Original Sin

Wednesday, November 18, 2009 - 01:10 PM

Kids never do as they’re told.  The lauded novelist Vladimir Nabokov asked that his unfinished manuscript The Original of Laura be burned upon his death.  But lucky for us, his son Dmitri didn’t listen.  This week marks Laura’s inflammatory publication, which means that fans of Nabokov's will now have to decide whether to respect the master's wishes or run to the nearest bookstore to crack open the spine of this much-anticipated book and bite into some forbidden fruit.

Written on 138 index cards in the final years of Nabokov's life, mostly from a hospital room, Laura spent more than three decades under lock and key in a safe-deposit box somewhere in Switzerland.  It's the story of the aristocratic Flora Lanskaya's life with her morbidly obese (and otherwise morbid) husband Philip Wild. After the passing of Nabokov's own spouse, Vera, the question of whether or not to publish 'Laura' fell upon Dmitri’s shoulders.  In the end, the thought of not sharing his father's final work with the rest of the world was apparently too much for Dmitri to bear... (coupled with the thought of not possessing the financial means to get from point A to point B: 'It’s true that my wheelchair requires some costly modifications to fit into the trunk of a Maserati coupe,' he told The New York Times last year.)

The Nabokov Family

The Nabokovs: Vladimir, Vera, and Dmitri


Dmitri Nabokov

Dmitri in front of a portrait of his father. Photograph: Patrick Aviolat/EPA/AFP

This isn't the first time an author's wishes have been overruled in favor of publication.  Kafka wanted The Trial incinerated after his death, and long before that, Virgil requested that The Aeneid be destroyed.  'Read the works!' journalist Ron Rosenbaum pleaded in 2005.  'Life is too short to care more deeply about the life of the one who wrote them, whose secrets are usually irretrievable anyway.'  Playwright Tom Stoppard had a different take: 'It's perfectly straightforward: Nabokov wanted it burnt, so burn it.'


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Comments [16]

Kevin Casey

Dmitri should feel compelled to respect VN's wishes and burn the manuscript now.

Nov. 20 2009 02:00 PM

As tempting as it would be I am torn to hear that 60% of the story is missing. I hate cliff hangers.

...maybe I might camp out at Barnes and Nobles and read the book front and back instead of purchasing? Why exactly should I pay for something incomplete and not created for my eyes in the first place?


Nov. 20 2009 10:17 AM
the faltese malcon

Very tempting indeed...!
I do think one must respect people's dying wishes. So, the manuscript should be burned... or shouldn't it?

Because on the other hand, why didn't Nabokov burn it himself then? Was he saving the book for a "rainy day"? Was it something once in a while he went back to, for a read, an updated page or two, nostalgia from his personal life, secret memories from the past...? Perhaps the simple hope he would indeed finish it, one day...?

Whatever the reason, his son Dmitri has declared [according to The Observer] that this unfinished work would become Nabokov's “most concentrated distillation of [his father’s] creativity".

In my opinion, though, "what ifs" are not good enough. They are nice thoughts we all have and don't control. In this case, though, it's clear. His father never finished the work. As a matter of fact, he wanted it burned because it wasn't the 'final' piece. Dmitri's obviously selling the book by saying that - it's marketing (I'm not blaming him, though). Although I do agree that the probability, had it been finished, of becoming a masterpiece had to be high, coming from Nabokov.

This whole thing made me think of Paul Newman's line from "Cool Hand Luke", when he shouts: "Stop feedin' off me!" I can imagine a Shakespearian ghost of Nabokov shouting that one.

Well, I don't have any plans to get the book. Also, I don't feel like helping fitting wheelchairs in the trunks of Maseratis (humourous or not as it may have been, I'm not particularly fond of that type of remarks).

However, I'm not defending people have or not the right to read it. That's not my problem, and not my right. It's a natural thing - Man is curious by nature. I'm just not that attracted to this. I like to believe in a 'final work', the ultimate presentation of an artist's effort. It's easy to understand why someone wouldn't want their drafts to see the light of day.

