Dmitri Nabokov turns to his dead father for advice on whether to burn the author's last, unpublished manuscript.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 2)

Which might explain his desire to burn Laura: It was not as if he were in the process of discovering its possibilities in words—he knew how good it might turn out if he had time to work on it. He'd already glimpsed the dazzling possibility; he was just struggling to realize its perfection in another medium and had not yet succeeded. When he saw death about to snatch the chance away, Delage-Toriel implies, V.N. didn't want people to see something that didn't live up to the luminous painting in his mind. 

But she also offers what she says is a firsthand outline of Laura's plot:

Its central female character seems to be Flora, the wife of the narrator and, most likely, the "original" of Laura, who is the eponymous heroine of a novel titled My Laura. This novel is sent to the narrator and main protagonist of The Original of Laura by a painter, a rejected admirer of his wife, Flora, of whom "he did an exquisite oil a few years ago." In My Laura, the mistress is less lucky: She is destroyed by the "I" of the book whilst "in the act of portraying her"—"literally," as a writer. Apparently "the portrait is a faithful one," its features being "absolutely true to the original." Our desire to peer through the frame—like the unfortunate protagonist of Nabokov's short story "La Veneziana"—is thwarted by the elusive nature of this "original": Does it refer to the mistress of the "I," the Laura of My Laura, or to the probable mistress of this novel's author, the Flora of The Original of Laura? The manuscript's playful juxtapositions obviously incite the reader to fuse both "originals" into a single original, a gesture which Nabokov graphically performs in "chapter" 5, by contriving an amusing hybrid, "Flaura." On close observation of the manuscript, one notices that the name contains in fact two capital letters, "F" and "L," as though Nabokov had been loath to give precedence to either name and had instead opted for some typographical monster, a bicephalous cipher of sorts.

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Sounds simple enough, right? Then she goes on to say how Laura and Flora team up to find a clue to the location of the Holy Grail in a late painting by Leonardo da Vinci. (Kidding!)

Seriously, this summary has all the characteristic complexity of Nabokov's last two novels, Transparent Things and Look at the Harlequins!, taken to some exponentially dizzying new level. And for all we know, it may, from that empyrean perspective, cast new light on what came before. On the other hand—and perhaps this is what troubled V.N. to the point that he wanted it destroyed—its imperfect state might, if used as lens through which to examine past work, prove seriously misleading.

But Lara's Laura isn't the only plot summary out there. A month after my Slate piece appeared, a writer for the London Times published an article containing a different summary of Laura that she claimed she had cobbled together from discussions with Nabokov scholars she didn't identify. Here's what she presents:

Talk to enough Nabokov scholars and the outline of a plot emerges: Philip Wild, an enormously corpulent scholar, is married to a slender, flighty and wildly promiscuous woman called Flora. Flora initially appealed to Wild because of another woman that he'd been in love with, Aurora Lee. Death and what lies beyond it, a theme which fascinated Nabokov from a very young age, are central. The book opens at a party and there follow four continuous scenes, after which the novel becomes more fragmented. It is not clear how old Wild is, but he is preoccupied with his own death and sets about obliterating himself from the toes upwards through meditation. A sort of deliberate self-inflicted self-erasure.

The differences are rather significant. Are there two Lauras? It is possible to conceive they are parts of the same novel examined from different angles. But the man making himself disappear by meditating himself into oblivion from the toes up?

Maybe that's why Nabokov wanted it burned.

In any case, my encounters with these various fragmentary apparitions of Laura left me wanting more than ever to read the whole manuscript and spend the rest of my life trying to evaluate its relation to the rest of V.N.'s work, but things were looking grim in the period between Dmitri's ALL-CAPS E-MAIL to me threatening a private cremation and the very end of my appearance on that Australian talk show. 

Ramona Koval, the program's host, had spent a half-hour eliciting opinions from Boyd (who's now in favor of saving Laura), Harvard scholar Leland de la Durantaye (in favor of burning), and me (still conflicted). And then she sprung her surprise: an e-mail from Dmitri to one of the show's producers, a woman named Sarah L'Estrange (could there be a better name in this Nabokovian perplexity?), that offered what looked like a decision at last.

The full e-mail can be found at the end of the show's transcript. But the essence is this: Dmitri says he reached a decision after an imagined ghostly conversation with his dead father—one in a far different key from Hamlet's talk with his dead dad. 

"I have decided," Koval quoted Dmitri, "that my father, with a wry and fond smile, might well have contradicted himself upon seeing me in my present situation and said, "Well, why don't you mix the useful with the pleasurable? That is, say or do what you like but why not make some money on the damn thing?' "

And so the imagined shade of V.N., demonstrating indulgent and affectionate fondness for his son's "present situation" (it's not clear what exactly that means, but it could refer to financial or heath problems or just the worldwide outcry to save Laura), gave him ghostly permission to raise some funds with it. 

That's putting it far too vulgarly, of course. For one thing, selling Laura might be best for the manuscript. I'm sure there are respectable scholarly institutions, museums, and foundations that would pay considerable sums to take on the guardianship of the last fictional creation of the greatest novelist of the past century, perhaps limiting access to scholars and—alas—probably excluding the "sleuths and stirrers" responsible for their windfall. 

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