Wild, the husband, is not himself what he first appears. The novel opens at a party, with Flora, in mid-conversation, conjuring the image of a domestic brute. Quickly discerning the state of her morals--she issues a kind of casting call to the male members of the assembly--and remembering the violent and even murderous jealousy of Nabokovian men (Humbert in Lolita, Van Veen in Ada), we suppose the worst. In fact, Flora is just being dramatic; Wild’s sense of rivalry is purely professional. While his wife entertains her boyfriends, he frets about his fellow neurologists, reminding us of Van, another psychic investigator, in a different way. The Wilds, newly minted graduate and brilliant, rich researcher, met at a Northeastern college (yet another familiar milieu) and now pretty much go their separate ways. Which means, in the husband’s case--obesity underscoring immobility--not going much of anywhere at all. Wild is a sort of Buddha figure--one of the cards contains Nabokov’s notes on Nirvana--meditating his way toward blissful self-negation.
As for the author of Laura, whose name may be Ivan Vaughan (connecting him not only to Van, full name Ivan, but also, through its talismanic v’s, to some of Vladimir Vladimirovich’s other authorial surrogates), both he and his book remain shadowy--perhaps by design, perhaps due only to the novel’s incompletion. Already the first chapter gives us the primal scene of Laura’s conception. The author and Flora are sleeping together for the first time: “Her exquisite bone structure immediately slipped into a novel-became in fact the secret structure of that novel.” Time stops--Flora, who lives for the moment, complains that he takes off his watch to make love--and the sonneteer’s gesture, which is also Humbert’s final note (“And this is the only immortality you and I may share, my Lolita”), quickly follows:
Readers are directed to that book--on a very high shelf, in a very bad light--but already existing, as magic exists, and death, and as shall exist, from now on, the mouth she made automatically while using that towel to wipe her thighs after the promised withdrawal.
Flora, the condom monitor, forestalls reproduction--we remember that Van is sterile, Lolita’s child is stillborn, and John Shade’s commits suicide--but creation happens nonetheless, the flesh made word. Flora becomes “identif[ied]” “with an unwritten, half-written, rewritten difficult book”--a startling phrase, given the condition of our manuscript, and surely grist for Dmitri’s interpretive mill, but only until we remember that all books may be so described. Unwritten, half-written, rewritten: these are the stages of literary gestation, the child growing in the womb.
“Identified” is also worth pondering. Laura’s author (it seems), describing his work, says this: “The ‘I’ of the book is a neurotic and hesitant man of letters, who destroys his mistress in the act of portraying her.” Here we start to glimpse a meaning behind the novel’s most obvious interpretive conundrum: what do Wild’s story and Flora/Laura’s have to do with each other? Mental self-effacement on the one hand, literary creation on the other. The answer, it seems, is that the first is offered as an allegory of the second. Vadim Vadimovich, Nabokov’s avatar in Look at the Harlequins!, defines the act of fiction-writing as “the endless re-creation of my fluid self.” But re-creation, we are now to understand, erases what it copies. Flora’s father, a photographer, takes pictures of his own suicide (shooting himself in two senses), the allegory done another way. For Wild, however, and clearly for his author, creative self-destruction takes place in an ecstasy of trance-like concentration. Nabokov’s initial title (supplied here by Dmitri as a parenthetical subtitle or alternative title, though with no warrant in the cards) put the idea more succinctly: Dying Is Fun.
