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.

(Continued from Page 2)

It certainly increased awareness, curiosity, anticipation, and the manuscript's worldwide value as a commodity when it had not previously been much in the spotlight.

And I think Dmitri appreciated my genuine empathy for his Hamlet-like dilemma. I think the claim could be made that Slate saved Laura. Because, if Dmitri had not been prodded to make a decision and—God forbid—succumbed to illness before he did, for all we know the estate might have felt compelled to carry out Vladimir's original wishes or kept the manuscript accessible only to a few academics, a fate worse than death.

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But what of my reservations? My late-breaking fealty to Nabokov's wishes? Could they be wiped out by this generous gesture?

In a word, yes.

What can I say? The act has already been done, committed. And I had been conflicted, and I had devoted considerable time to something that might have ended up a pile of ashes. And I am certainly glad there are no lingering bad feelings on Dmitri's part. Still: The part of me that agonized about whether the book should be published wonders, Was I wrong or was I right? Will the vengeful ghost of Vladimir Nabokov haunt me from now on?

What may have tipped my thinking on the subject was the sight of Nabokov's scrawl-outs. Somehow, without giving the impression that he was frenetically trying to conceal his process, he has completely obscured various words and phrases that it appears he's altered or deleted from the text. These fragments are all but impossible to decipher beneath the scrolling, spiraling curls of his scrawls, which look like Slinkys (although I know that many in future years will try).

It was pretty remarkable. I spent a lot of time trying to make anything out, and I swear the only effacement I may have deciphered occurs in the faint shadow of the erased smudge on the index card on Page 233. It's not in Dmitri's transcript, and V.N. himself obviously decided he didn't want it there (at the time, anyway), but I thought I could make out two words in the deletion the transcript may have missed: "the coded."   

I'm not going to go in a Dan Brown direction with this and try to solve some literary mystery, however tempting it is (The Nabokov Code!). I just couldn't avoid noting it (perhaps for future editions).

No, the indecipherable scrawls moved me for a different reason. I'd known about them from the photos in Die Zeit, of course, but this time they struck me more deeply. They were evidence of the drama inherent in the creative process, a process whose heart is revision. I devoted a substantial portion of The Shakespeare Wars to the scholarly controversy over whether Shakespeare revised his play scripts. Ben Jonson famously said that Shakespeare never "blotted out a line," but a substantial case has been made in recent years that he did rewrite on occasion, sometimes altering single words or phrases, sometimes making more substantial edits.

Shakespeare's revisions (and Nabokov's) matter for two reasons. Revision indicated that even these writers shouldn't be considered godlike figures from whom the muse poured forth perfection on the first try, but writers who are—in some ways—like other writers, in at least this respect: They were subject to second thoughts. And distinguishing what those second thoughts might have been and why they focused on rethinking this or that word or phrase or scene offers a window into the meaning of the work.

But—and this is the second but not secondary meaning of the blottings out—revisions also offer a window into the humanity of the author. That even the greatest of geniuses (and yes, I believe the term is valid for these two) were not superhuman; they live in the same world of error and doubt that the rest of us inhabit. The fact that they think they've made "mistakes" makes their work even more perfect than it would be if they never blotted a line or scratched out a word.

And it would be an error on my part if I didn't close by saying: Thank you, Dmitri.

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