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?

(Continued from Page 1)

When I say, "once again," it's because he's zigged and zagged on the question over the past two years since I first provoked comment from him that he would "probably destroy" Laura.

He made that statement in an e-mail exchange we had about an essay I'd written on the "ur-Lolita" problem: the discovery by a German professor of an obscure novella published in Berlin in 1916 that seemed to prefigure some features of V.N.'s later Lolita. The "ur-Lolita" disclosure was mistakenly characterized as a "plagiarism" scandal by some of the less acute members of the European press, although the German professor, Michael Maar, explicitly said the parallels were not plagiarism and suggested instead a case of "cryptomnesia"—the technical term for, say, reading something in 1916 and not having a conscious memory of it 20 years later, so that one isn't aware of the source when elements of it surface in one's own later work.

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In any case, when I asked Dmitri about Laura—this was two years ago—he said he was inclined to burn it because of the lamentable state of what he called "Lolitology."

At the time I assumed he was referring to the ur-Lolita controversy, and in a column in the New York Observer, thinking only of myself, the vast pleasure and mystery Nabokov's work offers, and the thrilling prospect of reading his final manuscript, I penned a public plea to Dmitri not to burn Laura.

The attention this brought to Dmitri's dilemma caused something of a stir, with headlines around the world blaring variations of NABOKOV SON TO DESTROY FATHER'S LAST WORDS, when in fact what he actually said in his e-mail to me was that he would "probably destroy it." In the aftermath of this brouhaha, Dmitri announced that he hadn't yet made an irrevocable decision about burning Laura. At the time, I counted it a victory in helping him move back from the brink.

But after things died down, I began to think of the matter from Dmitri's perspective: It was a Hamlet-like dilemma he faced. His stern regal father, like the ghost in Hamlet, demanding posthumous fulfillment of a blood-chilling pledge. Dmitri has been enjoined with carrying out the last act of one of the most demanding purists in literary history, a man who would have, his son must know, felt pain at the release of a maimed or not fully formed version of his last words.

Indeed a Nabokov specialist at Oberlin College, professor Abraham P. Socher, drew my attention to a quote in V.N.'s first English-language novel, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight. V.N. describes a Nabokov-like writer figure as "that rare type of writer who knows that nothing ought to remain except for the perfect achievement."

Does it matter what V.N. would feel, since he's long dead? Do we owe no respect to his last wishes because we greedily want some "key" to his work, or just more of it for our own selfish reasons? Does the lust for aesthetic beauty always allow us to rationalize trampling on the artist's grave? Does the greatness of an artist diminish his right to dispose of his own unfinished work?

It is in this context that the new Dmitri pronouncement figures. Shortly after the New Year, I received an e-mail from a mutual friend saying, "Dmitri asked me to send this…something about yr article being the reason for this interview…Dmitri said he wanted you to have it before it came out."

It was a transcript labeled, "Final draft; small changes made after transmission … on Dec. 29, 2007. Interview with Dmitri Nabokov for Nabokov online, No. 1, 2008."

I reached Dmitri by phone just to make sure he had not changed his views since the interview, but he reaffirmed the substance of his sentiments on Laura and—though he asked that I not quote him directly until the interview appears—he agreed that I could share some of his thoughts on the Laura question with you.

In the interview, Dmitri initially says that he is reserving judgment as to whether to preserve or destroy the manuscript, but he subsequently admits to feeling protective about Laura, especially in light of the treatment of his father's works by certain writers he regards as deeply misguided in their "psychological" analyses of Lolita and other works, analyses he characterizes as virtually criminal idiocy. In particular, he singles out critics who have used close readings of Nabokov's work to suggest that V.N. himself was molested or abused.

And though Dmitri hasn't made a final decision, he says the desire to spare Laura similar molestation by the "Lolitologists" inclines him to obey his father's wishes and consign the manuscript to oblivion.

Dmitri also spends time in the interview refuting some public speculations I've made about the nature of Laura. I had suggested that Laura might owe something to Otto Preminger's classic obsessive detective film of the same name, which features a portrait, an "original," of a Laura. And then, delving deeper into the matter at the suggestion of some readers, I investigated Petrarch's famous sonnets to Laura, the 14th-century "Canzonieres," which are credited with initiating the Renaissance sonnet tradition and which a littérateur like Nabokov could not have been ignorant of. Given Dmitri's dismissal of the Lolitologists, I approached his comments on my theories with some trepidation. But he found an extremely generous way of saying I was wrong on just about every point:

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