Monday, November 30, 2009

Weighing in on Laura, two weeks too late

It’s too late to add anything new to the debate surrounding The Original of Laura.

The final (incomplete) work of Lolita author Vladimir Nabokov has been on book store shelves for more than two weeks now, and was a popular discussion topic for years before that.

The question amongst the literati is not if Laura is good or bad. In fact, it’s too far from finished to be anything more than interesting.

The question is should Laura even exist.

Nabokov asked the story, which only exists as 138 index cards with fragments of ideas scrawled upon them, be burnt after his death. The request in itself is not unusual. Franz Kafka asked his friend Max Brod to destroy his unfinished works. (Brod couldn’t bring himself to do it.) Nabokov even threatened to burn his classic Lolita, but his wife prevented him.

It was the same wife, Vera, who Nabokov charged with burning Laura after he died. She could not bring herself to do it. Nor could she bring herself to profit from it. The decision eventually fell to their son Dmitri Nabokov.

Dmitri doesn’t smell like a profiteer. He has protected the fidelity of his father’s work. He hasn’t sewn Vladimir’s words together into some revisionary piece as Hemingway’s grandson did. He has even included facsimiles of the index cards, so readers can sequence them in the order they think Vladimir intended.

Naturally, Dmitri’s decision to publish Laura has its critics.

Tom Stoppard said, “It’s perfectly straightforward: Nabokov wanted it burnt, so burn it ... At best, it’s natural curiosity – personally, I’d love to read Nabokov’s last work, but since he didn’t want me to read it, I won’t – and it’s hardly modest to make one’s own desire more important than his.”

Aleksandar Hemon compared Laura’s release to publishing someone’s grocery list.

No one can convince me that Vladimir Nabokov would be OK with the release of Laura, in this form or any other. As Hemon notes, Nabokov once wrote, “An artist should ruthlessly destroy his manuscripts after publication, lest they mislead academic mediocrities into thinking that it is possible to unravel the mysteries of genius by studying cancelled readings. In art, purpose and plan are nothing; only the results count.”

But I wouldn’t criticize Dmitri Nabokov for his decision.

Dmitri said he chose not to burn Laura because “if it happens nobody will ever have a chance to read it.”

But I don’t think Dmitri did this for others. He did this for himself.

Perhaps, Dmitri could not live with the thought of burning Laura. It is, after all, much easier to give the order than to be the hatchet man.

Maybe it’s my agnostic nature, but I don’t think Vladimir Nabokov is looking up or down from his place in the afterlife and shaking his fist at Dmitri. Who cares what Vladimir Nabokov would think of Laura’s release? He is not here to think it.

Dmitri made a difficult decision, a decision that could not satisfy everyone. While it may have public ramifications, it was still a personal matter. This is a man trying to decide what to do with a piece of his father’s legacy. With all due respect to Hemon and Stoppard, this does not involve them.

-Jason Lea,



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