So now we have Vladimir Nabokov’s posthumous opus, The Original of Laura, with two subtitles, “(Dying Is Fun)” and “A novel in fragments,” neither chosen by the author. It is the book Nabokov was working on, some of it in the hospital, during his last time on earth. As was his habit, he wrote on 3 x 5 inch index cards, reaching 138, and corresponding to, as has been estimated, forty-five pages of print. Otherwise put, nowhere near a finished novel.
Nabokov had asked his wife, Vera, to burn the cards if he did not get to finish the novel, but, we read, “her failure to perform was rooted in procrastination—procrastination due to age, weakness, and immeasurable love.” In his introduction, Nabokov’s son, Dmitri, invokes comparisons to Coleridge and Kafka that do not hold. Even in its unfinished state, what “the person from Porlock” interrupted—“Kubla Khan” —is still a major poem. And the works that Max Brod, despite Kafka’s instructions, chose not to destroy but publish are most of Kafka’s greatest masterpieces.
I am not for burning anything a major writer leaves behind unfinished, but it strikes me that the little that is left here belongs more properly in an archive or limited university-press edition than in Knopf’s greatly heralded, largely holographic, deluxe publication. These cards are merely an interesting mess. Whereas as a novel they are as unfinished as can be, they do leave my esteem for Nabokov the man, as different but not entirely distinct from the writer, pretty much finished.
There is of course no need for an artist to be a fine human being, otherwise the pantheon for the likes of Wagner and Brecht would be the doghouse. But it can be argued that Brecht and Wagner were better at keeping their inhuman humanity, consciously or unconsciously, out of most of their work. In Nabokov’s, it fulgurates. But then, can we really blame a writer aware of his approaching end from indulging his favorite quirks along with his qualities?
Whatever Laura may be, it is certainly a receptacle for Nabokov’s contempt for most human beings, his jealousy of most other writers, and his indulging in favorite erotic fantasies. He greatly enjoyed having a young, even teen-aged, heroine tormenting an older lover, usually by sadistically eliciting not unjustified pangs of jealousy, as, for example, in Laughter in the Dark and, of course, Lolita. As for Nabokov’s begrudging others even nonliterary celebrity, take only his digs at, say, Albert Schweitzer (“Dr. Swissair of Lumbago”) and Freud, here referred to as “a certain Dr. Freud, a madman.”
We have in The Original of Laura an indolent, promiscuous, bisexual, beautiful young married woman, Flora, wife to the much older neurologist, Philip Wild. Someone writes a roman à clef about them, in which Philip Wild is Philidor Sauvage and Flora is Laura, whom the narrator-lover, whoever he is, ends up by annihilating “in the act of portraying her.” That Flora even gets to read about Laura’s allegedly hilarious demise implies the sort of manipulation Nabokov was toying with in the (for me greatly overrated) Pale Fire.
When of Lolita’s age, Flora was very nearly seduced by a fat pedophile of the “name, no doubt assumed … Hubert H. Hubert.” As David Gates aptly remarks in his preponderantly laudatory notice in The New York Times Book Review, the name suggests “that Nabokov is either (best case) winking at his readers or (worst case) running out of ideas.”
For a sample of fancy footwork in Laura, consider the following:
Mr. Hubert … constantly ‘prowled’ (rodait) around her, humming a monotonous tune and sort of mesmerising her, envelopping [sic] her, so to speak, in some sticky invisible substance and coming closer and closer no matter what way she turned. For instance she did not dare to let her arms hang aimlessly lest her knuckles came into contact with some horrible part of that kindly but smelly and “pushing” old male.
To be noted here (as will presently become clearer) is how, with age, Nabokov became self-indulgently smuttier as well as nastier. Thus the smelliness of his Fat Men (Philip is fat too) recurs with obsessive frequency, whether of the entire person or of some body part, certainly Philip’s tiny feet, which the Fat Man wishes even tinier, dreaming of cutting off his toes. In the introduction, Dmitri points to the painful inflammation under Vladimir’s toenails and other biographical parallels.
Aspects of Nabokov’s fiction are often very loose, disguised autobiography, making one wonder about the several prurient passages even in these few fragments. Here is Philip Wild dreaming of an early, pre-Flora schoolboy sweetheart, Aurora Lee, similar to the Annabel Leigh of Lolita, both fusions of young persons’ names in Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Edgar Allan Poe:
I lifted the hem of your dress … and stroked, moulded, pinched ever so softly your pale prominent nates, while you stood perfectly still as if considering new possibilities of power and pleasure and interior decoration. At the height of your guarded ecstasy I thrust my cupped hand from behind between your consenting thighs and felt the seat-stuck folds of a long scrotum and then, further in front, the droop of a short member. Speaking as an authority on dreams, I wish to add that this was no homosexual manifestation but a splendid example of terminal gynandrism. Young Aurora Lee (who was to be axed and chopped up at seventeen by an idiot lover, all glasses and beard) and half-impotent old Wild formed for a moment one creature. But quite apart from that, in a disgusting and delicious sense, her little bottom, so smooth, so moonlit, a replica in fact of her twin brother’s charms, sampled rather brutally on my last night at boarding school, remained inset in the medal[l]ion of every following day.
