Nothing, but nothing, causes more posthumous difficulties for a writer’s heirs and friends than a request to burn a manuscript after death. It is a crystalline case of being damned if you do and damned if you don’t. The interested public wants one thing, and the departed loved one has demanded another. Adding to the complexity of the question is the hard-to-dispel thought that if the writer had, in the deepest recesses of her being, wanted to burn the manuscript, she would have done it herself. So the choice is between different kinds of betrayal, of the writer’s wishes or of the readers who are, now, that writer’s last chance of life. To burn the manuscript is to help the writer to die. But is that what she wanted…?
This profoundly unenviable dilemma has been faced by the friends and family of Franz Kafka, Philip Larkin, T.S. Eliot, Thomas Hardy, and, perhaps apocryphally, Virgil. When an heir succumbs to the temptation to burn something—as Ted Hughes did with some of Sylvia Plath’s papers, on the not unreasonable grounds that there were things there he did not want her children to read—the burner is inevitably excoriated. It is a subject that gets people, and the literary imagination, going, from Henry James in The Aspern Papers to Hermann Broch in The Death of Virgil (a strong candidate for least readable alleged masterpiece in the European canon).
In recent years we have learned that it was also a dilemma being experienced by Dmitri Nabokov, Vladimir Nabokov’s only child. He inherited from his mother Vera the burden of responsibility for burning the manuscript of the book Nabokov was working on at the time of his death in 1977. A piece by Ron Rosenbaum in 2005 drew more general attention to the fact of the book’s existence in a Swiss bank vault, and so for some time now Dmitri has been in the hard position of publicly having to decide whether to fulfill his father’s wishes.
The publication of The Original of Laura shows that Dmitri eventually made up his mind to publish the book. (Incidentally, Dmitri objects to being called Dmitri: “People the world over find themselves on a first-name basis with me as they empathize with ‘Dmitri’s dilemma.’” The trouble is that it’s hard to know what else to call him, while also distinguishing him from his distinguished father. So for the purposes of this article, Dmitri it will have to be. Sorry, Dmitri.)
The introduction explains that in 1975 Nabokov had an accident while out butterfly hunting. “My father had fallen on a hillside in Davos while pursuing his beloved pastime of entomology, and had gotten stuck in an awkward position on the steep slope as cabin-carloads of tourists responded with guffaws, misinterpreting as a holiday prank the cries for help and waves of a butterfly net.” His health never fully recovered, and a sequence of hospital stays …