Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The Original of Laura, by Vladimir Nabokov

A Review of Vladimir Nabokov’s

Originally published in the Rain Taxi Review of Books, Winter 2009/2010

The Original of Laura
By Vladimir Nabokov
Edited by Dmitri Nabokov
Knopf ($35)

In his aptly titled collection of interviews and essays, Strong Opinions, Vladimir Nabokov declaimed, “Only ambitious nonentities and hearty mediocrities exhibit their rough drafts. It is like passing around samples of one’s sputum.” A relentlessly productive artist, Nabokov was sure to be working on something when he died, and in the last two years of his life, in the face of rapidly failing health, he feverishly composed what he intended to be his final novel, The Original of Laura, which in the time-honored fashion of genius perfectionists, he insisted that his family burn if he was unable to complete.

Out of emotional inertia and admiration for the last fragments of her husband’s precious work, Nabokov’s widow, VĂ©ra, found herself unable to carry out his wishes, and when she died in 1991, the task fell to Nabokov’s son and sole heir, Dmitri. As his father’s literary executor, Dmitri Nabokov has wrestled ever since with what to do with the unfinished novel, and now at age seventy-five, just a few years younger than when his father died, he’s finally decided to publish the work and ease our minds about what he half-jokingly calls “Dmitri’s dilemma.”

As described in several interviews, as well in his much-overlooked final masterpiece, Look at the Harlequins!, Nabokov had a peculiar way of composing his novels: After conceiving of the whole work in his head, he’d write it out longhand on index cards, variously working on different parts at his whim as the whole thing slowly expanded to near-hypertextual perfection. He only left 138 index cards for The Original of Laura, however, leaving the text at nowhere near the level of finish of so many other famously uncompleted works (Vergil’s Aeneid, for example, or the Marquis de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom, or any of Kafka’s three novels). Not wanting to make any editorial decisions about his father’s work, Dmitri has lovingly reproduced every card in this present volume—in printed form as well as in facsimile, with perforations so we can take out and shuffle the fragments to our liking—giving us an unprecedented view into Nabokov’s working mind.

In the novel’s first several chapters, the first two of which come the closest to achieving Nabokovian polish, a writer (probably named Ivan Vaughan) lyrically describes (in perhaps a memoir) the true story of Flora, with whom he had an affair that was the inspiration for his bestselling novel, My Laura. Flora is ruthlessly mercenary and is married to a fat, famous, and independently wealthy neurologist named Philip Wild, whom she incessantly cheats on and seems to despise. In the awesome opening chapter, the narrator constructs a dizzyingly elliptical description of meeting her at a party, taking her to an obliging couple’s house for a comically cold (but nonetheless powerfully erotic and brilliantly evoked) sexual tryst, and then attempting the next day to assure a continued connection, which she assents to while making sure to keep him at arm’s length.

The second chapter flashes back to describe Flora’s ancestry and childhood, particularly focusing on her experiences with her mother’s elderly and overly familiar but essentially harmless lover, a wine smuggler who goes by the hilarious assumed name Hubert H. Hubert. While this chapter is quite rich and well constructed, certain details (such as the conspicuous use of the word “omoplate,” which also appears in the first chapter) suggest that Nabokov would have continued to scrutinize it. Then a later fragment expanding Flora’s words about her husband at the novels’ opening party scene seems as if it were meant to be incorporated into a later draft of the already gorgeous first chapter. Subsequent chapters follow Flora’s youth and eventual marriage to Wild, who in various later fragments seems to be referred to as Nigel Dalling (or Delling) and A.N.D., with each chapter more fragmentary and tentative than the last.

About halfway into the book the numbered chapters end, and—as perhaps shuffled by the younger Nabokov—Wild suddenly becomes the narrator of several extremely significant chapters and fragments. The fat, aging, unhappy, but visionary Wild spends a few heartbreakingly vivid sections describing his relationship to Flora, but mostly he recounts his experiments with a kind of cognitive visualization technique that temporarily allows him to kill off parts of his loathed body and enjoy more and more non-existence with each successive attempt. Later fragments describe contradictory approaches and experiences, but the the most vivid and chilling is the initial account, where he slowly imagines more and more of his lower extremities into nonexistence and then back into existence again—and then one day decides not to imagine back his toes. Opening his eyes, his toes are still there, but when he stands up, he falls immediately because his toes have no feeling at all, and then later that night they simply slough off.

The novel’s subtitle—which isn’t printed on the cover and strangely isn’t mentioned anywhere in the text—is “(Dying is Fun),” and as the fragments of The Original of Laura continue to fragment, there’s a fascinating contrast between the neurologist with the unwanted body serenely moving toward self-effacement and the bibliologist with the failing body (Nabokov, not Vaughan) desperately struggling to bring one more novel up into existence. The varied and fragmenting contrasts between the novel’s three main characters—Vaughan and Wild’s terribly sad longings (partially for Flora and then for something either within or beyond themselves) and Flora’s elusive loneliness that in one later fragment manifests itself as religious devotion—also form a deeply moving dynamic that becomes even more evocative as its kaleidoscopic index-card maze swirls into nothingness.

It’s wholly unclear how Nabokov would have woven together the circling strands of this final work’s DNA, but even though the completed Look at the Harlequins! serves as a perfect summation of a master at full power while also resigning himself to having exhausted his strength—“mumbling comfortably, dropping off, mumble dying away”—The Original of Laura sincerely adds to his legacy and attests to a true genius whom only death could stop from creating.

David Wiley