The Original of Laura

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.

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2 responses to “The Original of Laura

  1. Alistair McNaught

    I would love to read “The Original of Laura”, but doing so will not affect my high regard for the rest of Nabokov’s writing. It seems that Brian Boyd has read the manuscript, so in a sense, Nabokov’s wishes have already been ignored. Other unfinished pieces have also surfaced in recent years – the addendum Nabokov wrote to “The Gift” as well as some story ideas in the book Brian Boyd edited about Nabokov’s butterflies. I don’t really see how publication of the unfinished novel will affect Nabokov’s reputation. I would advocate publication of the book. Only admirers of Nabokov are going to be interested in buying an unfinished novel by him. His detractors have enough ammunition in his currently published works, and it doesn’t sound as if the fragment of this novel is going to change their opinions.
    However, if Brian Boyd has read the fragment, then Nabokov’s wishes have already been ignored, and the moral argument doesn’t really apply. I, for one, am haunted by the idea of never being able to read “The Original of Laura”, as I consider Nabokov to be one of the greatest writers of the 20th Century, and I have long wondered what he was planning with this final, unfisnished novel.

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