Note some special Nabokovian devices. One is time-tripping in one paragraph forward to the shocking future death of Aurora, bracketed with a ludicrous description of the murderer “all glasses and beard,” then also backward to a rather shocking revelation of sadistic boarding-school sex.
Another device is the comic non sequitur of Flora, during sex, contemplating power, pleasure, and interior decoration. Further, the picking of recondite terms—nates (why not simply buttocks?), gynandrism (why not hermaphroditism?)—for what could have been just as good or better everyday ones.
Take now the description of an actual conjugal sex act, the brackets, as elsewhere, denoting a lacuna or a helpful addition or emendation by Dmitri:
The only way he could possess her was in the most [ ] position of copulation: he reclining on cushions, she sitting in the fauteuil of his flesh with her back to him. The procedure—a few bounces over very small humps—meant nothing to her [.] She looked at the snow-scape on the footboard of the bed—at the [curtains]; and he holding her in front of him like a child being given a sleighride down a short slope by a kind stranger, he saw her back, her hip[s] between his hands.
In this faceless sex, which gets compared to that of toads and tortoises, we are promptly struck by the repellent image of “the fauteuil of his flesh.” Next, by the incongruous footboard (analogous to the “interior decoration” as callous cynosure in the previously quoted passage) highly unlikely anywhere except in some godforasaken Tyrolean inn. Then by the contemptuous “few bounces over very small bumps,” and the stranger-and-child image that does provoke suspicion. In yet another sex scene, the girl has “the mobile omoplates of a tubbed child,” which, besides the pretentious synonym for shoulder blades, again associates sex with a real or imagined child.
To be sure, pedophile fantasies do not necessarily make one a pedophile. So in his review of the novel in The New York Review of Books, John Lanchester rejects the notion of Nabokov “hopelessly in the grip of pedophilia,” and proffers the idea that “he was sketching out a fictional structure that was playing with the prurient responses to Lolita and with the general belief that fictions are always dependent on biographical facts.” Surely not always, but perhaps after Humbert Humbert, Clare Quilty, Hubert Hubert, Philip Wild, and whatever others I may be overlooking.
Time now to turn from the sexual Nabokov to the literary critical one. We get a reference to Flora’s reading at a northern college (such as, by the way, Nabokov taught at), extracts “in a St Leger d’Exuperse [sic] series of Les great representant [sic] de notre epoque though why great represent[atives] wrote so badly remained a mystery[.]” Nabokov does not bother with accent marks or careful punctuation; what interests him is his little game of compacting Saint-John Perse (real name Alexis Saint Léger Léger) and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry into a portmanteau sneer.
A bit later we read:
As to the lady who taught French Literature [ , ] all she needed were the names of modern French writers and their listing on Flora’s palm caused a much denser tickle [.] Especially memorable was the cluster of interlocked names on the ball of Flora’s thumb: Malraux, Mauriac, Maurois, Michaux, Michima [sic], Montherland [sic] and Morand. What amazes one is not the alliteration (a joke on the part of a mannered alphabet); nor the inclusion of a foreign performer (a joke on the part of that fun loving little Japanese [girl] who would twist her limbs into a pretzel when entertaining Flora’s lesbian friends); and not even the fact that virtually all those writers were stunning mediocrities as writers go (the first in the list being the worst); what amazes one is that they were supposed to ‘repre- sent an era’ and that such representants could get away with the most execrable writing, provided they represent their times.
Typically, Nabokov strikes out in all directions. What is a “denser tickle” when Flora, as a trot, writes those names on her palm? How many names can be listed on the ball of a girl’s thumb? Why would all these names begin with M? A joke by a mannered alphabet, whatever that is, or the whim of a mannered writer? Mishima, even in a Gallic spelling, does not belong, but Nabokov makes fun of the fun-loving teacher supposedly of Japanese origin, although we have been told previously that only her stepfather was part, not even wholly, Japanese. Why is Montherlant misspelled “Montherland”? Out of sloppiness, patronizing indifference, or the sake of a jeering parallel with Morand?
Then again, why are “virtually” all these M writers “stunning mediocrities”? And why the “virtually”? Who is exempt and why? Note also that representing an era is only a strategy for getting away with execrable writing. Finally that “supposed”—these poor scribblers were not even true representants, lowly as that is, only supposititious ones.
Granted that this novel is in jottings, and Nabokov might have, given time, clarified and improved everything. But if that everything is so tentative, so imperfect, does it justify such posh publication? And when are we going to get Nabokov’s laundry lists?
