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Burn without reading?

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Wednesday, Nov 19, 2008

Making breakfast—coffee and a honey sandwich—I tried to put myself in the mind of Vladimir Nabokov.


I’m old, I’m dying, but I’m so devoted to my art that struggling with my last gasps I’m managing to scribble out a final masterpiece. As both my book and I near our conclusions, I make my loving wife vow: “You, Mrs. Nabokov, must burn this feisty manuscript!”


I’m pouring my coffee, spreading my butter, with few answers forthcoming. Why am I doing this? Why, as one of the heroes of 20th Century literature, with a reputation already in place as controversial, daring, brilliant, would I hold back anything I’d committed to paper? Why do I want my scribblings turned to ashes?


I can’t figure it. Unless the “unfinished” aspect of the work made the author nervous that his motivations and themes might be left unresolved. I can see that. Maybe he wanted a chance to edit this piece—it was, you know, written on index cards? Maybe the scandalous aspects of the piece are transparently less about story fluidity and more about an old man getting his rocks off one final, messy time? Maybe it just sucked?


But then you might ask dear old wife just to hold onto the book—why burn it? There’s such drama there. Not, let my kids see my final work, I am a revered genius, after all. But BURN EVERY WORD IN A BAROQUE BYRON-ESQUE BONFIRE!


Maybe Nabokov was just a big drama queen?


So, now, Nabokov’s son Dmitri is going against the old man’s wishes and we will all get a chance to read The Original of Laura sometime next year. Speaking with the BBC Newsnight program, Dmitri Nabokov excused his decision theorising that his father would not have named Laura as one of his favourite works—which he apparently did in conversation with his son—had he planned to destroy it. Son is convinced Father would be happy to see the work on bookstore shelves. 


Tom Stoppard, on the other hand, is of the belief that if Nabokov wanted the book burned, so it should be burned. But who can blame us for being just so intrigued about the contents of a book the author of Lolita, for heaven’s sake, wanted vaporised?


Something tells me what was shocking enough to make Nabokov want his work burned will be sadly all-too parental guidance recommended today. But that’s not really the point. In the end, in my Nabokov brain, I think I would have preferred my wishes granted. I might be an author, but I’m also a man. I am not owned by my public, and therefore do not owe my public all parts of myself. Quality of work, theme, historical significance ... I’m think with Stoppard that the wishes should have won out.


The Independent has a write up here, and the Newsnight report is here.

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