In 2009, the remains of Vladimir Nabokov’s unfinished last novel, The Original of Laura, were published, more than three decades after the dying author had asked his son Dmitri to destroy them. In 2012, Nabokov’s first large literary work, a play entitled The Tragedy of Mister Morn, appeared in English translation, nearly nine decades after the author had set the Russian text aside. Both releases were occasions of some excitement even though, to be honest, neither work was an especially astonishing performance. The novel, even in its fragmentary form, amply confirms that the late decline in Nabokov’s literary powersflickeringly evident in Ada (1969), blazingly obvious in Transparent Things (1972) and Look at the Harlequins! (1974)was both inexorable and steep. The play, on the other hand, is full of glints and glimmers of the literary triumphs to come, and it contains certain motifsan exiled king incognito, for instancethat would flower magnificently in more mature works; but in itself it is inconsequential. Nabokov is something of an addictive substance to the susceptible, however, and his admirers tend to be grateful for even the meagerest scraps of “new” material (even his lepidopterological papers have enthusiasts who, I think it fair to guess, have little real interest in entomology).
What is really significant about these two most recent releases, it seems to me, is that taken together they afford us privileged glimpses of, respectively, the somber dusk and rosy dawn of a literary career that during its long golden day was among the most mysteriously captivating of the twentieth century. First as a Russian émigré in Western Europe writing in his native tongue and then as an American writing in English, Nabokov produced a number of books that, simply as feats of narrative enchantment, came perilously close to perfection. His greatest worksa category that unquestionably comprises The Defense (1930), The Gift (1938), Speak, Memory (1951), Lolita (1955), and Pale Fire (1962), and that arguably also includes Despair (1934), Invitation to a Beheading (1936), The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (1941), and Pnin (1957)bear witness to their author’s almost uncanny ability to make his own delight in the act of creation immediately felt by his reader. But precisely how he achieved his effects is not always entirely clear.
In part, this is because, as an artist, Nabokov was about as sui generis as they come. He may not have been quite the parthenogenetic marvel he seemed to imagine he was (to hear him, he had never been influenced by anyone at all as a writer, but had sprung fully formed from Zeus’ brow with a pen in one hand and a butterfly net in the other), but it is certainly true that his sensibility and his craft were so distinctively his own that he cannot be classed in any school or tradition.