Magnum Photos

Vladimir Nabokov, Montreux, Switzerland, 1966; photograph by Philippe Halsman

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, 1 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 ensued. He worked on The Original of Laura until his death two years later. He asked Vera to burn the book on his death, but when he finally succumbed to his illness, she found that she couldn’t.

A whole set of circumstances must have conspired to make the task of burning the book, always difficult, into something unthinkable. A thread of loss runs through the story of Nabokov’s life and work: the murder of his father in 1922, the death of his mother in Nazi-occupied Prague in 1939, the death of his brother Sergei in Neuengamme concentration camp in 1945. Perhaps the purest loss of all was his exile from Russia, a banishment from an entirely secure childhood world that brought linguistic displacement, physical displacement, fear of the future, and material struggle. Nabokov, a man who made a point of seeming psychologically and artistically invulnerable, and who clung to so much through his memory and his insistence on pattern, was as deeply mired in the sense of loss as any artist of the twentieth century. It would have been hard to inflict another posthumous loss on him.

In addition, Vera had reason to know that Nabokov’s wishes to immolate his own work were not always correct. She had twice prevented him from burning the manuscript of Lolita: prevented him not by arguing him out of it but by taking it out of his hands when he was on the way to the incinerator at their house in Ithaca. On her death in 1991, Dmitri took over as the person who had to decide what to do with The Original of Laura. He found his closeness to his parents a great comfort as he tried to work out an answer:

I have said and written more than once that, to me, my parents, in a sense, had never died but lived on, looking over my shoulder in a kind of virtual limbo, available to offer a thought or counsel to assist me with a vital decision, whether a mot juste or a more mundane concern.

In the end, to the reader, the choice seems simple—far simpler than it ever could to the family entrusted with the task. It would have been impossible to burn the manuscript.


Before I come to the book itself, a few words about the condition of Nabokov studies, thirty-two years after his death. As Alan Bennett has pointed out, not all writers have fans, as opposed to readers; Evelyn Waugh, for instance, has readers, while Anthony Powell and Henry Green have fans. (Eliot has readers, Joyce has fans; Gertrude Stein fans, Edith Wharton readers. And so on.) The existence of fans is off-putting for civilian readers, and can also have a distorting effect on the way an oeuvre is read—can make it seem exclusive, clubby, a matter of specific narrow preoccupations.

Nabokov has always been the kind of writer who has fans. In addition, like most writers at this point of their posthumous life, his work has taken up residence in the academy. The effect of these two concurrent trends is, I think, regrettable: they make Nabokov’s oeuvre seem narrower, more purely intellectual, more obsessive than it is. The simplest and perhaps most enduring reason for reading Nabokov is that his work is so full of sensual detail, and those sensual details are so precisely and vividly evoked, that his writing becomes, in the words of Martin Amis, “the nearest thing to pure sensual pleasure that prose can offer.”

Academic writing isn’t like that. In addition, academic studies tend by their nature to concentrate their attention on specific aspects of Nabokov’s oeuvre, and tend to establish that Nabokov knew an outlandish amount about almost everything. In the case of two recent books, The Sublime Artist’s Studio by Gavriel Shapiro and The Quill and the Scalpel by Stephen H. Blackwell, 2 they establish clearly that Nabokov knew a surprising amount about, respectively, painting, especially Old Master painting, and science—and they establish that knowledge with sanity and energy, and no hint of the presence of Charles Kinbote, the crazy enthusiast who takes over the task of annotating John Shade’s work in Pale Fire, and who presides over Nabokov studies like Banquo’s ghost. But the contrast between academic prose and the writing of their subject is so great, and the contrast between the studies’ necessary narrowness and Nabokov’s broadness is so large, that these serious, sober, worthwhile books also feel as if they are interring him ever more deeply.

This isn’t to say that there hasn’t been good writing about Nabokov: to my mind, one of the most enlightening literary-critical books of recent years was Michael Wood’s 1994 study The Magician’s Doubts: Nabokov and the Risks of Fiction. In it, Wood both made a convincing case for the centrality of the idea of loss in Nabokov’s life and fiction and proposed a tool for reading Nabokov that I find I haven’t been able to get out of my mind since. Wood talked about the distinction between what he called “signature” and “style” in writing, with special reference to Nabokov. “Signature” was his term for writing marked by its author’s voice, immediately and unmistakably his; “style” his term for a less immediately identifiable, richer, subtler thread in the work:

A literary signature would then be the visible shorthand for a literary person; a style would be a more complex but still legible trace of that person’s interaction with the world. Writers usually have more signature than style, I think. Signature is their habit and their practise, their mark; style is something more secretive, more thoroughly dispersed among the words, a reflection of luck or grace, or of a moment when signature overcomes or forgets itself.

