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    Laura enters my life

    Laura showed up at my door today. Well actually, a UPS guy. But he handed over a copy of The Original of Laura, Vladimir Nabokov's final, unfinished, fragmentary novel.

    I had never ordered a book pre-publication before, without waiting for the reviews or (more likely) for it to go into paperback. This was different. This was Nabokov -- his first "new" work in more than 30 years. And, obviously, his last. I had to have it.

    You've heard the story: he'd been working on Laura for a couple of years when he died in 1977. He left instructions that the unfinished work be burned, but his widow couldn't bring herself to do it. The manuscript (actually 138 file cards) lay in a bank vault for decades, until his last heir, son Dmitri, finally decided -- after much dithering -- to publish it.

    I have yet to dive into actually reading the novel. After cutting open the plastic wrapper, and without even flipping through the pages, I went for a long walk. Because I appreciate that I, and millions of other devoted fans, will be contravening Nabokov's final wishes by reading Laura. That doesn't really bother me -- I mean, he's dead -- but I want to do so reverentially. Also, like a really fine wine, you want to let the book breathe a few hours.

    Over the two days since publication, a number of reviewers have written that Laura should have been burned after all -- just not up to the high standards set by Lolita, Pale Fire or Ada, they say. Well, of course, sillies; he didn't even get to finish it.  Anyway, I don't care. I didn't expect a half-finished draft of a novel to be as good as Lolita. After 30-plus years of no Nabokov, I'll eagerly devour even mediocre Nabokov. To be honest, I'd take crappy Nabokov.

    This reviewer captured my feelings in approaching The Original of Laura. As he suggests, it's a gift:


    In passing, based on what they've written in the previous thread, I assume Orlando and Nebton will back me up.

    Well, I'm definitely not keen on burning books, but I have to admit I've never read any Nabokov, not even Lolita. I have, however, read the ShrinkLit version if that counts for anything. (I just can't say enough how much I love ShrinkLits, especially its version of Beowulf.)

    As for the guy's last wishes, I feel a bit wishy-washy on it. If the guy had died 200 years ago, I'll admit I'd have no reservations. With him dead only 30 years, however, I do have a few reservations. I will be the first to admit there's no logic behind my reservations, but they are there nonetheless.

    As a writer, I would be absolutely positively horrified if an unfinished work was widely distributed against my specific wishes. Of course, if I were dead, my guess is that I'd have no idea of it and if my loved ones deemed it important to publish, I suppose that would be their judgment.

    All works get edited and the editing process is a give and take between the writer and the editor, so that both ultimately agree on, and hopefully have improved, the finished product. In this case, I'd think that an editor wouldn't want to touch it, because the author is unable to participate in the give and take, which means it can't or won't be improved upon in the normal way.

    Jane Austen has a couple of unfinished novels as part of her collected works and although she's probably my favorite author, I've never been able to read them. There's something about them not being finished and finally approved by her for publication that stops me.

    I have read Lolita though. Seriously fucked up, that book. Brilliant. But fucked up.

    Read Ada. Fantastic book. Also fucked up.

    Right, but fucked up in a good way.

    I'm always amazed at what Nabokov can do with a language that was not his native tongue. At one point, he went back and re-translated into English some of his own earlier Russian works, because he didn't think the translators had done a good enough job.

    I agree, Orlando, that there would be little literary merit to an unfinished work patched together by ghost writers and/or editors keen to cash in on a dead writer's reputation. That's not what has happened here. Laura is presented very much as a work in progress -- right down to reproducing photographic replicas of the file cards Nabokov wrote it on. Scratched out words and phrases, inserted ones, notes to himself. It's an unprecedented glimpse into an exceptional writer's creative process.

    The file cards are even perforated, so you can pop them out of the book and shuffle their order, much as Nabokov himself apparently did during his work on it. Sort of ruins the book, though; don't think I'll do that.

    As for defying Nabokov's wishes, I don't see it mattering much whether he has been dead 30 years or 300. The thing is (as I mentioned above), Laura wasn't rushed into print for commercial gain. It took decades of serious deliberation by people who cared intimately about Nabokov and his work. Dmitri eventually decided there was enough of value here that it would be wrong to simply destroy it. I think he was right.

