Published, New York Times: November 9, 2009
Given the shape of Vladimir Nabokov’s own life, it’s hardly surprising that death — and its cousin loss — permeated his fiction like a potent but noxious perfume.
THE ORIGINAL OF LAURA (Dying Is Fun)
By Vladimir Nabokov Illustrated.
Edited by Dmitri Nabokov.
278 pages. Alfred A. Knopf. $35.
Nabokov’s wealthy, aristocratic family was forced to flee Russia in the wake of the Revolution, and in 1922 his father, a liberal politician, was shot at a rally in Berlin, trying to protect another man from an assassin. The Nazis would later drive Nabokov and his wife and son from Europe to America, where they moved from sublet to sublet, motel to motel. Although he gave up his beloved Russian and reinvented himself as one of the great prose stylists of the English language, an exile’s detachment and nostalgia would always lurk beneath the surface of his playful, glittering prose, and a heightened awareness of mortality would create a powerful undertow in his novels and short stories.
Indeed, death comes to Nabokov characters with astonishing swiftness, variety and heartlessness. He famously dispatched the narrator’s mother in “Lolita” with a two-word parenthesis “(picnic, lightning)” and subjected other creations to death by fire, poison, ski jump, suicide, bus accident, strangulation, gunshot, assorted illnesses and firing squad.
In “The Original of Laura” — fragments of a novel that Nabokov left unfinished at his death and that his son, Dmitri, decided, after much agonizing, to publish against his father’s wishes — he imagines the death of his protagonist, a writer and neurologist named Philip, as a sort of Nietzschean act of will, as an exercise in self-erasure conducted body part by body part, beginning with his toes. It is the ultimate fantasy of a writer who wants to exert complete control over the narrative of his own life.
“The process of dying by auto-dissolution,” Philip asserts, “afforded the greatest ecstasy known to man.”
Philip’s grotesque story was sketched out by Nabokov on index cards, which, according to his son, he worked on “feverishly” during the last months of his life in a hospital in Lausanne, Switzerland; he left express instructions with his wife, Vera, that “Laura” should be burned if it remained unfinished at the time of his death.
Vera Nabokov (who had once saved “Lolita” from going up in smoke, when her husband became convinced that it would always remain a victim of incomprehension) failed to carry out this task, her procrastination due, her son writes, “to age, weakness and immeasurable love.” After years of procrastination himself, Dmitri decided that his father, who died in 1977, or his “father’s shade,” would not “have opposed the release of ‘Laura’ once ‘Laura’ had survived the hum of time this long.”
Was Dmitri right to publish “The Original of Laura: (Dying Is Fun)”? Do the index cards (reproduced with meticulous care by the publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, in an ingenious punch-out format) represent, as Dmitri has said, “the most concentrated distillation” of his father’s creativity? Does this fragmentary manuscript constitute the makings of “a brilliant, original and potentially radical book”? Or does the unfinished manuscript — like works left behind by Ernest Hemingway and published after his death by his estate — simply feel like an embarrassing and unfortunate coda to the master magician’s oeuvre?
Read the full review at NYT.