Nabokov wanted his last work destroyed. Should it be?

Scrutinizing culture.
Jan. 16 2008 6:18 PM

Dmitri's Choice

Nabokov wanted his final, unfinished work destroyed. Should his son get out the matches?

Vladimir Nabokov. Click image to expand.
Vladimir Nabokov 

Here is your chance to weigh in on one of the most troubling dilemmas in contemporary literary culture. I know I'm hopelessly conflicted about it. It's the question of whether the last unpublished work of Vladimir Nabokov, which is now reposing unread in a Swiss bank vault, should be destroyed—as Nabokov explicitly requested before he died.

It's a decision that has fallen to his sole surviving heir (and translator), Dmitri Nabokov, now 73. Dmitri has been torn for years between his father's unequivocal request and the demands of the literary world to view the final fragment of his father's genius, a manuscript known as The Original of Laura. Should Dmitri defy his father's wishes for the sake of "posterity"?

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For the past two years I've involved myself in this question in print and in e-mail correspondence with Dmitri Nabokov, but a recent communication from Dmitri to me suggests that a decision may be near. And so the time seems right to share with Slate readers my own deeply divided feelings about Dmitri's choice and to see what they make of his dilemma.

What I'd like to do is convey to Dmitri the best of your responses to this (literally) burning question, since he deserves to know the sentiments of the intelligent reading public as well as those of the close-knit coterie of Nabokovians greedy to view the body of Laura's text.

Dmitri's predicament goes beyond Laura. It's one that raises the difficult issue of who "owns" a work of art, particularly an unfinished work of art by a dead author who did not want anything but his finished work to become public. Who controls its fate? The dead hand from the grave? Or the eager, perhaps overeager, readers, scholars, and biographers who want to get their hands on it no matter what state it's in?

To burn or not to burn? It's not a question we can argue over forever. Time is running out, and the stakes are high: Dmitri's past pronouncements suggest that Laura is not merely another scrap of paper. At one point he called it "the most concentrated distillation of [my father's] creativity."

Think of that: the final "distillation" of the work of perhaps the greatest, certainly the most complex, writer of the past century. Is it the "key to all mythologies"? The Jamesian "figure in the carpet"? The lens through which—should it survive—we might retrospectively refocus our vision of Nabokov's art?

On the other hand, Dmitri has also said Laura "would have been a brilliant, original, and potentially totally radical book, in the literary sense very different from the rest of his oeuvre." Which is not the same as saying that it is a "distillation" in the conventional meaning of the term. It suggests a new revelation.

Or perhaps Laura is both, since V.N.'s "distillation" might be an unexpected revelation as well.

As things stand, there's a chance we may never know. What we do know is that the Laura manuscript consists of approximately 50 index cards covered in V.N.'s handwriting. Dmitri has said in the past that the text amounts to some 30 conventional manuscript pages. (To those familiar with what is perhaps Nabokov's greatest work, Pale Fire, the use of index cards as a draft medium will not seem strange. Indeed the parallels to Pale Fire's account of a struggle over the disposition of an index-card manuscript border on the uncanny.) But in any case, before he died in 1977, Nabokov made clear that he wanted those cardsdestroyed.

At the time, the task fell to V.N.'s adored and devoted wife, Véra, but for one reason or another, by the time she died in 1991, she had not gotten around to putting a match to Laura. The grim task then fell to Dmitri, who has long been an assiduous and acerbic defender of his father's literary legacy from those he regards as egregious misinterpreters—and it now appears that such "misinterpretations" may prove to be a factor in swaying his sentiments on the fate of Laura.

And so this is Dmitri's choice: become the means of transmission of his father's last words and—against his wishes—allow the manuscript to be disclosed to the world. Or be the instrument of its destruction, and take the knowledge of its content to the grave.

It is, alas, an either/or, one or zero decision. And now comes news—via an e-mail to me from Dmitri—of a new twist in the case. Via a mutual friend, Dmitri sent me some comments on the nature and fate of Laura that he made in a forthcoming interview he expects will be published in a journal called Nabokov Online Journal. Comments he shared with me out of courtesy since he goes to some lengths to gently refute some previous speculations of mine on the identity of Laura's Laura. The new pronouncement makes it seem like, once again, he is inclined toward putting a match to Laura.