Dmitri's Dilemma Debunked

on Monday, December 14, 2009
In the pompous introduction to his father's posthumous sketch "The Original of Laura", Dmitri Nabokov tells us that he has grappled for years with the issue of whether he ought allow the index cards-cum-manuscript to be published. Old Dad Vlad apparently wanted them burned. As Junior notes, Franz Kafka wanted the same of most of his unpublished work, though he entrusted the task to the one person he certainly knew would never do so. Similar doubts probably need not be raised here - Nabokov Snr was far too sick to do it himself and may actually have hoped that his son would grant his flaming wish. He was, after all, a master stylist. The thought of a rough draft escaping into the hallowed Nabokov canon must have been nigh unbearable.

Now Dmitri is himself an old man nearing death. He could no longer put off the decision. And so, because he is a 'nice guy' who wants to 'alleviate the suffering' of the countless fans eager for one last taste of the great emigre's genius, he has deigned to bestow upon us Saint Vladimir's literary table scraps. Like one of Vladimir's beloved butterflies, "The Original of Laura" now flaps around this cruel world while all manner of lit-hunters swoop at it with their critical nets.

Many more words than are contained in the actual manuscript have already been written about it. Most have been derisory, both of the book and, more often, what is taken to be Dmitri's last attempt to bask in reflected glory. But let us not visit the sins of the son upon the father. "The Original of Laura" is not bad. In fact, it is actually quite good so long as you keep a few things in mind. As I have said before, it is a first draft. An incomplete first draft. It is not a novel. It was probably never going to be. A novella, perhaps. Maybe a short story. But not a novel. Also it is hard to ascertain the order in which the chapters, or in some cases the individual cards, were intended. Knopf's decision to publish the book with removable index cards was prescient not only in terms of creating a stunning object d'art, but also to allow the reader to experience it precisely as Nabokov himself would have experienced it. We can create and recreate the story, deciding for ourselves how it ought to play out. Keep in mind, however, that no matter how you choose to do so, it is unfinished. This is not a complete book. It is riddled with the author's doubts and failings.

What it does show, if only in infancy, is a man still in love with language, merrily playing games of alliteration and the like, whilst grappling with some serious philosophical issues. The twin stories of a magnificently talented young woman's dalliances behind her husband's back and the 'book-within-a-book' memoir by one of her lovers, which turns out to be a catalogue of bodily ailments above anything else, are both pure Nabokov. The brief appearance of one Hubert H. Hubert, an obvious reference to the both loved and reviled narrator of Lolita, avoids being naff, and in a mere half chapter manages to flesh him out in a peculiarly meaningful way. And then there is the writing itself; passages that one can't help but love with awestruck passion. As I mentioned in a previous post, Nabokov in draft still, as a prose stylist, towers above most writers who have the benefit of the drafting and editing processes.

For those who have been equivocating, by all means pick up the book. As an insight to one of the greats it is invaluable and it has enough to admire in and of itself to lift it above the level of mere curiosity. And to Dmitri, thank you. I hope you now can step out from your father's shadow. I'd hate to think you lived your entire life in thrall to the dark.


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