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Vladimir Nabokov, reduced to notes

By Michael Dirda
Thursday, November 19, 2009

THE ORIGINAL OF LAURA

(Dying Is Fun)

By Vladimir Nabokov

Edited by Dmitri Nabokov

Knopf. 278 pp. $35

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Should this book have been published? Certainly all the work of a great writer like Vladimir Nabokov ought to be available to scholars and interested readers. To my mind, Dmitri Nabokov was clearly right to ignore his dying father's request that he destroy these fragments of an unfinished novel. But that doesn't mean "The Original of Laura" actually deserves the attention of anyone but the most rabid Nabokov fanatic. Apart from a few enchanting phrases -- "the orange awnings of southern summers" -- there's just not much here.

But first a little background.

When Nabokov (1899-1977) died in Switzerland at the age of 78, he left behind an extraordinary artistic legacy. During the first half of his life, he produced a series of important novels in his native Russian, including at least one masterpiece, "The Gift." He was, arguably, the leading writer among those Russians who, having fled the Bolshevik Revolution, were then living in exile in Germany and France. But when Hitler's forces began to overwhelm Europe, Nabokov, his wife, Vera, and their little son, Dmitri, fled to the United States. Here the writer found teaching jobs, most notably at Cornell University, while he began to create -- in English -- technically dazzling and deeply moving books, among them "The Real Life of Sebastian Knight," "Pnin" and the exquisite memoir "Speak, Memory."

Wonderful as these books were (and are), none sold particularly well -- and none quite prepared the world for the one that opens: "Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul." Originally brought out in Paris by a publisher who specialized in erotica, Nabokov's "Lolita" (1955) is now considered by many readers to be the most beautifully composed novel of the mid-20th century.

The story of Humbert Humbert and poor Dolores Haze was followed, a few years later, by "Pale Fire" (1962), the most formally intricate and playful of Nabokov's books. It consists of John Shade's long, rather traditional poem of that title, edited with extensive annotation by his erstwhile colleague Prof. Charles Kinbote. Its opening couplet is another of Nabokov's striking first lines: "I was the shadow of the waxwing slain/By the false azure in the windowpane." But "Pale Fire," as interpreted by Kinbote, turns out to be something far richer and stranger than a simple elegy for the poet's dead daughter: As one consults the editor's notes and commentary, the astonished reader gradually learns that the poem actually traces the secret history of the deposed prince of a country called Zembla, a prince who, to escape assassins, has changed his name to . . . Charles Kinbote. As it happens, Nabokov wrote this marvelous send-up of literary criticism on index cards, which were later acquired by the Library of Congress. I went to see them when I first came to Washington 30 years ago.

At the time of Nabokov's death, "The Original of Laura" also existed as a series of index cards, more than a hundred of them, in no obvious order. This Knopf edition consists of photographs of his miscellaneous handwritten cards, with a printed transcription of their text below, in a tentative order determined by Dmitri Nabokov.

The cards themselves may be detached from the book and, if desired, rearranged by the reader. This gimmick, I feel, may give a false impression. Unlike experimental works by B.S. Johnson and Marc Saporta, which were published as loose pages in boxes, "The Original of Laura" was never intended to be shuffled into any sequence whatsoever. As we have it, the novel revolves around two characters: The promiscuous Flora and her obese husband, Dr. Philip Wild, "a brilliant neurologist, a renowned lecturer [and] a gentleman of independent means." One of Flora's lovers, we discover, has written a roman a clef about her entitled "Laura." He is described as " a neurotic and hesitant man of letters, who destroys his mistress in the act of portraying her." We also learn that in her girlhood the young Flora was pursued by her stepfather, a Mr. Hubert H. Hubert:

"She was often alone in the house with Mr. Hubert, who constantly 'prowled' (rodait) around her, humming a monotonous tune and sort of mesmerizing her, enveloping her, so to speak in some sticky invisible substance and coming closer and closer no matter what way she turned. For instance she did not dare to let her arms hang aimlessly lest her knuckles came into contact with some horrible part of that kindly but smelly and 'pushing' old male." In the sections dealing with Wild, the scientist tells us that he has taken to playing a game in which he imagines various parts of his body dying and dropping away. According to Wild, such "auto-dissolution afforded the greatest ecstasy known to man." Hence this novel's subtitle: "Dying Is Fun."

In many of Nabokov's late works, he seems to be reflecting on his own life and earlier fiction. For instance, in his last completed novel, "Look at the Harlequins!," he focused on a writer whose bibliography closely resembled his own. Nabokov appears to be playing a similar game here, offering riffs on "Lolita" and his somewhat underappreciated novel about literary biography, "The Real Life of Sebastian Knight." One passage even recalls the wistful, haunted tone of the famous short story "Spring in Fialta":

"Every now and then she would turn up for a few moments between trains, between planes, between lovers. My morning sleep would be interrupted by heartrending sounds -- a window opening, a little bustle downstairs, a trunk coming, a trunk going, distant telephone conversations that seemed to be conducted in conspiratorial whispers. If shivering in my nightshirt I dared to waylay her all she said would be 'you really ought to lose some weight' or 'I hope you transferred that money as I indicated' -- and all doors closed again."

That's quite beautiful, but, alas, there aren't many such pages in "The Original of Laura." Where the action was intended to go remains elusive, and without any serious editorial apparatus it's difficult even to speculate. In consequence, this book remains only a posthumous collection of rough drafts and authorial notes, more novelty than anything else. "The Original of Laura" is for Nabokov completists only.

Visit Dirda's online book discussion at http://washingtonpost.com/readingroom.

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