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?

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He rules out the influence of either Otto Preminger's Laura or Petrarch's Canzoniere 141. He denies the similarity I'd felt I'd found between Petrarch's image of a butterfly flying into a woman's eyes, mistaking their blue for the sky, and the image in the opening stanza of Pale Fire's poem in which a bird mistakenly flies into "the false azure" reflected in a window's pane, citing his father's punctiliousness about differentiating classes of winged creatures.

I must admit I have never found a critique more flattering—in the interview he calls my theories "intelligent" and seems to particularly appreciate my comparison of his difficult position vis a vis his father to Hamlet's—nor more mystifying. At the end of his discussion of Laura, he informs us that "Laura" is not even the original's name in The Original of Laura.

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When I asked him, in an e-mail, to explain this apparent paradox, he declined to respond. He did add that he has copied out into more conventional manuscript pages the contents of the index cards—whose number he told me on the phone he could not remember precisely.

Well, I will set aside for the moment both my gratitude for being refuted in such a fashion—and my continued disagreement with Dmitri about the parallelism of the Petrarchan image of a butterfly (an iconic Nabokov figure) flying into the beautiful blue of a woman's eyes and the image of a bird flying into  "the false azure" of Pale Fire's windowpane. I think the resemblance trumps the animal-class difference. (See if you agree with me or Dmitri; you can find both passages here.) More significant perhaps is that disputing my Laura speculations provoked Dmitri into calling into question the identity—or at least the name—of the "original" in Laura.

What then can the title mean? There are just too many unanswered questions, which multiply every time Dmitri speaks. This may be his intention; it certainly focuses our suspenseful attention on him and his decision, potentially one of the most consequential decisions in contemporary literary history. But I think it's time to end the suspense.

Dmitri, with all due respect, I think the time has come to make a decision. Tell us what you want to tell us about Laura (including the "real" name of the original). Tell us why you think it's the "distillation of [your] father's art." Tell us, please, what that can mean. Or explain why Laura is such a "radical" departure from his previous work. Or give us Laura and let us tie ourselves into knots deciding. Or put us out of our misery, and tell us that you intend to preserve the mystery forever by destroying Laura. But please don't continue to tease us.

You could also, I suppose, tell us that you have decided to find some third solution, by offering limited access to Laura for scholars, or by placing the decision in trusted hands to be made after your death, thus relieving you of an almost impossible burden.

I could understand such a compromise, but somehow I think the decision should be a deliberate one by a Nabokov heir rather than one made by fate or committee. When we spoke (by e-mail) two years ago, Dmitri revealed there were two keys to the safe deposit vault in Switzerland containing Laura. Who has the other one? What are his or her responsibilities? When I asked again this time about this mysterious secret-sharer, he declined to respond.

And the typescript version of Laura you mention in the interview. Where is that and what will its fate be? It's time to lay your cards on the table, Dmitri. Where is that and what will its fate be? It's time to lay your cards on the table, Dmitri.

And Slate readers: You're a literate bunch. Even if you're not Nabokov aficionados, you must have an opinion on the larger issue raised about the final wishes of an artist for an unfinished work of art he didn't want the world to see: Should Dmitri burn Laura? Record your advice here.

I still can't make up my mind. Part of me desperately wants to read Laura. But I have a superstitious dread of violating V.N.'s wishes. Maybe you can help me—as well as Dmitri—choose. But I think it's time to decide one way or another: The suspense is killing me.

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