In any case, I doubt that it will be a disappointment for Nabokov fanatics. And indeed, "Manuscripts don't burn."

The way I see it: there are many good authors still out there, longing for their works to be read, and not riding Maseratis. And their works are quite finished.

Nov. 20 2009 06:00 AM

Thank you! I've been trying to remember this story when reading about it in like...GQ or something in the summer. Definitely book marked!


Nov. 20 2009 02:12 AM

he probably wouldn’t be too happy about this release. It wouldn’t be a good representation of what he was capable of.

Could he not have destroyed the manuscript himself? Or, hidden it somewhere that nobody he knew would still be alive to find it? And whether or not anyone could or would find it, he may* never know.

I say "may" because he could very well have been hovering over the printing press, grimacing and snarling (would he snarl?) that his wishes were not respected.

Nov. 19 2009 10:38 PM

I don't know honestly if the wishes of the author should be pairimont after death for the simple fact, that your dead and what harm comes to you after death you will never know.

Nov. 19 2009 07:52 PM

Doesn't matter what happens with this little thing he wrote at the end of his life, whether it's good or bad. The total body of his work has so much weight. No one needs to argue for or against "Laura": over time, the value of the overall works persists.

Nov. 19 2009 06:30 PM

What a huge sales pitch this book is getting. Even the plain cover is a perfect mystery. Yeah, I wanna read it.

Nov. 19 2009 06:02 PM

i am going to get it.
its already on my xmas wishlist.
even if 60% of the story is missing (according to what I heard on radio), its still worth reading (hopefully), as I draw the joy of reading from the little details. Nabokov is the true master of observation and unbeaten in the way he discribes what he felt and saw.
...cant wait...

Nov. 19 2009 04:04 PM

Meh, I'll read it.

It's like leaving your diary lying around - everyone takes a peek if they get the chance.

Nov. 19 2009 02:22 PM

it seems like a good book. I'll try 2 pick up a copy. Also, very good post!

Nov. 19 2009 02:20 PM

Was it a fully completed work, or a draft work according to Nabokov?

I can appreciate both sides of this issue. I have watched (in horror) as artist friends destroyed canvases and drawings that I found astounding - all issues of possible financial gain (for them) aside.

I have decades of files of written works that I consider "not good enough" or incomplete. I would be appalled for them to be seen and read.

At the same time, I am not Nabokov. Part of me would consider his wishes the ultimate measure. On the other hand, to miss new work, even if not fully polished, would seem a dreadful loss.

This is not a new issue, but it remains a gnarly one.

Nov. 19 2009 01:52 PM

I think I'm gonna get it.

Nov. 19 2009 11:28 AM

Oh, this is tempting, isn't it?

I took a class on Nabokov in college, and knowing how meticulous he was about his writing, he probably wouldn't be too happy about this release. It wouldn't be a good representation of what he was capable of.

I compare this manuscript to something like a movie comprised of takes where the actors are not truly on their game, and maybe even forget a line or two. Would we want to see a movie like that?

Still, because he's significant, it's probably interesting to read, as long as you keep in mind that you're not holding a finished product. I'll probably read it.

Nov. 19 2009 11:22 AM

Tough questions. I tend to think when one (author, artist, talk show host, athlete) becomes a public figure he's signing a tacit contract to be scrutinized to those he's appealing to. Even after death, even sometimes against their wishes.

Finances do play a role too. (In a recent, related posthumous affair) Perhaps Roberto Bolano didn't want to write 2666 all that much, for what it might reveal of the pen man himself...but to support a family sometimes one must write on. As uncomfortable and unsettling as it is to the writer's postures.

Nov. 19 2009 10:58 AM

The wishes of the deceased should be paramount. (I just used the word "should." Ha!) As has been demonstrated time and time again, that is not a principle we hold dear. The conclusion that can be drawn from this is self-evident. When it is we who become the deceased, our wishes won't be held in high regard, either. As always, people will choose to do what they want.

Nov. 19 2009 10:15 AM

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