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.

The Original of Laura by Vladimir Nabokov.

It shouldn't be surprising that the forthcoming (Nov. 17) release of the long-locked-away Holy Grail of higher lit, Vladimir Nabokov's unfinished draft of The Original of Laura, is attended with an air of the clandestine.

In order to read the text now, one cannot simply order a review copy. One must enter the lobby of the Random House building (currently adorned with promotional cards for Dan Brown's The Lost Symbol)and ascend to the 21st floor, where, in an unused office, the only copy shown to outsiders reposes on a table. Once there, one is instructed that one can read it but must not (for several reasons, including a commitment to publish excerpts from the work in Playboy) disclose anything about it that has not previously appeared in print until the Playboy installment is on the stands.

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The restrictions were frustrating, but there was something thrillingly forbidden about my first encounter with Laura, whose text, as we shall see, I played no small part in bringing to light. And then there was the shocker on Page xix, which I've been allowed to disclose.

If Dan Brown's latest is The Lost Symbol,you might say Nabokov's Laura is The Last Symbols: his final written words, the draft he wanted burned if he died before completing it. The one that had been secreted away in a strongbox in a Swiss bank vault for decades. The one that existed in the form of 138 index cards, covered with his pencil-written prose. The one—and this is what made it so seductive, an object of worldwide fascination among littérateurs—that might contain a clue or clues, a code, for all we knew, that would offer new perspective on the often cryptic prose of past Nabokov masterpieces. Perhaps, through a glass darkly, we could glimpse the author's last reflections on the dazzling corpus that came before.

And so a numinous aura surrounded the object I beheld on the 21st floor—as if it were a newly discovered Dead Sea Scroll. And there was an aura of controversy as well.

It was a manuscript I sought to save from burning, then decided should be burned, and now burned to see, despite my reservations. One that held within it, I would soon discover, something that would come as an unexpectedly personal shock to me.

I burned to see it not because it would decode Nabokov's work. I don't believe that literature is something to be decoded in some Rosetta Stone-like fashion. I am a disciple of the "seven types of ambiguity" school of literary interpretation, which contends that mechanical, symbol-translating decoding reduces the potential efflorescence of a work's beauty and signification.

But ever since I learned about the existence and perilous fate of The Original of Laura, I wondered whether, even in its fragmentary state, it might disclose clues about the nature of a true object of wonder, mystery and intricacy: the mind of Vladimir Nabokov, perhaps seen for the first time in the process of creation, giving us a glimpse of the alchemy with which he transformed pencil lead to gold.

To me, Nabokov's mind is more worthy of wonder than any that has expressed itself in print in the four centuries since the birth of Shakespeare. (Curiously, the birthdays of both Shakespeare and Nabokov are celebrated on the very same day, April 23. Coincidence? Get Dan Brown on the case, stat: The April Apparitions?)                  

Seriously, I regard Nabokov's work, Nabokov's mind, as a labyrinth one could (and ideally should) get lost in for a lifetime. He possessed something, a gift, whose luminescence outshone that of other writers: It made them the palest of pale fire in comparison with his lightning flashes.

Once, as a child, I had a dream that someone was disclosing to me something I remember as "the secret of lightning." I woke up having forgotten the "secret" but never forgot the thrill of being close to that hidden knowledge. That's the way I feel when I read Nabokov. Encrypted within his words, encoded indecipherably, ambiguously, is the equivalent of the secret of lightning. Something akin to the secret code of higher human consciousness, the DNA, the genome of genius.

The Original of Laura was Nabokov's final novel, one he raced death to finish. Death won, and yet paradoxically, death, his final rival, puts in an appearance in what appears to be the subtitle: Dying Is Fun, which is rendered in the Knopf edition with parentheses around it, leaving an ambiguity as to whether it's an alternate title or just a subtitle with parentheses around it.

"Dying is fun"? Say what? It sounds so un-Nabokovian. And yet I think it is Nabokovian, in the context of the work, although I can't tell you why, now. Before I was permitted to gaze upon this early, unbound copy of the Knopf edition, I had to sign a three-page contract (including "Rider A," Parts 1 and 2) that the lawyers for Knopf had hammered out, mandating, if I interpret the legalese correctly, that I not reveal any aspects of the work that had not been previously disclosed. (Die Zeit,the German newspaper, had published photographs of several of the index cards last year.)

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