Dmitri Nabokov turns to his dead father for advice on whether to burn the author's last, unpublished manuscript.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

Vladimir Nabokov. Click image to expand.
Vladimir Nabokov

The latest chapter in the intrigue surrounding The Original of Laura, the elusive, unfinished, unpublished final work of Vladimir Nabokov—a chapter that has unfolded since I last wrote about Laura in Slate—turns out to be a kind of ghost story.  

It involves what might be called the spectral appearance of Nabokov himself to his son, Dmitri, the 73-year-old sole heir who holds Laura's fate in his hands. This otherworldly manifestation came on the heels of an intense period of worldwide debate among readers and literary figures—debate stirred up by my disclosure that Dmitri was once again inclined to follow his father's deathbed wish and burn the manuscript, now awaiting its fate in a Swiss bank vault.

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"Burn it," cried playwright Tom Stoppard in the London Times. "Save it," countered novelist John Banville. Slate readers were passionately divided. Bloggers pondered the role of "sleuths and stirrers (like Ron Rosenbaum)"—as one put it. Well, it now seems the sleuthing and stirring has provoked a surprising ghostly resolution. It came in the form of an e-mail from Dmitri Nabokov to a woman named Sarah L'Estrange, an e-mail I only discovered when it was read aloud at the close of theAustralian Broadcasting Company's Book Show, a literary talk show I was appearing on with Brian Boyd, the world's leading Nabokov scholar.

I will get to Nabokov's ghost in a moment. First, I'd like to address the question of why we should care about the fate of Laura, something I came to feel ever more strongly about as I sought to learn more about it. In my sleuthing and stirring, I've discovered some of the secrets that have escaped from her Swiss prison cell. I've even managed to read two passages from the manuscript! Passages that suggest another kind of ghost story: the way Laura is haunted by the ghost of Lolita.  

You'll recall that when we last left Dmitri Nabokov, he was once again publicly (in the journal Nabokov Online) and privately (to me) hinting that he would carry out his filial obligation to destroy the manuscript, thus abiding by the wishes of a perfectionist father who loathed the idea that a work that did not live up to his exacting standards for completion should be exposed in blemished form to the world. 

Dmitri's threat was the latest episode in the long, twisted saga of Laura, which by then had become the literary equivalent of an old-fashioned serial melodrama, as full of cliffhangers as The Perils of Pauline. The irascible Dmitri would tease us with hints of Laura's thrilling salience, then suggest he was inclined to destroy it, anyway; following which, the literary world (most of it) would beg him not to. Dmitri would then back off—"reserving judgment"—only to stir things up by giving interviews (or, in my case, sending e-mails) that once again suggested an intent to destroy. (For instance, the irritated e-mail he sent me—A LONG, SINGLE PARAGRAPH ALL IN ANGRY CAPITAL LETTERS—after the publication of my recent Slate piece.)

I'd thought I'd portrayed Dmitri's Hamlet-like dilemma sympathetically. I had defended his conflict, his need to balance the deathbed wish of his father, one of the great artists of modern times, against the demands of "posterity." 

Shouldn't the father have the right to expect that his son would carry out his wishes? And yet Dmitri had himself fueled our desire to possess Laura with some of his comments, as when he called it the "most concentrated distillation of [my father's] creativity" and a "totally radical book." Who would not wish to get even a sketchy glimpse of the omega point of Nabokov's artistic evolution? However fragmentary the clues, they might give us a hint of the final stage of his aspirations for his art—or perhaps offer a lens through which to reconsider his published work.  

But my empathy for the difficulty of the choice—and my offer to share Slate reader comments with Dmitri—seemed to exacerbate his irritability, and, alas, to place Laura in greater jeopardy. 

In Dmitri's ALL-CAPITAL-LETTERED E-MAIL, he said that my column calling on him to end the suspense and to make a decision one way or another had complicated his life as literary executor of the Nabokov estate by drawing too much media attention to him.

Indeed, the issue did seem to draw media like moths to a flame. I was invited to do interviews on NPR, the BBC, the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) and the ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation), and it was during this last interview that Dmitri himself weighed in with a surprise decision.

It was a surprise to me, anyway, because in his ALL-CAPITAL-LETTERED E-MAIL he had told me that he'd decided to make a decision about what to do but that he would not disclose publicly either the decision or the deed. He would make the choice in private, on his own timetable, and not reveal it to anyone. A private burial for Laura? Or a secret reprieve?

His e-mail conjured a suspenseful scene in the future when the door of the vault would swing open, a moment until which we would not know whether we'd find Laura or a pile of ashes that once was Laura

Before getting to Dmitri's imagined visitation and his surprise verdict, though, let me dwell for a moment on what my "sleuthing" has turned up. After my Slate piece ran, I spoke with Jeff Edmunds, the editor of Zembla, a Web site devoted to Nabokov hosted by the University Libraries at Penn State University. Edmunds facilitated my reading of two apparently genuine—and highly provocative—passages from the Laura manuscript.

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