    Laura is flawed and raw, but it is not presented as a complete, polished work; it is the draft of a novel. As such, it can't be expected to compete literarily with Lolita or Pale Fire. And it will give some belated joy to Nabokoholics like me.

    Book Reviews at Dag:

    "Wow. This book is fucked up."


    "Seriously what?"

    "Seriously fucked up."

    "Yeah, I guess. But fucked up in a good way."


    "i wonder if the 5 minute version is as fucked up."

    "Yeah. But it's a more... compact... fucked up'ness."

    "They kill people for their fat in Indiana you know."

    "Wow. Now that's fucked up."

    "Nabokov can kiss our Hoosier asses, nowhutimean?"


    lolita is genius, of course. i should probably read ada and pale fire. in fact, going to amazon now to do so.

    in terms of nabokov's wishes, i don't think it's that big a deal. he probably would have changed his mind at some point as well. besides, its not like some bad literature could erase or even take away from his previous accomplishments. and as you say, even crappy nabokov is probably better than the vast majority of stuff published today.

    I have a copy of Ada buried somewhere in my brother's basement. On second thought, I still wince at the memory of what you did to my copy of The Moor's Last Sigh. Never mind.

    By the way, good to see you posting again! And thanks for the break from politics.

    Yeah, Nabokov beats politics hands-down.

    Although considering his family history, he was well off avoiding politics.

    I'm not saying his father's assassination was a good thing, but it was one of a long series of traumatic events that pushed Nabokov ever further west. He and America ended up being a great fit.

    Man, his father's assassination is just the worst day in years of madness.

    His brother Sergei died in a concentration camp. He lost family to Tsarists, Communists and Nazis.

    But the thing that pushed him furthest West had to be marrying an ethnic Jew. That's what drove him out of Europe, and he just made it.

    And no, he mentions virtually none of this in his memoir, least of all that getting out of Paris was a narrow escape. Why not? Because he won't give those bastards the satisfaction, that's why not.

    Nabokov's art, to me, is as much about his knowing what to leave out as what to put in. As Humbert Humbert writes in his prison biography: "My very photogenic mother died in a freak accident (picnic, lightning) when I was three .. ." Smile, flash. Ah, Vladimir, you had us at "picnic."

    The worlds Nabokov creates are Mandelbrot sets: the smaller details every bit as intricate and beautiful as the large, "important" ones that define the overall pattern. Zoom in: life, death, understanding, the wings of butterflies.

    Great post.

    I'm a huge Nabokov fan, which makes me badly divided here. I'm enormously pleased the book wasn't destroyed. I am very reluctant to read it. My understanding was that it's a draft of a fragment, or a fragment of a draft.

    And maybe it's that after college I squirreled away exactly one of VN's published books to *not* read  (I already gotten through the rest), so that I wouldn't "run out" until then. I don't need The Almost Original of Laura, because I still haven't used up my stash.

    What? And you call yourself a Nabokoholic? Do you intend never to read the stashed-away work? Or are you waiting for some special occasion, like being on your deathbed?

    I admit I'm curious which book you chose to put into mothballs. In any case, now that Laura's out, you can consider that his final published work, and give yourself licence to read the one you stashed away. It's bound to be a more satisfying read.

    I don't claim to have read everything Nabokov wrote, though I did at one point read everything I could get my hands on. There are some still on my bookshelves that I've totally forgotten the content of, a few like Pale Fire that I've reread two or three times, and another few (The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, Look at the Harlequins!) that I've never come across a copy. I guess at some point after he died, I stopped looking for new editions or reprints of his stuff.

    Back in September, I mentioned to an old friend that I'd placed an order for The Original of Laura -- and was shocked to learn he had never read any Nabokov at all, except for a failed attempt to get through Lolita when it first came out. I persuaded him to give the book a fresh try, and now he's fully hooked. So Laura has already made a positive impact.

