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Anticipating the Original of Laura

Is there a greater thrill for a bibliophile than the publication of a newly discovered work by a deceased author he admires?  All literary criticism, bad and good, feels much more comfortable with the dead than with the living, and not only because the dead cannot tell them how foolish and misbegotten their analyses are.  There is, inevitably, a wholeness (especially if the writer reached a decent old age) to the oeuvre of a writer which mimics life’s own swerves and shapes.  From the brash and roguish writings of youth to more pensive middle age, to silver–haired masterpieces, to the last recounting of a long journey into night, a writer’s oeuvre is his photo album, diary, résumé, and testament.  Unless his time on earth was engulfed by extraordinary savageness or sensationalism (and we know the adage on that point), he will only be remembered for the papers he chose to engrave.  Once he is no longer around, his next life, that of a literary figure, may truly commence.    

nabokov.jpgAs such, there has been more than a bit of idle chatter regarding the unpublished manuscript of this great polyglot, none of it, alas, conclusive.  After the same argument is repeated in paraphrase about a dozen times, it is then for some reason suggested that the best justification for adhering to the author’s final wishes to burn The Original of Laura would be that the half–work might endure undeserved critical silliness (as if, we suppose, his other works do merit such scrutiny).  If Nabokov, a fastidious mastermind, got as far as is claimed — roughly thirty normal pages, so maybe about twelve or thirteen thousand words, although this remains pure speculation — one can be sure that the quality of the production will be at the same standards as readers have come to expect.  The only foreseeable drop–off would be in structure, those artificial beams and bridges that often do not materialize until all pertinent details have been mapped.  Yet Nabokov was just as accomplished an architect as he was a portrait painter, a rarity in our age of overspecialization.  And although he famously claimed to have rewritten everything he had ever published at least a hundred times, his clarity of phrasing is evident even in his correspondence and discursive writings.  If anyone were to be protected by the fortress of his own talents and unable to tarnish his image with any posthumous palimpsests, Nabokov would be among the most likely to survive unscathed.

Nevertheless, if these recent rumors are well–founded, his son, translator, and literary executor Dmitri appears to be engaging in a game of handy–dandy.  Encumbered by a number of burdens, not the least of which is the maintenance of his father’s artistic integrity in the face of shifting critical winds, the younger (73–year–old) Nabokov would have burned the document by now if he had really wanted to do so.  After all, July marked the thirtieth anniversary of his father’s death.  Clearly, waters have to be tested, and maybe a bit of creative padding needs to be inserted before we get to see the semi–finished product (a few years ago, some impatient scholars decided to get a jump on the competition).  Having spent a decade working in Nabokovia, my understanding is that we will see the pink elephant in the end, although it will still be dripping with distemper.  Nabokov conceded that he would be remembered primarily for his unorthodox translation of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin (which he justified by Chateaubriand’s rendering of this most sublime of all human creations), and this notorious novel which first brought him censure then worldwide and everlasting glory.  Since soothsayers seem to think that Laura and Dolores Haze are cousins or at least distantly related, a literary executor steeped in the riches and diversity of his father’s works might chafe at the prospect of further Lolitology.  Such is the price of fame and, of course, of original genius.

*Note: The work in question has indeed been published.  You can find a review on these pages.

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