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The Original of Laura (Dying is Fun)

by Vladimir Nabakov

Alfred A. Knopf, 278 pp., $35

SOMEWHERE IN HENRY James’ House of Fiction there is a shrine for manuscript rescuers. The anonymous hand, for example, that hurled the smouldering vellum of Beowulf out of blazing Ashburnham House in 1731. Or Nora Barnacle, who rescued Stephen Hero from the flames and made Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man possible. Or Tabitha King, who”when she and Stephen were pigging it in a trailer park”refused to allow the typescript of Carrie to go down the garbage grinder. Or Max Brod, who declined to destroy Kafka’s gesamtwerk.

Some will be more grateful to Max than to Tabitha. How grateful should we be to Nabokov’s wife and son, who, against his express instruction, have preserved and finally published The Original of Laura (Dying Is Fun) ?

The last word on Nabokov’s deathbed novel was long thought to be that of his fiercely loyal biographer, Brian Boyd:

Dying for him would be no fun at all, no final bedazzling transition. The great unanswered questions of death would be obscured by a series of minor infections that left unanswered the questions his wife and son put to his doctors. Slowly robbed of the strength to set down the story he saw so distinctly, Nabokov in turn would leave us as readers with our curiosity about his last novel forever unanswered.

Thirty years on, we readers shall, after all, have our curiosity answered. Vera Nabokov, in a unique act of marital infidelity, could not bring herself to cremate her husband’s literary remains. The manuscript was, to coin a Nabokovism, envaulted in Switzerland.

On Vera’s death, their only son, Dmitri, was similarly paralyzed by paternal injunction and his duty to literature. A campaign to bring the unfinished novel to light, led by the indefatigable Ron Rosenbaum, may have influenced Dmitri to throw open the vault. As he approached his father’s end-date (Nabokov died at seventy-seven; Dmitri is seventy-five), he came to a decision. Publish.

Like much in his life, the cause of Nabokov’s death was enigmatic, even to the Swiss medical profession. In his introduction, written in a pastiche of the master’s imperious style, Dmitri recalls his father’s dying breath (or gulp):

The tests continued; a succession of doctors rubbed their chins as their bedside manner edged towards the graveside. Finally the draft from a window left open by a sneezing young nurse contributed to a terminal cold. My mother and I sat near him as, choking on the food I was urging him to consume, he succumbed, in three convulsive gasps, to congestive bronchitis.

An artist as attentive to his art as Nabokov was not to be hurried, even by the grim reaper. What he began in 1974 and left behind three years later is lengthier than a fragment, more coherent than a memorandum, but tantalizingly incomplete as a ­narrative.

Why, though, was Nabokov determined that this work in progress should perish? Artistic punctiliousness is one reason. He was not one to leave working materials lying about: “Rough drafts, false scents, half-explored trails, dead ends of inspiration,” he once wrote,

are of little intrinsic importance. An artist should ruthlessly destroy his manuscripts after publication lest they lead academic mediocrities into thinking that it is possible to unravel the mysteries of genius.

The lordly crack about mediocrities (a category that includes, for Nabokov, many in the reading public, most living authors, and all academics) is hackle-raising. But no genius was more concerned with “finish.” And if not finished one way, the book must be finished the other.

Another possible reason for wanting the book destroyed is its libidinousness. The emperor Heliogabalus offered a prize to anyone who could invent a new vice; Nabokov could conceivably have claimed such an award. Google the word Lolita and you’ll come up with some thirty million hits, most taking you to dark places. If Nabokov’s estate could have trademarked the term, it would be as rich as Bill Gates.

The Original of Laura shares the earlier novel’s thematic obsession with prepubescent female violation, and it is more graphically described. Also, since the 1950s, public morality has stiffened against Lolita-love, so to call it.

Nabokov himself evidently had mixed views. He wanted the manuscript of Lolita burned. (Vera saved it”another candle to her shrine.) An early name for young Dolores Haze was “Juanita Dark” (i.e., the conflagrated Jeanne d’Arc). Destruction by fire was, Nabokov seems to have believed, a final artistic touch of the brush.