Nabokov’s signature is a small part of what his fans like about him; I confess that I am one of them. It’s also, perhaps, part of what can put non-fans off. One example might be from one of Nabokov’s most famous flashes of brilliance, Humbert Humbert’s memory of his mother in Lolita: “My very photogenic mother died in a freak accident (picnic, lightning) when I was three.” It’s hard not to be dazzled by the parenthesis, which is pure signature; but the heart of the sentence, its moment of style, is in the quieter and much less prominent word “photogenic.” You realize that Humbert knows his mother only from photographs. The sentence’s quiet poetry is the poetry of loss.


The distinction between signature and style is strongly present in The Original of Laura, though it’s not what the reader notices first. The cover of the book calls it “a novel in fragments,” but it would have been more accurate to call it “fragments of a novel.” The manuscript consists of 138 index cards, handwritten on one side only. I’d say the piece is less than ten thousand words long. My first thought, on looking at the first few pages, was that the manuscript was in a chaotic state and had better been left unpublished—which is, on a further reading, not the right conclusion. But it drew my attention to a further dilemma for Dmitri, which is that it is only by failing to fulfill his father’s request that he could have proved the request correct. Only by not burning do you provide the proof that burning would have been the right thing. I am happy to be able to report that this final bitter paradox does not apply in the case of The Original of Laura.

Picking up the book, you can immediately see that it’s a fragment of text: the edition is a facsimile of both the fronts and backs of Nabokov’s handwritten index cards with a transcription beneath. The facsimiles of the cards are also perforated so that, as a note on the text explains, they “can be removed and rearranged, as the author likely did when he was writing the novel.” The reverse sides of the index cards are blank or empty except for some with an x through them, so every second page of the book contains no text. I’ve never seen a book with so many meticulously reproduced blank pages. The other pages contain up to about seventy words, and often less. (According to my calculations, À la recherche du temps perdu, laid out in this way, would be 30,000 pages long. It would also be impossible to get through, because the dark-gray on light-gray typeface of the text is distinctly reader-hostile.)


Dominique Nabokov

Vladimir Nabokov, right, with his cousin the composer Nicolas Nabokov, Montreux, 1975

So the signs are there that the work is unfinished. It is nonetheless a jolt to realize just how unfinished it is, with some of the index cards being mere fragments of text, along with what are clearly notes and aide-mémoire and suggestions for further work. Nabokov’s published works are so flawless in their finish that the raw material of their making is almost shocking. In its current state, the text is hard to follow, and guesswork is necessary to puzzle out Nabokov’s intentions for the story. I would imagine that depending on the length of the work, it was going to involve between months and years of further work before it was fully finished.

The second thing that strikes the reader is the amount of sex in the book, and its potentially sensational nature. In The Original of Laura the main female character, Flora (we don’t know enough about the finished work to call her the “heroine”), has been used as the inspiration for a lurid and highly successful novel about an extramarital affair, called Laura. That novel isn’t Lolita, but its Flora shares with the heroine of Lolita the experience of receiving sexual advances from a middle-aged man: in this case, not Humbert Humbert, but one Hubert H. Hubert. Flora is twelve at the time. Hubert is English where Humbert was European, hideous where Humbert was handsome, and an unsuccessful predator where Humbert was all too successful. They are different species of creep. “A fourfold smell—tobacco, sweat, rum and bad teeth—emanated from poor old harmless Mr Hubert, it was all very pathetic.”

What on earth was Nabokov doing here? He goes out of his way to set up analogies between Laura and Lolita, and then equally far out of his way to signal differences between the two books. This is perhaps a rebuke to biographically minded critics, so keen to interrogate the “real” origins of fictional texts. Fine—but why, then, is The Original of Laura so preoccupied with underage sex?

Flora was barely fourteen when she lost her virginity to a coeval, a handsome ballboy at the Carlton Courts in Cannes…. She observed with quiet interest the difficulty Jules had of drawing a junior-sized sheath over an organ that looked abnormally stout and at full erection had a head turned somewhat askew as if wary of receiving a backhand slap.

There’s more. She’s still fourteen:

Back in Paris Flora found new lovers. With a gifted youngster from the [Lanskaya] school and another eager, more or less interchangeable couple she would bycycle [sic] through the Blue Fountain Forest to a romantic refuge where a sparkle of broken glass or a lace-edged rag on the moss were the only signs of an earlier period of literature…. The girls would compare the dimensions of their companions. Exchanges would be enjoyed with giggles and cries of surprise. Games of blindman’s buff would be played in the buff. Sometimes a voyeur would be shaken out of a tree by the vigilant police.

Even when Flora is an adult, the depiction of her as a sexual being still refers back to childhood. Here’s the first time she makes love with the writer whose novel turns her into Laura:

That first surrender of hers was a little sudden, if not downright unnerving. A pause for some light caresses, concealed embarrassment, feigned amusement, prefactory contemplation[.] She was an extravagantly slender girl. Her ribs showed. The conspicuous knobs of her hipbones framed a hollowed abdomen, so flat as to belie the notion of “belly.” Her exquisite bone structure immediately slipped into a novel—became in fact the secret structure of that novel, besides supporting a number of poems. The cup-sized breasts of that twenty-four year old impatient beauty seemed a dozen years younger than she, with those pale squinty nipples and firm form.

