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 It's the question of whether the last unpublished work of Vladimir Nabokov, which is now reposing unread in a Swiss bank vault, should be destroyed—as Nabokov explicitly requested before he died.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.

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.

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:

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.

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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