Here, at last, is Laura. The most eagerly awaited literary novel of this fledgling century is the posthumous and fragmentary work of the greatest writer of the second half of the last century, Vladimir Nabokov, who specified that it be burned if left uncompleted at his death.
Nonetheless, though it’s as unfinished as any book that calls itself a “book” could possibly be—and after considerable controversy and quarrel about whether to give greater weight to Nabokov’s wishes or those of his ardent fans—it is here.
From Ada to Zembla, Nabokov’s oeuvre is distinctly uneven, though that is like asserting that the Alps are uneven. His peaks—Pale Fire; Pnin; Lolita; his classic memoir Speak, Memory; many of his short stories; and portions of his Russian-language novels Glory and The Gift—are works of empyrean brilliance, and even his lesser productions (except, maybe, for the unreadable Ada) range far above those of nearly all of his rivals.
What little of The Original of Laura that Nabokov was able to complete before his death in 1977 in Lausanne, Switzerland is not anywhere near these high points of English and Russian literature, and, it is likely, never would have been, even had he lived for another decade. In the book’s introduction, Nabokov’s son Dmitri, who edited this volume, describes The Original of Laura as “an embryonic masterpiece whose pockets of genius were beginning to pupate here and there on his ever-present index cards”. But it is no disrespect to either the elder or younger Nabokov to note that the “embryonic” part of this formulation is infinitely more apropos than the “masterpiece” part.
Would Laura ever have soared? The book’s very themes argue strongly against it.
The Original of Laura‘s parenthetical subtitle, Dying is Fun, would likely not have survived Nabokov’s final draft, but it does hint at one of the odd and off-putting preoccupations of this novel, self-obliteration, if not exactly suicide, that takes the unlikely form of apotemnophilia (deliberate self-amputation of healthy limbs), here implausibly accomplished through self-hypnosis. Indeed, the haunting final words of this book, in Nabokov’s own handwriting, are “efface”, “expunge”, “erase”, “delete”, “rub out”, “wipe out”, and, lastly, “obliterate”. The words gave me a chill, but perhaps for extra-literary reasons; it isn’t hard to see them as Nabokov’s own half-relieved and half-embittered ruminations as this most alive of all writers sensed his time on earth fading away.
Dmitri confirms in the introduction that “(d)uring the last months of his life in the Lausanne hospital, Nabokov was working feverishly on the book, impervious to… his own suffering… (including) incessant inflammations under and around his toenails. At times, he felt almost as if he would rather be rid of them altogether than undergo tentative pedicures from the nurses, and the compulsion to correct them and seek relief by painfully digging at the digits himself. We shall recognize, in Laura, some echoes of these torments”.
In The Original of Laura, Nabokov pere introduces this theme with a bit of wry Proustian foolery:
I was enjoying a petit-beurre with my noontime tea when the droll configuration of that particular bisquit’s margins set into motion a train of thought that may have occurred to the reader even before it occurred to me. He knows already how much I disliked my toes. An ingrown nail on one foot and a corn on the other were now pestering me. Would it no(t) be a brilliant move, thought I, to get rid of my toes by sacrificing them to an experiment that only cowardness (sic) kept postponing?... I dipped a last petit-beurre in my tea, swallowed the sweet mush and resolutely started to work on my wretched flesh.
Later, the tone turns even stranger; the narrator writes that “the process of dying by auto-dissolution afforded the greatest ecstasy known to man”.
The plot of The Original of Laura is a little hard to follow, which is not at all surprising, and not at all the fault of V. Nabokov, given that these handwritten notes, which he didn’t want published at all, constitute far less than even a first draft—no more than an hour or two of reading in all. Much of the writing is beautiful, but the overall effect of reading this holograph, with its elisions and eerie allusions and frequent vaguenesses, makes it seem less like notes for a novel than the accurate transcription of a dream.
