The Original of Laura (Dying is Fun) was the last novel Vladimir Nabokov was working on before his death. He instructed his wife to destroy the manuscript if he died before ever completing it. He didn’t finish writing it but she also didn’t destroy it. Years later it fell into their son’s lot whether to allow its publication or not, and here we have it—-in hardcover, with heavy paper, reproducing the index cards which the author himself wrote on in pencil in his own handwriting, complete with erasures and misspellings and all that.
I must admit, aesthetically, and for posterity, it’s quite breathtaking.
But, substantially? Well, I got what I bargained for. Got this book for a fragment of its original price and it turned out to be only fragments of a novel, in fact, and not a novel in fragments, as the cover declares.
I was just really curious, true, but I did expect a bit more. While deep down I knew its incompleteness would render it lacking, I didn’t expect it to be this incomplete. I expected something a little more developed than this, these notes. These notes that were beginning to form themselves into something, but weren’t yet there.
The first two chapters did have some bearing of a novel, but the rest, really, were only fragments of plot and thought and characterization. We get a general picture of what Nabokov was trying to create here—-overweight husband writing novel about infidel wife and Virginia-Woolf-like in his aspirations about death, experimenting with dying—-but none of where he was headed exactly.
In that sense, it was disappointing. I felt like I was invading, snooping into somewhere I shouldn’t be. I felt like these notes were such a personal, sacred space for the author that no one was privileged enough to look at but his family, because they were so undone, so incomplete.
On the other hand, I felt honoured to be privy to these drafts. Even in their incompleteness, there were no shortages to Nabokov’s glittering brilliance. Glimpses they may be, but such writerly brilliance.
Only by identifying her with an unwritten, half-written, rewritten difficult book could one hope to render at last what contemporary descriptions of intercourse so seldom convey . . . (21-23)
Of art, of love, of the difference between dreaming and waking she knew nothing but would have darted at you like a flatheaded blue serpent if you questioned her. (85-87)
I do not believe that the spinal cord is the only or even main conductor of the extravagant messages that reach my brain. I have to find out more about that—about the strange impression I have of there being some underpath, so to speak, along which the commands of my will power are passed to and fro along the shadow of nerves rather [than] along the nerves proper. (193)
As to the book, a bestseller, which the blurb described as “a roman à clef with the clef lost for ever” . . . (219-221)
Ultimately, should we be thankful to Nabokov’s son for publishing this? That’s both a yes and a no.
For readers who are only looking to acquaint themselves with Nabokov’s ouevre, I’m not sure it would be wise to direct you this way. There aren’t many strings to grab onto here.
For readers who are looking for a semblance of a story in this last manuscript, you’ll find it absolutely lacking.
But for readers who are serious Nabokov fans, those who deem any tiny thing about him worth holding onto, you’ll be pleased knowing you have in your hands the very last glints of inspiration this author held before they were finally gone.
Also for readers who appreciate the beauty in beholding a great writer’s mind in progress, this is for you. I took such enjoyment in poring over his handwriting, where he erased and wrote over, where he looked to be writing carefully or where he wrote in haste.
I myself have only read Lolita and parts of Speak, Memory. But as I am a reader like the last two I mentioned above, I was able to appreciate what this book had to offer, even if it was lacking in all the other elements a true, published novel should have.