When turned over on her front, she is praised for having “the mobile omoplates of a child being tubbed”—i.e., shoulder blades like a child in the bath. It is an unsettling image to encounter during a description of sex between adults. And perhaps creepiest of all is the sex Flora has with her husband, a hugely overweight neurologist called Philip Wild, the other main character of the book (again, we need to resist the term “hero”):

The only way he could possess her was in the most [] position of copulation: he reclining on cushions: she sitting in the fauteuil of 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.

There’s more—but this is enough to make the point that this theme is a central preoccupation in The Original of Laura. I’m willing to bet that it will dominate discussion of the book. The trouble is that we can’t on the evidence tell what Nabokov was going to do with this. Either he was helplessly in the grip of a preoccupation with pedophilia—which I have to say I don’t believe—or he was sketching out a fictional structure that was playing with prurient responses to Lolita and with the general belief that fictions are always critically dependent on biographical facts. Nabokov’s reluctance to permit the book to be published in this form, and to have the sexual aspect dominate its discussion, is understandable.

Once one gets through or past or over the fragmentary nature of the text and the pervy sex, the reader comes back to style and signature. As a fan, I love the signature aspect of Nabokov’s prose, and there is plenty of it in The Original of Laura. That voyeur being shaken out of the tree is pure signature, and there’s more where he came from. I liked the characterization of Hubert H. Hubert, “an elderly but still vigorous Englishm[a]n who sought abroad a refuge from taxes and a convenient place to conduct his not quite legal transactions in the traffic of wines”; the photographs of a suicide, whose widow “easily sold them for the price of a flat in Paris to the local magazine Pitch which specialized in soccer and diabolical faits-divers “; the gap between Flora’s and her husband’s view of their holidays:

She saw their travels in terms of adverts and a long talcum-white beach with the tropical breeze tossing the palms and her hair; he saw it in terms of forbidden foods, frittered away time, and ghastly expenses.

These moments, of which there are many, are enough to show that The Original of Laura in its finished form would have been full of those flashes of Nabokovian signature that are still, to his fans, such a pure pleasure.

The other component of his work at its best, the stranger, sadder, subtler music of style, is present also, and I suspect would have been even more present in the completed book. Transparent Things, Nabokov’s last finished book and one of his underappreciated masterpieces, is full of a preoccupation with death, not just the state of being dead but the transformatory process of dying, of passing from this world to another. The Original of Laura, too, is preoccupied not so much by death as by dying, but in this novel it is a much more difficult, tormented process.

Dmitri Nabokov’s introduction makes clear just how much Nabokov was physically suffering while he worked on the book. Some of that suffering is present in the text, in the pains and humiliations experienced by Philip Wild, the ill, obese, cuckolded husband of Flora. At one point we are told that Wild has “suffered for the last seventeen years from a humiliating stomack [sic] ailment,” elsewhere that he has a benign tumor on his prostate, elsewhere that “I have never derived the least joy from my legs” and that he especially dislikes his feet.

The emphasis on physical disintegration is something of a new note in Nabokov’s work, and so is Wild’s reaction to it, which is to engage in experiments in self-erasure: he is working on a process of rubbing himself out through the power of thought. This already sufficiently strange idea—“a process of self-obliteration conducted by an effort of the will”—is given a further twist by Nabokov: Wild finds that the process of erasing himself through thought is intensely, ecstatically pleasurable. “The process of dying by auto-dissolution offered the greatest ecstasy known to man.” Here is a paragraph from one of the index cards:

I hit upon the art of thinking away my body, my being, mind itself. To think away thought—luxurious suicide, delicious dissolution! Dissolution, in fact, is a marvelously apt term here, for as you sit relaxed in this comfortable chair (narrator striking its armrests) and start destroying yourself, the first thing you feel is a mounting melting from the feet upward.

And that’s how the train of thought ends—the next card picks up the ideas somewhere else.

The subtitle on the title page, “Dying Is Fun,” is nowhere present in the text of the book, so it must come from something Nabokov told his son about the novel; a further clue about how important this strand in the book was going to be. Philip Wild’s self-dissolving sections have the presence of Gogol in them, more so than anything else Nabokov wrote—the madness in them is close to the Gogol of “Diary of a Madman” or “The Nose.” If Nabokov had been able to finish the book, it would have been his most extended meditation on not death but dying, a book in which the pain was both very personal and very close to black comedy.

At least, that seems a reasonable guess. The Original of Laura offers us only clues to what the finished book would have become. It would have been about sex and death and fiction; it would have played games with art and the biographical fallacy; it would have been strange and sad. It would have been really something.

This Issue

December 17, 2009