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Vanishing Point

January 8, 2010

Plenty has been written about the process which saw Vladimir Nabokov’s unfinished book The Original of Laura transformed from a hundred or so handwritten index cards into an exceptionally handsome hardback volume on bookshop shelves, shortly before Christmas 2009. Nabokov was working on the book at the time of his death in 1977, but in his will entrusted these notes to his son and literary executor Dimitri to destroy. Instead, after thirty-odd years of conscience-wrangling, Dimitri decided in 2008 to publish the notes in as complete a form as possible.

Like other commentators, I had my doubts about Dimitri’s decision, and his motivations.  In his foreword to the present volume (which reproduces all 138 library cards, complete with Nabokov’s scrubbings-out, interpolations, on-the-go revisions and deletions), Dimitri seeks to refute a widespread and cynical view: that this was a purely financial decision on his part. As rebuttals go, it’s a weak one. Dimitri is apparently unwilling or, as he would have it, unable to say what his motivation was, precisely; instead he claims he was compelled by what he calls “an otherforce I could not resist”. By this, one supposes he wishes us to conclude that, from some spiritual plane, his father or “father’s shade” prodded him into doing it, and since no-one can really disprove this, of course, we must let it stand.

Oddly, I didn’t at first want to entirely disregard this notion of meddling from beyond the grave, though not because of any ‘spiritual’ interests. Reading through Nabokov’s books, one develops a picture of a writer with an enormously cruel sense of humour. Laughter in the Dark, the English title for his 1933 novel Kamera Obskura, neatly summarises this recurrent theme; the book’s plot, in which a blinded man is repeatedly deceived and lampooned by his wife and her lover, is a prime example of this delight in cruelty. The tension between the characters’ brutality and the narrative’s insistence on playing this for laughs leaves the reader on edge, uncomfortable, even slightly sickened. And I found myself wondering whether Nabokov’s instruction to Dimitri, to destroy The Original of Laura, might be something else: a cruel prank, an imposition, a sick joke. Doubtless familiar with those other cases where authors had demanded of their executors that they destroy their work and the executors’ failure to comply (Kafka, Virgil), Nabokov must have wondered whether his son really would obey his instruction. Suddenly I had this notion of Dimitri slumping in a depression thirty years long, torn between a desire to honour his father’s wish and his awareness of these precedents for ignoring his executive duties. Somehow a dead man’s last prank on his own son seemed quite a Nabokovian thing: laughter in an eternal dark.

That this is a book which is concerned with dying, death and what could constitute an afterlife all add to this impression. From what one can glean, the novel was to be concerned in part with a fictive account of the life of a real girl, Flora, who has been transmuted into the fictional character Laura. The notes which make up the second half of the present volume describe, among other things, one character’s repeated efforts to — not kill himself, exactly, but erase himself, his ‘I’, and the pleasures he seems to gain in trying to do so. Again, then, for a book that confronts death, written by a dying author, to have enjoyed an afterlife of its own, seems almost too neat a coincidence.

By the time I’d finished the book, however, I had more or less given up on this quasi conspiracy theory. What survives of Laura is a mish-mash, barely a couple of chapters’ worth of material, along with disconnected fragments of prose, aleatoric jottings, the author’s instructions and reminders to himself. The reader cannot easily distinguish what the plot of the eventual novel might have been, or become. Even the sequence of these notes is in question, and Chip Kidd has designed the book such that a reader may press out the reproduction library cards and reassemble them in any  order desired — but, really, what on earth reader is going to bother? This is pretty much the inverse of BS Johnson’s famous ‘novel in a box’ in which, first and last chapter aside, the text will make sense read in any order; there doesn’t seem to be any order in which you could read what remains of Laura and have it make sense. (On the other hand, the positioning of the final card here is clearly an editorial hostage to fortune, reading as it does ‘efface, expunge, erase, delete, rub out, wipe out, obliterate’, with a further synonym neatly itself scribbled out by Nabokov, and so one could shift that out the book entirely, notwithstanding the fact this card is prominently reproduced on the book jacket.) The other thought behind this may be from the marketing team, and a wish to add a little more ‘value’ to an expensive book which even the most painstaking reader is unlikely to make last more than a couple of hours.

Despite these snarky quibbles, I found reading the book principally a saddening experience. Not just because of the inevitable difficulty any posthumously-published work will have living up to the hype, but because there is a visual illustration of Nabokov’s failing powers here. The index cards start out neatly written in pencil and disintegrate into rambling, fragmented notes, the words barely legible, the pencil or pen Nabokov wrote with skiting across the page. You feel the author’s hand weakening, the pen slipping from his grasp, barely able to make marks on the cards, as the notes, the story such as it is, seems to disintegrate with every fresh page.

The Original of Laura is a curio, then; a footnote to an extraordinary career, which these posthumous finds tend to be. The casual reader is likely to be left cold — this is for fans, who want to feel they can have one last, unexpected meeting with ‘their’ author, some hold on that holy grail, the undiscovered masterpiece.

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