February 2010

Arts & Letters

The sins of the son

By Simon Leys
Vladimir Nabokov’s ‘The Original of Laura: A Novel in Fragments’

The bitterness of an interrupted life is nothing compared to the bitterness of an interrupted work: the probability of a continuation of the first beyond the grave seems infinite by comparison with the hopeless incompleteness of the second. There perhaps it will seem nonsense, but here all the same it remains unwritten.

– Vladimir Nabokov, 1965, unpublished, unfinished Russian continuation of The Gift

When writing novels, Vladimir Nabokov proceeded in a very peculiar fashion: he used first to form in his mind a complete vision of the entire work, and then would start to jot down, on filing cards, a first draft of disconnected fragments without logical or chronological order. These cards – of a size slightly smaller than a standard postcard – carried each, on the recto side only, a short passage (from one line to one or two paragraphs) couched in his large and fairly legible handwriting. Some cards stood in isolation, presenting one detached sentence – an idea, a descriptive touch; others formed numbered sequences of sustained narrative (20-odd cards in two instances). In a second stage, he would shift and assemble the cards, elaborating a tentative structure, sketching links and connections, weaving together the various threads of the plot. The composition would progressively take shape, till a continuous, final, clean draft could be established, welding together all the earlier elements into a seamless whole.

Nabokov began work on his last novel in 1975, but he was soon interrupted by a series of accidents and deteriorating health. At the time of his death (1977), the first stage of the process was not even half complete; what remains is only a set of 138 filing cards – which, if printed continuously in standard book-format, would scarcely fill 30 pages.

What should have been done with these 138 filing cards? As his son, Dmitri, recalls, during his final illness on his hospital bed Nabokov instructed his wife, the admirable Vera, that should the book “remain unfinished at his death, it was to be burned”.

The devoted widow could not bear to execute this instruction to the letter – it would have entailed the destruction of what was for her a most precious memento – but she respected her husband’s will in its essential aspect: she never disclosed these uncorrected fragments to the reading public. After her death in 1991, Dmitri Nabokov, only son of the extraordinary couple, became sole custodian of the Nabokov literary estate. Eighteen years later, after having done “a great deal of thinking” (described in a convoluted and obscure paragraph in his introduction), he finally decided to have them published in the present form as The Original of Laura: A Novel in Fragments (Penguin, 278pp; $55.00): a large, luxurious volume presenting, on 138 cardboard pages printed on only one side, detachable facsimile reproductions of the 138 filing cards; each card occupies the upper half of a page, with its contents reproduced in printed form on the lower half.

If the reader so wishes, they can detach any card (or all of them) by simply pressing along the frame. Then, having the cards in hand, they become free to shuffle or re-arrange them in whatever order they deem to be closer to Nabokov’s original design (or find more pleasing to their own personal taste). Without its cards, the book, now hollowed out, can be shelved back in your library: its outer aspect remains unchanged, yet it now conceals a cavity in which you can conveniently store your last will, your house keys, a small flask of old Calvados or your wife’s favourite earrings.

But what of Nabokov’s original design? Laura is the main character of a novel-within-the-novel; she is based on Flora, mistress of the author of the novel-within-the-novel. Flora also has a husband, an elderly neurologist who is conducting an experiment upon himself involving a new method of mental suicide by progressive self-obliteration from consciousness, starting at the tips of his toes. Flora had a Lolita-type experience in her childhood with a lodger of her mother’s, a middle-aged pervert called this time not Humbert Humbert, but Hubert Hubert. Yet it would be utterly unfair and unwise to reduce a literary experience to the mere unravelling of some incomplete plot-lines – one might as well watch on a screen the performance of a great violinist with the sound switched off.

What, then, of the literary experience? The 138 filing cards can easily be read in a sitting. The dominant impression is one of confusion and frustration – actually it brought irresistibly to my mind Balzac’s description of “the unknown masterpiece” in his philosophical short story of the same title. An old painter, called Frenhofer, has been working for ten years on what he believes will be his ultimate masterpiece. Young artists are in awe of his genius and worship the bedazzling skill of his brush; they are burning with desire to contemplate his latest work, but Frenhofer keeps his studio tightly locked at all times. One day, however, two disciples are finally admitted inside. They are flabbergasted. The unknown masterpiece is standing on its easel, but at first they can see nothing. “The old man is playing a practical joke on us!” said one. “I can only see a chaos of colours, a jumble of bizarre lines – the whole thing is but an incoherent wall of paints!” Coming closer, they discover in one corner of the canvas the extremity of a bare foot still untouched by the surrounding anarchy – but what a foot! Delicate, feminine, alive! With a mixture of admiration and consternation they stare at this tiny fragment of pure perfection afloat in the midst of an unspeakable disaster.

