Hands Off Nabokov
Why The Original of Laura should never have become a book.
Philip Wild's "dying by auto-dissolution" is a clever device of a particularly Nabokovian sort, with the added heft of Nabokov's actual dying looming over it. The editing and packaging of The Original of Laura, complete with the subtitle Dying Is Fun and the obliteration list at the end, suggest a concerted effort to exploit to the hilt this possible relation to Nabokov's own disintegration: His illness and suffering are meant to enhance the weak text and fuel the industry-orchestrated drama. Otherwise, the fragments dealing with Wild's self-eradication traverse the border between plain silly and ridiculously serious—and are, at times, sloppily prolix. Here is Wild describing part of his self-erasure process: "To ensure a complete smoothness of background, care must be taken to eliminate the hypnagogic gargoyles and entopic swarms which plague tired vision after a surfeit of poring over a collection of coins or insects." If ever a sentence begged for self- or other-deletion, surely this is one.
Moreover, Flora/Laura/Flaura (yes, there is punning) is a flimsy sketch at best, and Eric, if indeed that is his name, is entirely obscure. Shuffle the notecards and the narrative voices are even more unevenly developed, interrupting one another and creating confusion in a manner that is an insult to the artistic control Nabokov exerted in all of his finished work.
Here and there, however, a perfectly cut Nabokovian gem sparkles: "A cloudless September maddened the crickets." Or take Flora's earliest lover "drawing junior-size sheath over his penis, which has its head turned somewhat askew as if wary of receiving backhand slap." It is also good to see that the master never lost his passion to dress down one Dr. Freud or address the inherent mediocrity of the writers (in this case Malraux, Michima [sic], and some more obscure ones) who pretend to represent an era, whereby "such represéntants could get away with the most execrable writing." Such flashes of light only make the fog around them look thicker, a fog that would probably have been dispersed had the great Russian managed to forestall the process of dying by organ failure.
Although there is a spark of creative excitement discernable in the manuscript, suggesting that Nabokov was up to his old brilliant tricks and making one wonder how he would have pulled off a self-deleting book, The Original of Laura can't escape the musty air of an estate sale: The trinkets that piled up in the attic; the damp books from the basement; the old man's stained cravat; the lonely figurines that used to be part of a cherished set; the mismatched, overworn clothing—all are brought out in the hope that there might appear a buyer for those sad objects, someone blinded by literary nostalgia and willing to rescue the family possessions from the waste basket.
It would be ridiculous, of course, to blame the deceased for the estate sale. Nabokov was not merely unequivocal in his desire that his notecards be destroyed. He was also adamantly clear in his views on excavating unfinished manuscripts and the drafts preceding final, published versions—as well as on the absolute value of a finished work of art. In the introduction to his translation of Eugene Onegin, he wrote: "An artist should ruthlessly destroy his manuscripts after publication, lest they mislead academic mediocrities into thinking that it is possible to unravel the mysteries of genius by studying cancelled readings. In art, purpose and plan are nothing; only the results count."
It is safe to say that what is published as the novel titled The Original ofLaura(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.
Aleksandar Hemon is the author of the novel The Lazarus Project and three short story collections. He lives in Chicago.