Sunday, October 25, 2009

The final twist in Nabokov's untold story
Vladimir Nabokov was one of the most influential writers of the 20th century. Now, 30 years after his death, his last novel is finally to be published. But should it be? On the eve of his death, fearing it was imperfect, he instructed his wife to destroy the manuscript, sparking a fierce controversy that embroiled family, friends and the literary establishment, writes Robert McCrum
Robert McCrum in The Observer,
Sunday 25 October 2009

Vladimir Nabokov, right, on the balcony of his suite at the Montreux Palace Hotel, Switzerland, 1965. Photograph: Getty Images

Vladimir Nabokov, the acclaimed author of Ada, Pnin, Pale Fire and that transgressive bestseller Lolita, is a writer whose imaginative mastery continues to torment successive generations. Behind the imminent publication of his posthumous 18th novel is an extraordinary story, a literary magician's spell.

On 5 December 1976, the New York Times Book Review published a pre-Christmas round-up in which a number of famous writers selected the "three books they most enjoyed this year". Vladimir Nabokov's response to this routine inquiry was at once moving and mysterious. Having revealed that he was seriously ill, he listed "the books I read during the summer months of 1976 while hospitalised in Lausanne": Dante's Inferno in the Charles Singleton translation, The Butterflies of North America by William H Howe (Nabokov was a world-famous lepidopterist) and, finally, The Original Of Laura. This, he wrote, was "the not-quite-finished manuscript of a novel which I had begun writing and reworking before my illness and which was completed in my mind".
With artful cunning, Nabokov proceeded to reveal a mystery that is only now, 33 years later, on the brink of being solved. "I must have gone through it [The Original of Laura] some 50 times," he confided, "and in my diurnal delirium kept reading it aloud to a small dream audience in a walled garden."
Who could resist such entrancing fabrications ? "My audience," Nabokov went on, "consisted of peacocks, pigeons, my long dead parents, two cypresses, several young nurses crouching around, and a family doctor so old as to be almost invisible. Perhaps because of my stumblings and fits of coughing, the story of my poor Laura had less success with my listeners than it will have, I hope, with intelligent reviewers when properly published."

With that fleeting reference to "my poor Laura", the spell was almost wound up. There was just one more twist. Shortly after Christmas, provoked by that tantalising fragment in his newspaper, Herbert Mitgang, a New York Times reporter specialising in books and writers, began to make inquiries of Nabokov's publisher and confirmed, as he reported on 5 January, that the celebrated author of Lolita had indeed "completed his next novel in his head". This news he corroborated with Nabokov's New York editor, who told him: "It's all there: the characters, the scenes, the details. He [Nabokov] is about to do the actual writing on three-by-five-inch cards."
Read McCrum's full and most interesting article here.

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