Walking through Harvard Yard after an English section last fall, another student and I began speculating as to whether any writer had convincingly portrayed the experience of falling in love. Tolstoy developed it too suddenly and Austen privileged convention over emotion. And for Nabokov, love was a clinical affair; a warm body lain on ice. Entomologist, chess-player, master of three languages, and arguably the greatest prose stylist of the 20th century, the ever-meticulous Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov could reach sublime artistic heights, my interlocutor admitted—but who would want to inhabit such chilly air?
The reaction is not an uncommon one. “Lolita,” published in 1955, provoked scandal not for any outward lewdness, but for its relentlessly dispassionate treatment of a traditionally pornographic subject. There’s something of the scalpel in those descriptions of 12-year-old Lo’s “pre-adolescently incurved back, that ivory-smooth, sliding sensation of her skin through the thin frock.” Of course, such detached precision—each word set down deliberately as a pin through the thorax of a butterfly—was for Nabokov a conscious choice, allowing him to scale ever more crystalline summits. “For me,” he wrote, “a work of fiction exists only insofar as it affords me what I shall bluntly call aesthetic bliss.”
The posthumous publication of Nabokov’s uncompleted last novel “The Original of Laura” thus comes as an uneasy blessing. There are characteristic moments of stylistic brilliance, but admiring them is a bit like calling attention to the gilt cornices of a house left lacking a door. Roughly the first half of the book is devoted to Flora, a grown Lolita-type, bored with her marriage to a psychologist named Philip Wild and carrying out numerous affairs. Meanwhile, an obsessive former flame is writing an erotic novel about her titled “My Laura,” a crazed production, but one in which “fixed details as her trick of opening her mouth when toweling her inguen or of closing her eyes when smelling an inodorous rose are absolutely true to the original.” The second, more sketchily outlined half segues into Philip’s quasi-sexual attempts to will himself out of existence—for the “process of dying by auto-dissolution afforded the greatest ecstasy known to man.” It’s not clear how the parts were meant to be linked, though early on Flora does refer to the “mad neurologist’s testament” her husband has been laboring over for years. Nabokov’s writing process as glimpsed here seems to have involved piling together neat phrases (e.g. “pinaforing her stomack with kisses” [sic]) in the hope that there would be time later to arrange them into a plot.
But the structural level is just where his language begins to break down. The thrill of the Nabokovian sentence lies in its intense compression, that hyper-compacted poetry of the apposite adjective or unexpected metaphor that separates it from the more loosely polemical Russian literary tradition. It’s why Nabokov adored Tolstoy’s taut prose and thought Dostoevsky a hack. In “Laura” this compression unravels—degenerating near the end into mere personal notes (“invent tradename, e.g. cephalopium”) and haphazard lists (drawing linkages between self-dissolution and Buddhism).
Indeed, great ethical question marks surround the matter of whether “Laura” ought to have been published at all. Nabokov’s last wish was that it be burnt should he die before its completion, a worst-case scenario that came to pass in 1977 when the complications of fever took him in Switzerland. The literary world at once divided in two: the “publish” camp happy to get their hands on whatever they could from the man they considered a genius, and their “perish” antagonists urging incineration lest any imperfection blacken the Nabokovian halo. One might assume that the recent green light points to some newly unearthed document or deep philosophical revelation. Not so. In an absurd introduction seeking to defend the decision, Nabokov’s son Dmitri waxes at turns cloyingly idolizing, stridently resentful, and distastefully self-aggrandizing in his memories of his father. He concludes by asking the question his entire essay has been begging: “But why, Mr. Nabokov, why did you really decide to publish ‘Laura’?” The response: “Well, I am a nice guy, and, having noticed that people the world over find themselves on a first-name basis with me as they empathize with ‘Dmitri’s dilemma,’ I felt it would be kind to alleviate their sufferings.”
Nabokov deserves better than his offspring’s circular logic; these notes for what could have been remain genuinely tantalizing, especially in their flirtation with the idea of an “original” in a world in which people can be novelized, duplicated, or obliterated as desired. Yet his taste for parody trespasses well beyond tongue-in-cheek. Every character is either neurotic, socially oblivious, a raging nymphomaniac, or all three. Philip Wild is not only morbidly obese, but can be seen walking striped cats on leashes down the street. Flora is groped at age 12 by an older man named “Hubert H. Hubert” (many characters are lifted near-wholesale from Nabokov’s other books). And embarrassing puns abound—a miniature chess set is given to Laura because “she knew the moves,” a “potentate is potent” until the age of 80—which simply never would have reached print.
Perhaps attempting to compensate aesthetically, Alfred A. Knopf has pulled out all the stops in the book’s physical presentation. Possessing a pleasingly minimalist jacket featuring white letters dissolving into black, “Laura” reproduces on each page of its heavy gray cardstock one of the 125 lined index cards on which Nabokov penciled his story. And each card is perforated along the edges for the ultra-aficionado—who, having exhausted the author’s other collections, can pop out the notes to feverishly arrange and rearrange elements of the plot just as Nabokov himself is said to have done.
But these picturesque, slightly kitschy touches still don’t quite succeed in distracting from the work’s insubstantiality. “A novel in fragments” may be the phrase of choice in the marketing materials, but the truth is that “Laura” is hardly more than an assemblage of disconnected scribblings; reading diligently, one can get through the entire thing in under an hour. The difference in quality between this and Nabokov’s other works, too, is painfully clear. However much Nabokov’s other posthumously published work “The Enchanter” existed primarily as a sketch for “Lolita,” the stave of its aesthetic virtuosity was enough to ward off doubters. “The Original of Laura” had far less time to develop in the darkroom of its brilliant author’s mind; no surprise, then, that its desk-drawer jottings come out unflatteringly when exposed to the harsh glare of any more critical light.
—Staff writer Jessica A. Sequeira can be reached at email@example.com.
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