The story seems to concern an obese neurologist and writer named Philip Wild, the limb eliminator in question, and his promiscuous wife Flora. As a prepubescent, Flora was left alone with her mother’s lover, an elderly Englishman named “Hubert H. Hubert”, who, very much like the similarly named protagonist of Lolita, sniffs around the 12-year-old girl, “mesmerising her, envelopping (sic) her, so to speak in some sticky invisible substance and coming closer and closer no matter what way she turned…”. Hubert possesses a “fourfold smell—tobacco, sweat, rum, and bad teeth…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 whole dirty ball of wax created by Nabokov’s conflation of Humbert Humbert and Hubert Hubert and Philip Wild and other ugly adult males—possibly, in Nabokov’s mind, including himself in his latter years—creates a self-referential narrative structure with very little light or air. Other, that is, than the very depictions of youthful female beauty that so obsessed Nabokov in Lolita, in his short proto-Lolita novella The Enchanter, and here:
She was an extravagantly slender girl. Her ribs showed. The conspicuous knobs of her hipbones framed a hollowed abdomen, so flat as to belie the notion of “belly” ... The cup-sized breasts of that 24-year-old impatient beauty seemed a dozen years younger than she, with those pale squinty nipples and fine form.
Flora becomes the subject of a fictional novel (if you know what I mean) called My Laura, whose narrator is “a neurotic and hesitant man of letters, who destroys his mistress in the act of portraying her. Statically—if one can put it that way—the portrait is a faithful one. Such fixed details as her trick of opening her mouth when toweling her inguen or of closing her eyes when smelling an inodorous rose are absolutely true to the original”.
This, then, is the “original of Laura”. And the self-referentialism, at which Nabokov excelled, eventually begins to shade into self-disgust, as every attempt by the “author” of My Laura, and of The Original of Laura, to depict the beauty of female adolescence inevitably and simultaneously creates a portrait of ugly male obsesson. Lolita, in spite of its inherently distasteful male protagonist and subject matter, was a miraculous act of conjuring; it is hard to believe that this attempted repeat performance could ever have been the same.
The fictional My Laura, Nabokov writes, “was promptly torn apart by a book reviewer in a leading newspaper. It grimly survived and to the accompaniment of muffled grunts on the part of the librarious fates, its invisible hoisters, it wriggled up to the top of the bestsellers’ list then started to slip, but stopped at a midway step in the vertical ice”. That may have been Nabokov’s fictionalized rendering of the fate of Lolita (which was in fact a big bestseller in its time), or it may have been his forecast, probably more accurate, for The Original of Laura.
The Original of Laura is published in an unusual form. The top portion of each page contains a scored reproduction of one of the hundred-and-a-handful index cards that Nabokov used to compose the partial first draft, so that we can see his own handwriting. Underneath each index card is a typeset transcription, though Nabokov’s writing is rarely hard to read.
The scoring is employed so that the reader can remove and shuffle the cards, according to a note on the text, “as the author likely did when he was writing the novel”. This seems pointless, even if one is in the mood to play a game of po-mo 52 pick-up. Nabokov did intend the book to ultimately have shape and form, and even numbered the index cards, so that the order of the pages in the present manuscript would seem to be the best guess as to the novel’s ultimate shape and form, however incomplete it may be.
On the other hand, removing all the cards makes the book a lot lighter without rendering it any less readable. And, at the same time, it creates a nifty rectangular cavity for smuggling an actual deck of playing cards inside the book, although into where, and for whom, isn’t easy to say.
Ultimately, I believe it would take a heroic effort of rationalization and cognitive dissonance to represent this assemblage of notes and odd obsessions as a masterwork, or as a satisfying culmination of Nabokov’s incredible career.
But Dmitri Nabokov’s eventual decision to publish these notes, abetted by a long and intelligently argued campaign by the author Ron Rosenbaum, was ultimately a good one.
It is, after all, Nabokov.
This is not an easy book to rate. As a reminder of a great writer’s genius and obsessions, for its historical value, for its fragments of beautiful prose, and as a paper objet d’art utterly unreplicable by any flat slab of plastic, The Original of Laura is a ten. As an actual work of literature, it’s no more than a four.
Hence, after averaging, seven. As a posthumous gift, that is more than enough.