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July 09, 2010

If finished, Laura could have been one last triumph of resource from the most resourceful of writers who in his lifetime had been so often thrown back on his own resources, argues David Womersley: The Original of Laura - Vladimir Nabokov

Posted by David Womersley

The Original of Laura: A novel in fragments
by Vladimir Nabokov
Pp. xxii + 278. London: Penguin Books, 2009
Hardback, £25

What a fuss there was last November when this book was published. It had been known that, for a couple of years before his death in 1977, Nabokov had been working on a new book; and it was also known that Nabokov had expressed a wish that, should the book remain unfinished at his death, it should be burned. After the death of his mother, the burden of deciding whether or not to honour this onerous wish fell to Dmitri Nabokov, who gives the following account of his decision to set it to one side (p. xvii):

I have said and written more than once that, to me, my parents, in a sense, had never died but lived on, looking over my shoulder in a kind of virtual limbo, available to offer a thought or counsel to assist me with a vital decision, whether a crucial mot juste or a more mundane concern. I did not need to borrow my "ton bon" (thus deliberately garbled) from the titles of fashionable morons but had it from the source. If it pleases an adventurous commentator to like to the case to mystical phenomena, so be it. I decided at this juncture that, in putative retrospect, Nabokov would not have wanted me to become his Person from Porlock or allow little Juanita Dark – for that was the name of an early Lolita, destined for cremation – to burn like a latter-day Jeanne d'Arc.
The book so saved is confused, fragmentary and incomplete; but the core of it can with difficulty be made out.

The rich, aged, sickly Dr Philip Wild is married to the young, unfaithful Flora. One of Flora's lovers has given Wild a narrative of her infidelities, in which she appears under the name of Laura. Mortified and shamed, Wild consoles himself by the "process of dying by auto-dissolution" (p. 171), beginning with his toes (p. 213):

Pleasure, bordering on almost unendurable exstacy, comes from feeling the will working at a new task: an act of destruction which develops paradoxically an element of creativeness in the totally new application of totally free will. Learning to use the vigor of the body for the purpose of its own deletion.
The Original of Laura is certainly an odd book, then; and the general response has been that it is also disappointing.
In truth there is little in Laura that reverberates in the mind
wrote Martin Amis in The Guardian on 14 November 2009. It was perhaps too quick a judgement, before Nabokov's ingenious plan to thematize within the book the loss of talent had been properly explored and weighed. The fact of faltering power is, at moments, turned into an expressive strength in this novel about faltering power.

That at least must have been the strategy. Laura would have been one last triumph of resource from this most resourceful of writers, who in his lifetime had been so often thrown back on his own resources. There are many felicitous touches, a few resonant (often quite disconnected) phrases, but in the end no more than that. What might have been a defiant book - "Look, this is how a writer dies" - instead offers us, as it crumbles into notes of exasperation, a glimpse of a writer succumbing.

One of the recurrent Nabokovian themes reprised in The Original of Laura is that of the heartless, younger, female object of desire who is indifferent (sometimes cruelly indifferent, sometimes merely cruel) to the attentions of her lover, and who survives him: for example, Laughter in the Dark, or The Enchanter. In the context of The Original of Laura, it is tempting to construe that favoured object of imaginative attention in terms of literary composition itself - the ageless, promiscuous, faithless, averted literary work being the recipient of a caressing, but perfectly unreciprocated, obsession from its mortal, attentive, decaying author. As a particularly enigmatic pair of index cards puts it, before ceasing in three lines of emphatic erasure, Laura's body -
the mobile omoplates of a child being tubbed, the incurvation of a ballerina's spine, narrow nates of an ambiguous irresistable charm
- demands to be viewed in literally literary terms (pp. 19-21):
Only by identifying her with an unwritten, half-written, rewritten difficult book could one hope to render at last what.
The imperative necessity of having recourse to such a metaphor is clear, even if language runs out before expressing the purpose of so doing. Nabokov's wish to have the manuscript destroyed thus becomes the revenge of the besotted author on the literary nymphet.

So perhaps Penguin have responded appropriately in making The Original of Laura a sumptuous édition de luxe (a literary version, maybe, of a poule de luxe?). Different coloured inks, elaborate cover graphics on both the dust jacket and the binding itself, paper the weight and thickness of card, perforated pages so that readers can, if they wish, make simulacra of the original index cards on which Nabokov composed the work, even the blank reverse sides of the index cards reproduced, somewhat farcically, in facsimile, and the text of every card transcribed at the foot of its page. Such a profusion of expense, such an appearance of care.

Alas, only an appearance. The touchstone of true care for an author is fidelity in the handling and transmission of his language. The "Note on the Text" does not say who was responsible for the transcriptions; but whoever made the transcriptions was guided in their work by inaccuracy and inconsistency. A few examples:

on p. 9, "superintendant" is transcribed as "superintend[e]nt";

on p. 47, "beetween" is transcribed as "between" (notwithstanding the proclamation in the "Note on the Text" that "Nonstandard spellings . . . and punctuation have been retained" [p. xxi]);

on p. 53 "Englishmen" has been transcribed as "Englishm[a]n";

on p. 87 a spurious full stop has been introduced into the transcription;

on p. 135 "Delling" has twice been transcribed as "D[a]lling";

on p. 143 "Because see was" has been transcribed as "Because [she] was";

and on p. 243 "a mounting melting, from the feet upward" has been transcribed "a mounting melting from the feet upward".

All trifles, of course. But in a work, such as The Original of Laura, in which there are so few words, it would surely not be too onerous to get them all right.

David Womersley is Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford. His previous reviews for the Social Affairs Unit can be read here.

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