Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Nabokov's ghost

For whatever reason, and despite having read all the way through Brian Boyd's double tome on all things набокового, I missed the fact that the Original of Laura was still sitting in a Swiss vault. (Incidentally, I'm very proud of myself for resisting the temptation to call this the original of the Original of Laura.) The Slate piece on the subject isn't really worth a link, but I suppose I'll give it one, anyway. (It's an extended and whiny appeal, the contents of which you'll be able to guess later.) The basic plotline is this: Nabokov, in high literary dudgeon, left his final manuscript extant with orders for his wife to burn it. Apparently, she blinked, and left the task to their son Dmitri Nabokov instead. Dmitri, who seems to imagine himself a Nabokovian trickster, has issued a series of enigmatic statements about Laura, which situate it both within and without his father's literary legacy. It's now believed for various reasons that it'll be pyrotechnics for the manuscript, but he's also admitted to making a copy.

My initial reaction was along the lines of burn, baby, burn. The reason I like Nabokov is his insistence on the rights of the individual mind against the universe, his patent intolerance for determinism and any one who would deny our human ability to create and recreate our world. It seems an offense against the man's memory not to respect his last wishes, especially about his own novel.

And to some extent, this is still how I feel about it. But my bibliographic viscera are beginning to creep as I hear more about this story. I trust Nabokov to know what usually happens to writers' instructions after their deaths, and I have to wonder if this wasn't some sort of last puzzle, a final test for those who think they know Nabokov. Maybe the so-called Original of Laura is not a novel at all, but a roadmap for reading the other novels, or a final statement about what the hell really happened in Pale Fire, and all we have to do to get it in our grubby little hands is understand the joke.

Real prediction. Something else I've learned from bibliographic history: if there's one copy, there are five copies. Or possibly 10. D.V. Nabokov will die suddenly and at least one of these copies will reach the general public within a month. There will be the usual questions about the copy, whether it's a forgery, how closely it resembles the manuscript, and whether that letter there is an "a" or an "o" and an entire little factory of criticism will spring up over these questions and launch at least three or four careers. As an aspiring academic, it's hard to complain too much about this, although recording it this way doesn't put all of us in the best of lights, does it?

Posted by Shannon Chamberlain @ 2:13 PM