The 138 Nabokovian filing cards present a similarly puzzling assemblage. There are, here and there, a few echoes of his sharp wit, flashes of the familiar fireworks. In these spots one recognises the master’s hand, but too often these faint traces are a reminder not so much of his old magic, as of his less endearing mannerisms. For instance, one card attempts a pointless debunking of a series of major modern French writers, lumped together simply because, apart from sharing an alleged “mediocrity”, their patronyms start with the letter M. Thus, on this asinine basis, Michaux finds himself gratuitously paired with Montherlant (misspelt by Nabokov as “Montherland”!) – whereas, in actual fact, these two writers have nothing in common but their literary genius. This sort of petulant self-importance was detected long ago by Hannah Arendt, who wrote to Mary McCarthy:

 There is something in [Nabokov] which I greatly dislike, as though he wanted to show you all the time how intelligent he is. And as though he thinks of himself in terms of “more intelligent than”. There is something vulgar in his refinement, and I am a bit allergic against this kind of vulgarity because I know it so well, know so many people cursed with it.

 (Arendt adds that the book of Nabokov which she admires above all is his “long essay on Gogol” – Nikolai Gogol, New Directions 1944) – a slim volume that is in fact a flamboyant manifesto of Nabokovian literary aesthetics. However much I love Pnin and admire Lolita, I confess I am in full accord with Arendt’s preference.)

Why publish now (against Nabokov’s clear and clear-sighted instructions!) these fragmented, tentative, unfinished, uncorrected and largely uninspired drafts?

After Nabokov’s death, his widow was first in charge of the administration of his literary estate, until her own death, 14 years later. Vera’s own attitude concerning this particular issue deserves all our attention, for no other human being could have been more qualified, both on moral and on aesthetic grounds, to take the right decision in such a matter.

When Vera first met Vladimir (in 1923) they were both young Russian exiles, wandering through Europe – she was 21, he 24. Both were highly educated and exceptionally gifted. They had experienced similar tragedies, and they shared the same precarious existence in a time of great turmoil. They fell in love, married and, for more than half a century, they virtually never parted, however briefly, from each other’s company: they were inseparable. Witnesses who had the privilege to observe them at close range during their very last years marvelled at the evident freshness and intensity of their mutual love. From the outset Vera had recognised Vladimir’s genius; her faith never wavered. When critical acclaim and huge international success finally crowned Nabokov’s literary art (it came fairly late in life, with the publication of Lolita in 1955), it was no surprise to Vera – it merely confirmed what she had always known. With her intelligence and her cosmopolitan culture, she could have had a career of her own; yet, from the start, she decided to put herself completely and exclusively at the service of Nabokov’s creative activity. She became not only his first reader and literary adviser, but also his secretary, typist, agent, driver, assistant, translator, public relations manager, telephonist, editor – and muse. Though she deliberately made herself invisible to the eyes of the public (inasmuch as this was feasible for such a radiant beauty), her relationship with her husband was anything but subservient; Nabokov admired her and relied upon her judgement. Without doubt, some theorists with an agenda will sooner or later conclude that Nabokov’s books were actually written by Vera (in fact, she wrote part of his correspondence); yet such stupidity may unwittingly contain a subtle truth: he wrote his books, but she made him. Without Vera, what sort of books would he have written? No one can tell, though surely they would have been the work of a different man.

Vera had her own opinions, which Nabokov greatly valued. Twice she prevented him from burning the manuscript of Lolita, and she succeeded in persuading him to pursue a work of which he had despaired. Her respect for his writing was scrupulous and uncompromising; during Nabokov’s academic career, for example, when some illness prevented him from giving a lecture, Vera would act as substitute teacher, reading to the class the lecture he had drafted, without allowing herself to modify a single comma.

Regarding The Original of Laura, however, Vera followed only half of Nabokov’s instructions. Love prevented her from destroying drafts handwritten by her husband; but taste and literary judgement prevented her from publishing them.

Eighteen years after his mother’s death, Dmitri finally decided to publish these posthumous fragments. It would be impertinent for us to speculate on his motivations. He was close to his parents; his affection and admiration for his father are evident, as is his devotion to his father’s works; he spent much time preparing editions and translations of Nabokov’s writing. Anyway, Dmitri’s love and dedication are not the issue here. The question is: what about his taste and judgement?

In this field, he once had a notorious lapse. At the time of the international triumph of Lolita – as a film adaptation was being prepared – young Dmitri (he was 26 at the time) had the idea to stage in Italy (where he was pursuing his opera-singing career) a fake casting contest for the part of Lolita. In Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years, Brian Boyd writes (drawing on Dmitri’s own words, as quoted in Vladimir’s selected letters and Dmitri’s published memoirs):

For two days his Milan apartment was invaded by “decidedly postpubescent aspiring nymphets, some with provincial mothers in tow.” When his father saw a magazine photograph of the “finalists” surrounding Dmitri on his oversized satin-covered bed, he cabled his son at once to stop “the Lolita publicity” immediately. And he sent a stern letter, warning Dmitri that such a puerile stunt could only harm his own career.

Of course, Dmitri was duly contrite afterwards. This youthful indiscretion took place nearly 50 years ago; it would be far-fetched to invoke it today against the old man who recently took the initiative to publish The Original of Laura. Still, one may regret that on this occasion, no stern fatherly cable could have come in time to put a quick stop to this enterprise.

Cover: February 2010

February 2010

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