As now published, The Original of Laura offers a fascinating glimpse into the author’s workshop. As with everything, Nabokov’s compositional method was idiosyncratic. It was his practice to compose on index cards. From these cards, as Dmitri neatly puts it, the narrative “pupates,” like the emergence of butterflies from their insect eggs.

The publishers and estate came up with the happy idea of printing a transcribed text of The Original of Laura alongside facsimiles of the surviving 180 or so cards. They are neatly and legibly written in the author’s schoolboy-like hand. The cards are removable and can be shuffled.

However one shuffles, the text baffles. The title is an initial puzzle. The heroine is named Flora. But the hero’s first love, we learn, was Aurora. Does “Laura” represent a homophonic blend of the two? Or is there a Petrarchan allusion? And why “original”? There is, as it happens, an answer to this last puzzle. The heroine, Flora, inspires a novel by one of her lovers in which she is pseudonymized as “My Laura.”

Like Nabokov, Flora”the offspring of a ballerina and an artist”is Russian by origin, aristocratic by blood, artistic by temperament, an exile by history, nomadic by destiny. Her sexual initiation at age fourteen introduces an old Nabokovian ac­quaintance. Or does it? One of Flora’s mother’s lovers is a certain “Hubert H. Hubert.” Lest we jump to easy conclusions, this H.H. is not a sophisticated man of the world, as is his near-namesake Humbert, but a dirty old (English)man. Hubert has designs”and for a few ecstatic minutes lays lecherous hands”on the nymphet Flora. It is not ecstatic for her:

A fourfold smell”tobacco, sweat, rum, and bad teeth”emanated from poor old harmless Mr. Hubert, it was all very pathetic. His fat porous nose with red nostrils full of hair nearly touched her bare throat as he helped to prop the pillows behind her shoulders.

The inevitable digital probe is fended off with a handy kick to the crotch. Hubert Hubert soon dies in a hotel lift of a stroke, “going up, one would like to surmise” (or, as others of a sterner temperament would like to surmise, going down to that circle of hell reserved for pedophiles). Flora subsequently donates her fourteen-year-old virginity to “a coeval, a handsome ballboy at the Carlton Courts in Cannes.” (As often with Nabokov, dubious smut darkens the sentence: “handsome balls”?)

The novel’s subtitle, “Dying Is Fun,” relates to its other main nucleus: Flora’s husband, Philip Wild, a specialist in “neurologie.” It was Philip’s fame and wealth that initially attracted the young Flora to this older, wholly unlovely man. Now she visits him, on average, once a month for awkward congress. Given his bulk and decrepitude, it involves riding her spouse “like a sledge.” But, we deduce, it is less jolly.

Philip is aged and corpulent. The image thrown back by his merciless closet glass is that of “an obese bulk with formless features and a sad porcine stare.” He hates his body: “I loathe my belly, that trunkful of bowels, which I have to carry around.”

Nabokov”handsome as a god in youth”was, photographs attest, a fat, bald man in age. Did physical decay worry him? In the extravagance of his late-life body-hate, Philip sets out on a course of “auto-dissolution,” “self-deletion,” “sophrosyne” (Nabokov never uses one word where three are to hand”at least one of which should be unknown to the reader).

Philip starts his death diet with his feet, intending to progress to the torso and eventually the head. It’s a slow business. In extremis “a rotting writer””but by no means a rotten writer”he keeps a journal while melting away. In it he meditates about his first love, Aurora Lee (the Barrett Browning allusion, incidentally, is a total dead end).

Aurora, we learn, was the only love of Philip’s life. He rogered her twin brother at boarding school, “rather brutally.” Their “little bottoms” were, he recalls, indistinguishable. More brutal things happened to Aurora: She was “axed and chopped up at seventeen by an idiot lover.” Like Housman’s runner, she will be forever young (“underage,” stern moralists would say).

The narrative, as we have it, ends with a card containing a thesaurus that can be taken as Philip referring to his body or Nabokov giving an order to his estate:

rub out
wipe out

Is one grateful to Dmitri Nabokov? Yes. Does the incomplete novel satisfy the reader? Incompletely. Should the son have disobeyed his father? Indubitably.

John Sutherland is Lord Northcliffe Professor Emeritus of Modern English Literature at University College, London and visiting professor of literature at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech).