Shakespeare's Bootlegger, Dylan's Biographer, Nabokov, and Me
When should an unauthorized version be authorized?
And while Dmitri has the legal right to publish Laura, he will still be violating his father's injunction. Laura will be an even more complex creature, a legal but unauthorized (by the author) bootleg!
From the excerpts I have read, I can understand why V.N. might have wanted them burned. He's getting into Lolita territory, at least in one excerpt published by The Nabokovian. And then there's the mystifying sentence fragment about "intercourse" that The Nabokovian excerpt stopped just short of but that turned up recently in the German newspaper Die Zeit. One could imagine that if Nabokov was reworking that kind of material, he might not have wanted a raw draft printed until he perfected it. Particularly since it involved the most incendiary aspect of what was his most incendiary work. He might well want an incendiary early draft set on fire. I'm now thinking the manuscript of Laura is the Nabokovian equivalent of "A Lover's Complaint," in the sense that the prospect of its attachment to the finished, polished canon of this perfectionist's art might well have been as disturbing to him (even if it was his own early draft) as the bad, fake Shakespeare of "A Lover's Complaint" would have been to Shakespeare.
And then I came across something that Harvard's Helen Vendler—coincidentally, or maybe not so coincidentally, one of the premiere interpreters of Shakespeare's sonnets—said about the unauthorized publication of poems Elizabeth Bishop didn't consider finished and didn't want published:
"If I had asked somebody to promise to destroy something of mine," Vendler told Rachel Donadio of the New York Times, "and they didn't do it I would feel it to be a grave personal betrayal."
So here's a "Nabokov-lover's complaint" to Dmitri, inspired by all this Dylan and Shakespeare authorized-and-unauthorized cogitation: The New School is holding a symposium on the 50th anniversary of the publication of Lolita, and I'm on a panel about Laura, and I've been thinking about what to say. Those who read my Slate columns can see how conflicted I was then about publishing Laura. I wanted Dmitri to make a decision, rather than leaving it to lawyers after his death. But I wasn't sure what his decision should be.
When he opted to publish (inspired, he's told us, by the ghostly reappearance of his father who fortuitously urged Dmitri to cash in on Laura), the decision was widely applauded. I'm sure I'll read the book when it's published. But it seems to me that all too many who considered the question seemed to dismiss the notion that Nabokov's request should be respected, finding all sorts of rationales. ("He should have burned it himself!") So many seem to think that because of Nabokov's greatness he deserves less respect, that he forfeited his right to have his last wishes carried out to a "posterity" greedy for any and all half-digested scraps from his table.
Why can't we respect his wish to erase a draft he didn't want to see the light of day? For all we know, it might, in its unfinished state, mislead us about Lolita and the rest of his canon.
It's probably too late, but I'm now thinking of calling for Dmitri to change his mind and carry out his father's wishes. Don't authorize a bootleg; burn it, Dmitri!
Ron Rosenbaum is the author of The Shakespeare Wars and Explaining Hitler. His latest book is How the End Begins: The Road to a Nuclear World War III.
Illustration by Rob Donnelly. Image of William Shakespeare on the Slate home page courtesy Wikipedia.