Vladimir Nabokov’s last unfinished novel is, in the words of his son, Dmitri, “the final distillation of his father’s creativity,” though perhaps he contradicts himself by saying it “would have been a brilliant, original, and potentially totally radical book, in the literary sense very different from the rest of his oeuvre.” Dmitri is currently deciding whether to burn it–honoring his father’s stated wishes.
There is a controversy here. Tom Stoppard tells us “It’s perfectly straightforward. Nabokov wanted it burnt, so burn it.” In an uncharacteristically reductionist move, Tyler Cowen said that “Dead people don’t count in the social welfare function.”
Each argument is quite bad on its face. Stoppard redeems himself by making a plausible case that we should give up on our collective literary neuroticism. This neuroticism leads us to represent the work as an essential component of our literary culture, as if there was a Platonic form of Nabokov’s work that inevitably had to manifest itself in this final work. On such a view the contingency of the canon we possess is to be denied, or railed against if the denial is too absurd to be admitted.
Stoppard’s suggestion that we do not truly need The Original of Laura is worth considering, but he also thinks that Nabokov’s wishes should be honored merely because they what he said he wanted. This under describes the case. Nabokov’s wife Vera had possession of the manuscript for 14 years after his death without burning it. Was her failure to burn the work during those years absentminded procrastination, or was it yet another work of Nabokov’s that she saved (in the 40s, she prevented him from burning drafts of Lolita–along with other less famous works)? She was his editor and read his work before any other person. Should the two of them have disagreed about the fate of Laura, perhaps her opinion would have been the more important.
I do not know what Vera’s view of the situation was for those 14 years that she refrained from burning Laura. The continued controversy suggests that she never said anything definite, and there may or may not be any other clues. What I am sure about is that neither of the reductive approaches canvassed above–respecting the writers’ stated intentions or ignoring the wishes of the dead–gets any grip whatsoever on the case.