‘The Original of Laura’ by Vladimir Nabokov (2009)

The story behind this story is as intriguing as the novel itself.  Never meant to be published, Nabokov instructed his wife, Vera to burn the manuscript in the event that he died before finishing it.  After his death, Vera could not bring herself to carry out this request, especially after having previously saved Lolita from the same fate not just once, but twice.  By the time she died, Vera had yet to destroy the novel and the legacy was passed onto their son, Dmitri.  Dmitri then suffered the same paralysis as his mother until eventually taking the decision, in 2009, to defy his late father’s wishes.

Dmitri writes in the introduction, of the story of the novel itself and how he came to make the decision – which, on the surface may seem at the least controversial and at the worst disrespectful to his late father – to publish Laura.  He describes how Nabokov had fallen ill after a routine operation, which itself followed a seemingly innocuous fall when Nabokov was out pursuing his great interest in lepidoptery.  He wasn’t meant to die and the novel wasn’t meant to be left unfinished.  Dmitri answers those critics who assert the author’s right to have his wishes respected (and who he assesses as having ‘lesser minds’), by positing his belief that Nabokov knew that neither he nor his mother would actually carry out his request, citing the example of Kafka and Max Brod.  He also argues that he didn’t feel that the end of either of his parent’s physical lives were really the very end and that they, ‘never died but lived on looking over my shoulder’.  In the same way, Laura continued to live after its creator’s death so that the distance of time between Nabokov’s death-bed request and the publication of his novel in 2009, meant that it was not longer the novel to which his order pertained.  The same way in which ‘little Juanita Dark’ was forgotten when she eventually became Lolita.

This story is so interesting in its own right that it seems somehow less urgent to look at the contents of the novel, than to look at the object itself, the very concept of Laura.  The tag line reads, ‘a novel in fragments’ and the novel is produced in such a way that the reader is encouraged to reinvent it as many times as she wishes.  The copy from the index cards on which Nabokov wrote the novel are typed up, but also reproduced, to scale and with perforated edges, so that they can be detached from the page and rearranged into an infinite number of other stories.  The nature of a novel in moveable parts and the incompleteness of a story which forces the reader to take each fragment as a separate and finished piece puts one in mind of a New Critical reading rather than a more total approach.  There are some pages in the novel where there are dislocated, lone sentences, but which feel strangely complete nonetheless:

‘from heel to hip, then the trunk, then the head when nothing was left but a grotesque bust with staring eyes.’

These poetic fragments seemingly create micro-stories of their own:

‘I know my feet smell despite daily baths, but this reek was something special.’

That said, the novel remains cohesive, with a plot which interestingly further proliferates this novel’s many layers and guises, as the main character Dr Philip Wild is wrestling with yet another story within this story of stories; a ‘maddening masterpiece’ written by one of his promiscuous wife’s lovers, documenting her infidelities.  His way of dealing with Flora’s unfaithfulness is to practice a technique whereby he can will parts of his body to disappear, leading eventually to total obliteration.  The subtitle of the novel, in parenthesis and added by Dmitri is, ‘dying is fun’, serving to remind the reader that Nabokov himself was disappearing whilst he wrote the novel, eventually dying before the novel could be made whole.  This is bought poignantly to mind on the last page where Nabokov has written a list of words, searching we assume for the best way to describe Dr Wild’s self-annihilation, whilst concurrently describing the act of dying, through which he was at that time, living:

‘efface, expunge, erase, delete, rub out, wipe out, obliterate.’

Reading this novel is a wholly unique experience.  The amount of information outside of the story, yet pertaining to it and becoming part it, forces one to read with a different perspective.  However, what makes it truly special is the feeling of being alongside Nabokov as he writes, the reader is in the privileged position of being able to almost watch Nabokov’s writing process and being able to see truly charming details such as his ideas for made up words:

‘(invent tradename, e. g. cephalopium [;] find substitute term for enkephalin)’

In addition, his edits, notes on definitions of words from the Oxford English Dictionary, theories that interested him and research from recognisable publications, like the Times Literary Supplement:

‘TLS 16-1-76 “Nietz[s]che argued that the man of pure will … must recognise that there is an appropriate time to die”‘

Famed as Nabokov is for his total mastery of language, seeing his ‘workings’ like this is really special if you are a fan of his work.

Ultimately, if you decide to own this book you will feel as if you own an object.  Not only a book, or a story, or an elicited emotion, or some knowledge gleaned from the reading of that story, but more a three dimensional participation with a very special writer, accidentally enveloped in another very interesting story.

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