I am not interested in the guessing game about how this novel would have shaped up. Anyone interested may read the reviews of Gates and Lanchester and whatever other ones. My interest is in what is, not in what might have been. And, sure enough, what I find most interesting about the book is covered by its posthumous subtitle “(Dying is Fun).” It is the subplot about Philip Wild’s gamesmanship with death, clearly important to the protractedly ill author who, vain as he is, finds comfort in pretending that death is somehow self-imposed.
Here it is useful to quote Gates. Philip Wild is writing “‘a mad neurologist’s testament’ of which we get extracts in his own voice. He tells of having somehow ‘hit upon the art of thinking away my body, my being, my mind itself.’ He achieves this self-deletion by putting himself in a trance state, projecting ‘a mental image of himself upon his inner blackboard,’ then mentally erasing it.’ To break the trance all you do is to restore in every chalkbright details [sic] the simple picture of yourself.”
Fine, but Gates does not include the passage on the locus of this inner blackboard, permitting a “process of dying by auto-dissolution … the greatest ecstasy known to man.” This “incredible delight,” Nabokov writes, has a “surface which at its virgin best has a dark-plum, rather than black, depth of opacity is none other than the underside of one’s closed eyelids.” So there is the source of the “miraculous dissolution” that Philip rhapsodizes over. You daydream your death in a lidded trance that isn’t forced upon you but from which you can rally at will, even though it is “an enrichissement [sic] of delicious dissolution (what a miraculous appropriate noun!)” Let all of us be granted this fun method of demise.
The casual sprinkling of exhibitionist French brings us to the great question of just how magisterial is Nabokov’s English—what makes him, with Joseph Conrad, allegedly one of the two proclaimed foreign-born masters of English prose. It behooves us now to refer to Nabokov’s book of collected criticisms, Strong Opinions. There he dismisses, even if their names do not begin with M, “such people as Conan Doyle, Kipling, Joseph Conrad, Chesterton, Oscar Wilde, and other authors who are essentially writers for very young people.” He repeats what he has “well said somewhere before. I differ from Joseph Conradically.” Conrad had not been writing in his native tongue before, Nabokov instances, as if that made any damaging difference. “Secondly, I cannot stand today his polished clichés and primitive clashes,” with the grand wordplay on clichés and clashes.
Nabokov then mocks Conrad for having written “he preferred Mrs. Garnett’s translation of Anna Karenin [note the not unfounded but pedantic discarding of the customary “Karenina”] to the original! This makes one dream—‘ça fait rêver’ as Flaubert used to say when faced with some abysmal stupidity.” So, for one false move, Conrad is knocked out of the ring by a Nabokov uppercut. And more:
Ever since the days when such formidable mediocrities as Galsworthy, Dreiser, a person called Tagore, another called Maxim Gorky, a third called Romain Rolland used to be accepted as geniuses, I have been perplexed and amused by fabricated notions about so-called “great books.” That, for instance, Mann’s asinine Death in Venice or Pasternak’s melodramatic and vilely written Zhivago or Faulkner’s corncobby chronicles can be considered “masterpieces,” or at least what journalists call “great books,” is to me an absurd delusion, as when a hypnotized person makes love to a chair.
You will note the unhypnotized sobriety of this judgment, which may have some partial validity but is hugely arrogant. To be noted too is the elucubrated wordplay and the belt-and-suspenders quotation given in both French and English. We finally get Nabokov’s honors list “in this order: Joyce’s Ulysses, Kafka’s Transformation [note the affected dismissal of the customary Metamorphosis], Biely’s Petersburg, and the first half of Proust’s fairy tale In Search of Lost Time.” This last is the justified emendation of a misleading English title, but note the belittling “first half” and “fairy tale,” with the pun on “fairy.”
There are in The Original of Laura disturbingly misused words: “bevy [sic] of flowers,” “a tropical race [sic] of birch,” and “pushing” for pushy. There are rather too numerous misspellings: irresistable, stomack, ressemble, surprized, erazed, curiousity, rolly-polly. They can perhaps be excused by haste. More offensive to me is the ferreting out of abstruse synonyms and excogitation of gratuitous neologisms: prefectory, librarious, volupty, cowardness, mis-clothing, pedicule, entoptic, inguen, templet. There is much smartass stuff of which poor, stupid Conrad is innocent. But the halo of greatest foreign-born writer of English must crown Nabokov alone.
It is touching that in these economically challenged times Knopf could bring out such a luxurious edition of The Original of Laura. No expenditure was spared on the binding—full linen with laser-copied quotations from the book. Also extra-thick tinted paper and reproduction in color of every last quirk of the handwritten index cards (even their mostly blank backs), with their content repeated underneath in clear print. The cards are detachable, so we can easily extract and rearrange them in whatever order we think Nabokov might eventually have arrived at. The only trouble is that they can then no longer be reinserted into the book.
Well, in Strong Opinions Nabokov refers to John Shade in his Pale Fire as “by far the greatest of invented poets.” Similarly, The Origin of Laura may be by far the greatest of novels in fragments.
- The Original of Laura, by Vladimir Nabokov; Knopf, 279 pages, $35. Go back to the text.