A sneak peek at Nabokov's Original of Laura.

Scrutinizing culture.
Sept. 24 2009 10:57 AM

The Nabokov Code

A first encounter with Laura, his last, unfinished work.

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I can tell you, however, that the subtitle Dying Is Fun is deadly serious in a deeply disturbing way. Talk about your "death panels"! There have been hints of the book's dark tone in print, but wait till you see what's on these index cards. If I can't disclose any of the words of the text (except the shocker on Page xix), I'd like to talk about my fascination with the "un-words," the unreadable, scrawled-out effacements, erasures and deletions, apparently made in the process of composition: The Dead Sea Scrawls, you might say, of the Nabokov canon.

But first I have to do a little backtracking here on my attitude toward the publication of The Original of Laura. The saga began when Nabokov found himself fighting death in Switzerland in 1977. As he raced to finish Laura, he burdened his beloved wife, Véra, with a terrible task, enjoining her to burn the draft if he died before it was done. She couldn't bring herself to do it. She was the one, after all, who had saved the manuscript of Lolita (far more complete and polished) from the incinerator when Nabokov wanted to burn that one.

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When Véra died in 1991, the task fell to his sole surviving heir, Dmitri Nabokov. For a while, Dmitri put off a decision, tucking the index cards away in a Swiss safe deposit vault. Occasionally he would make pronouncements about the work being unlike anything his father had done before, offering a new way of looking at his father's work. And the contents of a few cards had found their way into print in obscure Nabokov journals. But little notice was taken of what the safe deposit box held, and many Nabokovians were unaware or only marginally aware of its existence.

And then a certain writer—OK, it was me—started badgering Dmitri to make a decision. No response.

Then, two years later, I was prompted to return to the subject by some casual but ominous-sounding remarks Dmitri made to an interviewer from Nabokov online magazine. He'd been so incensed by the psychological speculations about his father in certain biographies that he threatened to cast the manuscript of Laura into the flames so that it would never be subject to the molestation of academics.

That second public plea to Dmitristruck a chord, echoed far and wide, from here to St. Petersburg, down to Australia, provoking contentious literary debate. ("Burn it!" Tom Stoppard told the London Times. "Save it," countered novelist John Banville.)

Dmitri did not seem averse to the spotlight of publicity that shone upon him as it became more generally known that he was in possession of the final work, however unfinished, of the greatest writer of our time. And that he had the power to burn it or bestow it on the world.

But when word came that Dmitri was thinking of having the manuscript published after all, I found myself more conflicted, even going so far as to suggest on one panel that he should burn the book—that his father's wishes deserved respect. And so I wrote a second piece airing these conflicts.

Dmitri was not entirely happy with this change of heart, especially after he inked a deal with Knopf to publish the book.

I must admit that when an interviewer asked me about it, I expressed conflict over whether I should even read Laura at all. After all, I had eventually arrived at the position that V.N.'s wishes should be obeyed and Laura should be a pile of ashes.

Instead, there it was, a hefty physical object, truly unusual in more than one respect. Knopf and presumably Dmitri have scanned the 138 index cards and presented them one to a page, in perforated detachable form. There's a transcription by Dmitri below each card. You could detach the cards and shuffle them if you wanted to, although this form implies more randomness than the careful numbering, renumbering, and lettering V.N. has penciled in on most of the cards suggests. And if you were to remove all the cards, the hardbound book would look like a ghost town with all the windows punched in. But you have to admire the daring: The book's form will allow readers to hold the cards in their hands the way V.N. must have, at one time or another, as he neared completion of this draft.

Needless to say I couldn't resist reading it. I plunged into reading the cards themselves. It was only when I took a break from trying to follow the multiple characters and their fictional incarnations—Laura, as previous reports have suggested, is the title of a novel within the novel; the "original" of Laura is the character the novel was based on—that I flipped to the acknowledgements page in the front matter, and discovered the shocker on Page xix.

There was a list of six people thanked, and the last was:

"Ron Rosenbaum, who could not have set off a better publicity campaign if it had been planned (it was not)."

I was floored. Did I detect a slight edge to the mention? "A publicity campaign"? I suppose there's some truth to that; I did want what I wrote to generate publicity, first one way and then the other. And looking back upon the entire saga—Dmitri's threats to burn the manuscript, my plea that he not, his changing his mind and deciding to publish, my changing my mind and deciding it was wrong to—I can see how our exchanges kept the drama and suspense going in a way they might not have otherwise.