The Original of Laura

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.

8 thoughts on “The Original of Laura

  1. Thanks for introducing this intriguing book. This sounds most interesting though just because it’s incomplete. Looks like an authentic look into a writer’s mind, and the writing / creating process. More like a writer’s notebook?

    • Arti, no, not a notebook. Well, it is a manuscript of a novel, just with so many holes, like a first, first, first draft, although there are very clear ideas, just not enough to make it cohesive and solid yet. Like the early years of a genius baby novel?

  2. Beautiful review, Claire! From your description, this looks not like a novel but like a work of art and a journey into a great writer’s mind. I loved these two sentences from your review – “you’ll be pleased knowing you have in your hands the very last glints of inspiration this author held before they were finally gone” and “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”.

  3. I remember reading about this when it was published, and there was a lot of discussion over whether it was ethical to publish it, when Nabokov had particularly asked for it to be destroyed. It was pointed out that had, for instance, Kafka’s wishes been followed, most of his most famous work would have been burnt. It must have been a difficult decision for his son to make.

    I like the fact that it is published in facsimile. I wasn’t sure whether I thought it should ever have been published, but reading your review has changed my mind. It’s nice that those of us who aren’t scholars and would never be able to see a manuscript of his ‘in the flesh’ may have this glimpse of his writing practice.

  4. Claire, this is so beautiful… I’m with you, in that I’m dubious about the ethics of this sort of posthumous publication, but at the same time I’d love to have a copy of this. Just to get that intimate glimpse into Nabokov’s mind would be such an amazing experience.

  5. Hi Claire, I’m an author you reviewed a couple years ago. I recently sent you an email through this site – hope you got a chance to read it. If it didn’t get through, please email me. Thanks!

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