    Вы не читали Набоков, пока вы читали его в оригинале Русский

    And yes, I know that's not really true…

    Although Vladimir, along with son-and-literary-sidekick Dmitri, spared no effort to make sure the translations of his works -- in either direction -- were as true to the original in both sense and spirit as possible. I can't think of another author quite as assiduous in controlling how his books were translated.

    I can't read Russian, Nebbie. Is this the joke about translators being like lovers? (I only know it in other languages.)

    That's OK, I can't read Russian either, and I'm sure I butchered what I wrote, as it came from Google's translator. Basically, it reads that you haven't read Nabokov until you've read it in the original Russian. (Of course, I haven't read it in any language, and as acanuck points out Nabokov had a firm hand in the translations, so it's just a joke, if not a very funny one.)

    The original Russian? Nabokov wrote most of his later books, starting with Lolita, in English. (He also did the Russian translation of Lolita.)

    Which at least one Russian I've met says is inferior to the English version.

    Maybe I've mentioned it before, but you haven't seen Karate Kid II until you've seen it in the original German.

    Sure, but he thought it in Russian. As a thought reader, you're just going to have to trust me that a lot was lost during the translation…

    No, he didn't. He was asked about this in interviews.

    Nabokov was raised trilingual. His first words were in English. He spoke English and Russian until he was five, when he began speaking French, too. (Most pre-Revolution Russian aristocrats were bilingual in French and Russian; VN's father was a devoted Anglophile who made sure his children were raised speaking English, too.)

    In interviews he claimed not to think in words at all, which is a stretch, but he does seem to have thought in a mishmash of the three languages. Ada, on one level, is his attempt to create a trilingual Anglo-Russo-Francophone world which would be his natural paradise.




    How can a writer not think in words?

    Dunno. That's what he said.

    For what it's worth, Nabokov was a synesthete -- he perceived individual letters and numbers as specific colors. (There are a lot more people with this ability or affliction than most of us realize.) I'm not sure how that affected whether Nabokov thought in words or not.

    Is that a condition related to autism? Do you think Nabokov had Asberger's?

    I don't think so. I know another synaesthete who isn't anywhere near the autism/Asperger's spectrum. (She and Nabokov perceive individual letters of the alphabet as having their own colors.)

    FWIW, what Nabokov said to the interview question about what language he thought in was somthing to the effect that he thought in a surf of images, from which words churned up like foam. But he was very disingenuous with interviewers, so that should be taken with a good helping of salt.

    Look at the Harlequins! is written very late in the Master's day, but The Real Life of Sebastian Knight is a real treat and a big favorite of mine. I was just thinking about it this evening, and about a mothballed essay of mine.

    The novel I mothballed, more or less at random, is Laughter in the Dark, which sits prominently in a shelf on my living room. (And I'll admit to not having read every last short story, although I think I did take a run at it twenty years ago.) But as you say, now that I have Laura to not-read-yet, I can sit and enjoy the second-to-last VN novel I'll ever read.


    I could never sit on a book I really wanted to read. But lucky me, after a while, I can read the really good ones again and discover them all over!

    I might as well wrap this post up with a mini-review. The Original of Laura is a letdown, clearly the work of a great writer in decline. Nabokov's subtitle was Dying Is Fun. The approach of death plays a major role in it, but it's not as much fun as advertised.

    I'd also dispute Dmitri's decision to call it "a novel in fragments." It is, at best, a fragment of a novel -- a short, disjointed fragment. I calculate it at about 15,000 words -- the length of a longish short story. But it doesn't work as a short story: it barely has time to introduce its characters, much less tell us a coherent story about them.

    I'm content to add the book to my library (even though it's much less than I had hoped). But I do worry about those for whom this will be their entry point to Nabokov: they are not going to feel driven to find out what the fuss is about his incomparable earlier work.

    Out of curiosity, what would you suggest as a starting point? I have my own suggestions, but would love to hear yours.

    I'd jump right in with Lolita. If you decide you're not really a Nabokov fan, you'll at least have read a great book. Cleanse your palate with a few short stories if you like, but you're now probably primed to appreciate Pale Fire. If you haven't abandoned the program at that point, read Speak, Memory. Then everything else in whatever order you like, leaving Laura for very last.

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