Dmitri Nabokov turns to his dead father for advice on whether to burn the author's last, unpublished manuscript.

Scrutinizing culture.
Feb. 27 2008 7:57 PM

The Fate of Nabokov's Laura, Part II

Dmitri turns to his dead father for advice on whether to burn the manuscript.

(Continued from Page 1)

In addition to being a Nabokov specialist, Edmunds has a unique role in the controversy over Laura. Back in 1998, he wrote a brilliant Nabokovian pastiche, one that he initially introduced in the pages of a bogus scholarly paper supposedly written by an invented scholar (invented, that is, by Edmunds) called "Michel Desommelier." "Desommelier" claimed he had received the fragments of Laura from a young nurse who'd attended a fatally ill Nabokov, who, in his delirium, was reciting passages from his unfinished work. 

I've read Edmunds' pastiche, and it's impressive and smart, but Edmunds had more up his sleeve. He called my attention to the fact that a scholarly print publication called The Nabokovian had printed, in 1999, under curious circumstances, two nearly page-long passages that the editors of The Nabokovian claimed had been taken from Laura. In fact, the editors explicitly say the two passages were "provided and copyrighted by the Nabokov Estate," and there has never, to my knowledge, been any dispute about their provenance from the estate in the decade that's followed.

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The passages appeared in The Nabokovian as part of a "Nabokov Prose-Alike Centennial Contest," conducted in coordination with the respected Nabokov-L listserv. The contest involved publication of five passages of prose, three of which were fake—imitations of Nabokov—and two of which were said to be real. In the subsequent issue of The Nabokovian, in which the contest results were announced, the magazine stated that the two real passages were excerpts from The Original of Laura.

Reading them, I felt as if I had discovered buried treasure. (Nobody had identified them correctly in the contest, by the way.) It was thrilling to encounter these two passages from the last efforts of the greatest novelist of the past century. The first one is particularly resonant. 

It describes a man kissing—and handling—the naked body of a "frail, docile," childlike woman as she's bathing. The man is admiring "the irresistible charm" of her "narrow nates" (nates = buttocks), among other arcanely named body parts. ("Omoplates"?) And then there is a sudden shift to this:  

"Only by identifying her with an unwritten, half-written, re-written difficult book could one hope to render at last what ..." [end of excerpt]. 

"Render at last what ..."? What a cliffhanger! Nonetheless, consider this reading of the passage; Nabokov is giving us, in his last novel, what might be seen as a kind of outtake from Lolita: the actual, physical side of the relationship. My colleague Michael Weiss recalled for me that Kingsley Amis complained in a contrarian way that Lolita was "not pornographic enough," that there was too little description of what Lolita and Humbert "actually get up to." Here in this second excerpt there is the kind of sexualized handling that might have made Amis happier—and, of course, that reopens the debate about the novel's moral attitude toward the relationship.

Another, more metafictional, allegorical interpretation: Nabokov is rehandling the novel Lolita, turning it over, revisiting it, revising his thoughts about how he managed the material the first time around. The original of The Original of Laura might be called Lolita.  

This is conjectural, of course, but, in the first Laura excerpt in The Nabokovian, Nabokov certainly seems to be writing about writing Laura, suggesting that the novel Laura—the unfinished, "unwritten," "half-written" manuscript he was still in the middle of composing—was somehow like Lolita the character:  A not-yet-fully-formed woman, alluring to him and yet not what the mature Laura will become.

A bit more of a hint is given by the second excerpt in The Nabokovian. In this one, we are introduced to a Mr. Hubert (one "m" short of Lolita's Humbert, of course) who seems to be engaged in a Lolita-like relationship with a young girl (presumably the same one as in the first excerpt), here named Flora, of whom we learn little. In the scene, Hubert and Flora play chess with one of those cheap little plastic sets in which the pieces are pegged into holes on the board. There is some sexualizing description of the "tickly-looking little holes [which] ... the pin-sized pawns penetrated easily." And of the young girl who—double entendre warning—"knew the moves." On the relationship of Flora to Laura, though, the passage is mum.

However, there are apparently two people besides Dmitri who have read the whole of the Laura manuscript. The first is Brian Boyd, Nabokov scholar and biographer. He obtained permission to read the manuscript with a promise not to disclose anything about it, and on the Australian literary talk show he declined to say anything about its content—although he did say he had great respect for its literary inventiveness—because he felt that, in getting specific, he would, in effect, be violating V.N.'s deathbed dictum.   

The second civilian to claim to have laid eyes on Laura is a professor at the University of Strasbourg named Lara (!) Delage-Toriel, who says she was granted the privilege by Dmitri Nabokov.  

(I have e-mailed Dmitri to verify this, but I'm not sure he's still speaking to me. And I've e-mailed Delage-Toriel to ask her about the circumstances in which she saw it, but I have, as yet, not heard back. So in this bewildering Nabokovian realm of pastiches and fragmentary excerpts from invented professors, caution is advisable, although I have never seen any repudiation of what you might call Lara's Laura.)

In her essay, Delage-Toriel does more than increase our knowledge of Laura:She offers a reason why V.N. might have wanted it destroyed in its unfinished state. 

Delage-Toriel points to passages in Nabokov's published work that suggest he often first saw what would later become his novelistic creations as completed pictorial images—and only then struggled to render the perfect picture in his mind into imperfect but perfectible words. 

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