Originals, known only by their copies: this is one of Nabokov’s great themes. Because finally all we have are copies--art, memories, ghosts, the echoes of childhood that sound in all our actions. Ada takes place on Antiterra, a garbled version of Earth haunted by a dim awareness of its archetype. Kinbote’s kingdom of Zembla conceals the man, Botkin, he probably really is, and the place, Russia, he really lost. The life of Sebastian Knight--the “real” life--lies somewhere behind his brother’s efforts to re-imagine it. And so forth. But The Original of Laura puts an extra spin on the conceit. Flora, after all, is the original, and Laura the copy. But since we only know the latter through the former--since Laura, the copy, is itself, in that sense, effaced--their positions seem reversed. We are missing the copy, but it feels like we are missing the original. So Flora becomes a copy of her own copy. And for Laura’s postulated readers within the world of Nabokov’s novel, the ones who make it a bestseller, the ones for whom “the original of Laura” would constitute a tantalizing revelation, the copy is indeed the original, since Laura, not Flora, is what they know--just as biographers and other literary gossips are forever trying to read an author’s life in terms of his fictional alter egos (so that Joyce becomes Stephen, Roth Portnoy, and so on).
Nor does the fun end there. There is a suggestion, via another glimpse of Flora “toweling her inguen” (Nabokovian fancy-talk for “groin”), that Laura itself tells a story of literary procreation--Laura, after all, was Petrarch’s muse, substance of myriad sonnets--and that the passage that reads “Readers are directed to that book ...” is in fact part of the elusive novel itself, referring to yet another book, one further ontological level down. Frames within frames--what the narrator calls (though it’s not at all clear, by now, which narrator we are talking about) “receding ovals.” There are other games and enigmas. Wild himself reads Laura, blurbed on his copy as “a roman à clef with the clef lost for ever”--while elsewhere we read of Flora’s own recollections: “fragments of her past, with details lost or put back in the wrong order, TAIL betwe[e]n DELTA and SLIT,” which sounds more like a roman à cleft. Flora hesitates, herself, to read the book, though a friend assures her that it contains an account of “your wonderful death ... you’ll scream with laughter.” Dying, as we know, is fun.
Wild is presented sometimes in the first person, sometimes in the third, and sometimes, perhaps, through a pseudonym. On some of the cards, his book, the record of his experiments, seems to be written or at least narrated by a figure who calls himself Nigel Delling (which Dmitri transcribes, for some reason, as Dalling, though the reminiscence of “deletion” is apt enough), elsewhere varied, perhaps, to A.N.D. or just plain AND--the monogram, possibly, of postmortem continuation. A figure named Eric makes a flash appearance on one of the slips, scrawling the by-now-familiar signature of coitus interruptus on Flora’s milky thigh. Is he a version of Vaughan, or another character altogether? At this point we must throw up the cards. Whether these disparate and seemingly incompatible elements are pieces of one coherent but devilishly complex design, or whether they are only the detritus of countervailing drafts, we cannot say.
The Original of Laura does have its pleasures, though so short are most of its fragments that these, too, are usually interrupted. But it is clearly a premature effort. Vadim Vadimovich, who has much to say about the process of revision, speaks of the margins of drafts as the place “where inspiration finds its sweetest clover,” and the prose here reflects a paucity of rumination. Much of the writing is pedestrian by Nabokov’s standards, the wordplay forced and facile (“a hollowed abdomen, so flat as to belie the notion of a ‘belly,’” “games of blindman’s buff would be played in the buff”). Most tellingly, the novel lacks a unifying tone, a verbal point of view, the kind of characteristic sound that makes each of Nabokov’s other works unique, be it a masterpiece such as Lolita (“light of my life, fire of my loins”) or a relatively minor effort such as Transparent Things (“Easy, you know, does it, son”). The novel we have has yet to find its voice.
As for the cards themselves, the fact that we are now able to glimpse for the first time Nabokov’s work in progress, they tell us relatively little that we might want to know. Since almost all the deletions are so heavy as to make the blotted words unreadable, and since we have, with nearly no exceptions, only one version of any given passage, we cannot see a process unfold. A second thought does not tell us much without the first. The numerology of the various fragments--bundles numbered with letters or Roman numerals or tally strokes, cards labeled d0 or z2, the only Nabokov code this manuscript will ever yield--is amusing and curious but nothing more. Nabokov glutted us on his genius. We shouldn’t nose around his table scraps for fodder that they cannot provide.
William Deresiewicz is writing a book about Jane Austen.