Vladimir Nabokov and The Original of Nothing
I’m a big Vladimir Nabokov fan. His novels are up there with those of Proust, Powell, Fox, and maybe Marquez as those from the last century that have given me the most pleasure. The Gift! Pale Fire! Ada! Lo-lee-ta! As with most writers or performers of whom I’m a big fan, I want to devour everything the artist created and everything interesting created about him: letters, outtakes, biographies, critical works, ephemera. I’ve even read novels based on albums I love and have been pleasantly surprised by one of them.
I bear no ill will against Dmitri Nabokov, Vladimir’s son. He’s been wrestling with a dilemma over the past 30 years: what to do with the unfinished draft of The Original of Laura that Vladimir left behind. Dad told him to destroy the manuscript; instead, Dmitri locked it in a box and thought hard for a long time, probably balancing loyalty to the father with loyalty to the work. There are strong arguments in both directions and I suspect Dmitri bounced pinball-like between the two positions for three decades.
Dmitri decided, in the end, to publish it. It came out last month; I bought it the day it came out. It’s no lost masterpiece. Indeed, it’s quite terrible, Nabokov’s worst book, void of the thrills hiding behind most phrases in even his minor novels. But, worse, than that, it’s not even a book (even in the post-modern sense). It’s not merely that there are 1.5 characters, 0 indications of a plot, and only a few hundred words scattered over a few hundred pages. To emphasize the collector value (and to distract from the lack of literary or story value), the publisher presents these work pages just as Nabokov left them: replicas of index cards, some of them written on, some of them in order, none of them intended for separate or combined publication. It’s the very definition of unpublishable, even in the current age of every damn thing being published. There’s a reason this book comes in shrink wrap: because anyone who opens it before reading it will never buy it. There’s nothing here for all but the most dedicated academic Nabokovians; I completed a first reading in barely half an hour and am unlikely to look at it again until I pack it up the next time I make a donation to the library.
The hype behind the belated release of this incomplete nonmasterpiece may lower Nabokov’s stock, which would be a shame. But, fortunately, there’s an upside to hype: Vintage is reissuing his ouevre with cool covers that may attract new readers. If great packaging can help draw attention to something as lousy as The Original of Laura, perhaps it can bring more than a dozen classics to a new generation of readers who will adore them.