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A lost masterpiece?

These long anticipated literary mysteries never end in anything very significant — one thinks of Harold Brodkey’s The Runaway Soul, falling totally flat after decades of sycophantic pre-publicity, or Truman Capote’s Answered Prayers, emerging in fragments in 1975, after 17 years of non-work, to scandal but no acclaim.

25 November 2009

12:00 AM

25 November 2009

12:00 AM

The Original of Laura Vladimir Nabokov

Penguin, pp.304, 25

These long anticipated literary mysteries never end in anything very significant — one thinks of Harold Brodkey’s The Runaway Soul, falling totally flat after decades of sycophantic pre-publicity, or Truman Capote’s Answered Prayers, emerging in fragments in 1975, after 17 years of non-work, to scandal but no acclaim.

These long anticipated literary mysteries never end in anything very significant — one thinks of Harold Brodkey’s The Runaway Soul, falling totally flat after decades of sycophantic pre-publicity, or Truman Capote’s Answered Prayers, emerging in fragments in 1975, after 17 years of non-work, to scandal but no acclaim. (I wouldn’t get your hopes up for the quality of anything J. D. Salinger has been keeping in his safe either if I were you).

The Original of Laura is the extended fragment which Vladimir Nabokov left incomplete at his death. These 138 index cards have, over the decades, become extremely famous. Very few people have seen them; the Nabokov scholar, Brian Boyd, apparently read them out to a small circle of experts in the 1990s. Dmitri Nabokov has been sitting on the manuscript since his father’s death, occasionally suggesting that he will carry out his father’s final wishes and destroy the manuscript, or, teasingly, that he already has. Meanwhile, well-meaning Nabokovians have been bombarding him with advice and peremptory demands on a regular basis. His decision to publish has taken everyone by surprise.


The Original of Laura as published by Penguin is, I must say, an astonishing object. The famous index cards are reproduced on press-out panels, with a typed transcription below. Should you wish to, you may remove the index cards to place in a box file of your own, leaving a deep square vacancy within the book, highly suitable for stowing a small bottle of whisky in the manner beloved of 1970s comic sketches.

Some of the psychological causes of the long delay of the appearance of this last statement are, in my view, apparent in Dmitri Nabokov’s introduction, a bizarre document of pastiche and complacency. Into Dmitri’s prose style enter Charles Kinbote and Humbert Humbert. He writes like a man who knows his father’s novels better than anyone ever knew another’s novels; he writes like Nabokov without, I am afraid, the talent:

I am equally sure of the colours I saw in my final onboard dream as we approached America: the varying shades of depressing gray that colored my dream vision of a shabby, low-lying New York, instead of the exciting skyscrapers that my parents had been promising. Upon disembarking, we also saw two differing visions of America: a small flask of Cognac vanished from our baggage during the customs inspection; on the other hand, when my father (or was it my mother? Memory sometimes conflates the two) attempted to pay the cabbie who took us to our destination with the entire contents of his wallet — a hundred-dollar bill of a currency that was new to us — the honest driver immediately refused the bill with a comprehending smile.

The Original of Laura itself has, in the mind of a fevered coterie, somehow become a lost masterpiece. If no one had ever been allowed to read it, it would have stayed like that forever. Unfortunately, it turns out to be rambling, trite, and, evidently, a very early draft of some quite confused material. There is another of Nabokov’s extreme narrators, this one possessed of an unprecedented desire to mutilate himself by removing his toes, and a slightly more adult version of Dolores Haze, tormentingly juvenile and sexually provocative:

Her frail, docile frame when turned over by hand revealed new marvels — the mobile omoplates of a child being tubbed, the incurvation of a ballerina’s spine, narrow nates of an ambiguous irresistable [sic] charm.

The celebrated abstruseness of Nabokov’s vocabulary seems to keep itself going without much reference to any human reality, and without much in the way of wit, either. Was this all we were waiting for, the reader wonders? But what were you expecting? The books he published before starting work on this one— Ada, Look at the Harlequins and Transparent Things — have never been much admired, even by the specialist: .

Of the books in English, Speak Memory Pnin, Lolita and Pale Fire are enough to base Nabokov’s reputation on. Why anyone thought this last draft, written so long afterhe had lost his mojo, would turn out to be a masterpiece is a puzzle. Dmitri should have burnt it, kept it in the safe indefinitely, or, best of all, brought it out apologetically and on a small scale, immediately after his father’s death. As it is, the much discussed Original of Laura has been revealed as, in Oscar Wilde’s words, a sphinx without a secret.


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