Wednesday, November 11, 2009

New Nabokov

So, 32 years after his death, Vladimir Nabokov has a new novel coming out, The Original of Laura. When I first heard about the book, I was a bit conflicted. Here's the deal: Nabokov was working on The Original of Laura from 1975 until 1977, when he died. Before dying, he told his wife to destroy the manuscript, which consisted of 137 note cards. She didn't do this (and note: she is also the one who saved Lolita from the fire), and now, years later, his son has made the decision to the publish the work.

I'm feeling a bit conflicted and ambivalent about the new work. I do want to read it but then again, I really don't. And the don't is not because I'm the sort of snob who sniffs at any work published posthumously. Last year's publishing of the Kerouac/Burroughs effort And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks was pretty exciting and I thought a good read as well as a nice glimpse into the early styles of two writers who are pretty important to me.

And that is just it: Hippos was an early work, an early work that they tried to get published but initially failed. Original of Laura never got to be finished. I'm not one to argue for authorial intent, given my preference for the Death of the Author, but here we clearly, judging from the two reviews I've read, do not have a masterpiece, and so perhaps the book should have been trashed when VN passed away. It's not like there's anyone around to finish it, it's not like there's another Vladimir Nabokov waiting in the wings to take over. And it is certainly not as though this text is so powerful on its own that it had to get out into the world.

It's unfortunate that it was never finished, sure, just as it's unfortunate that many many Greek plays were lost or only exist in fragmentary form. The fact that it's being published now reeks to me of poor taste and dare I say, a money grab. The book retails for $35, is apparently only 9,000 words long, and features a gimmick: pop outable notecards in the back, that the reader can rearrange and read as she feels fit! Oh boy, so now not only am I getting an incomplete work, I'm getting an incomplete work that I can mess around with. Ooh.

I like the way Aleksandar Hemon, reviewing The Original of Laura at Slate, concludes his review:

It is safe to say that what is published as the novel titled The Original of Laura (Dying Is Fun) is not a result Nabokov desired or would welcome. Not only does it go against his expressed wishes, it goes against his very aesthetic sensibility, against his entire life as an artist. Too sick to destroy the notecards that contain The Original of Laura, the master is now eternally exposed to a gloating, greedy world of academics, publishers, and all the other card-shuffling mediocrities titillated by the sight of a helpless genius. It is unlikely that dying was that much fun, but it is certain that reading The Original of Laura is crushingly sad.

What do we get out of publishing an unfinished work by a master writer? To go back to my reference to Greek fragments, examining those does help one to piece things together sometimes, for instance, I read the fragments of Sophcles' lost play about Troilus when writing a paper tracing the character's history. Does the publication Original of Laura give us (readers, scholars, etc) a special edge, a knowledge of the man and his work that we didn't have before? I suppose this is something time and history will reveal.

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