Nabokov's The Original of Laura (Dying Is Fun).

Reading between the lines.
Nov. 10 2009 7:06 AM

Hands Off Nabokov

Why The Original of Laura should never have become a book.

The Original of Laura.

Back when I was a young viewer of Sarajevo TV, there was a cult show along the lines of Monty Python that once featured a skit with a poem presumably found in the papers of a deceased genius poet. An actor ponderously declaimed the newly discovered verse—"Bread/ Milk /Cooking oil …"—as it became clear that the masterpiece was in fact a grocery list. The last, crushing line was: "And some fish, if you can find any."

Nabokov's The Original of Laura (Dying Is Fun) is far from being a grocery list, but it is just as far from being a novel. The master began it in 1975 and was working on it in 1977 when he fell ill and died, leaving instructions that the manuscript be destroyed. A few decades later, the would-be novel has been resurrected by a crafty agent-publisher alliance that has orchestrated a high drama around it, complete with an unusual half-embargo on advance reading copies: Critics interested in a pre-publication look could flip through the manuscript only in the publisher's offices.

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At a mere 9,000 or so words, The Original of Laura is at best a short-story sketch, at worst a collection of 138 notecards (which Nabokov preferred to use to compose, leaving it to his wife, Vera, to type the manuscript), slapped together in just enough of a semblance of order to afford the reader a peek at a possible structure and a hint of the underlying ideas. Indeed, the book contains facsimiles of the notecards—which can be detached and shuffled, turning Nabokov's writing into a kind of game for the literati, complete with a bonus card: The last one contains a scribbled list of synonyms for annihilation—"efface, expunge, erase, delete, rub out, wipe out, obliterate," including an indecipherable word, scratched out by Nabokov's pencil. In an era when few use pens or pencils to write, the crossed-out word might look like a kind of creative knot, an intriguing drama played out on paper. But as someone still clinging to pre-computer methods, let me remind you that X-ing out words is a banal, age-old feature of writing procedure.

This list of synonyms for obliteration acquires pertinence over the course of the text. The central character is Philip Wild, a morbidly obese intellectual deteriorating in the obtuse corner of a love triangle (not unlike those in Nabokov's early Russian-language novels) while his young wife, Flora, and someone named, possibly, Eric occupy the other two corners. Eric was one of Flora's many lovers, who then distinguished himself from the lurid crowd by writing a novel called My Laura, which described their affair in detail.

Flora is, thus, the original of Laura. Or is she? The confusing game of negotiating reality is played yet again, as it was, pleasantly, in many a Nabokov work, including his last completed creation, Look at the Harlequins!, an imaginary autobiography, or in Speak, Memory, a memoir in which remembering is the ultimate creative process. But in The Original of Laura, the toys required for the game are missing many of their parts and cannot be assembled even provisionally: The manuscript is indelibly, and in no way deliberately, incomplete.

In any case, Philip plots some sort of revenge for his public, literary humiliation, all the while admiring My Laura as a masterpiece. For reasons not entirely clear, he embarks upon a "process of self-obliteration conducted by an effort of the will": Part by body part, he thinks himself out of existence. This "process of self-deletion" would have presumably been reflected on the pages of the finished novel/story, with empty spaces replacing the vanishing words, so the text would be self-deleting as well.

One also has a sense that a few clever references to Nabokov's earlier works would have served a similar purpose: A character prone to humming and named Hubert H. Hubert, for example, makes a brief appearance as Flora's stepfather, clumsily trying to molest her. But she fends him off, he backs off, and then he simply dies off, never becoming the diabolical Humbert Humbert. Similarly, a painting made by Flora's talentless grandfather is called April in Yalta, as though it were the original for Nabokov's great short story "Spring in Fialta." And Flora attends a class by a professor of Russian literature ("a forlorn looking man bored to extinction by his subject") who asks the same questions Nabokov liked to discuss in his classes and The Lectures on Russian Literature. It is as if Nabokov were also bent on effacing his own creations. Luckily, they seem capable of sticking around.