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Kristen French: Nabokov, Resurrected

November 16, 2009

Reviewed: The Original of Laura

by Vladimir Nabokov

By **Kristen French**

The ultimate literary trickster, Vladimir Nabokov has played us again. His last and uncompleted work, The Original of Laura: Dying is Fun, published this November, seems an elaborate prank–some of which spills out of the book and into the world. The circumstances surrounding the novel’s publication collide in uncanny ways with the novel’s subjects–fragmented authorship, revision, death, resurrection. At times, Laura quietly conspires to suggest that it was meant to remain unfinished. But it is impossible to know how fully Nabokov intended it that way.

Written at the very end of Nabokov’s life, Laura was interred, in notecard form, in a Swiss vault after Nabokov’s death in 1977. Despite his instructions that his wife Vera burn it, she disobeyed. When she died, the decision fell to Nabokov’s son Dmitri, the other executor of his estate, who, after much public hand wringing, and a few leaked bits of text, resolved last year to have it published. He has told interviewers that his father came to him in a vision and gave him his blessing. Whatever the wisdom of taking advice from ghosts, there is some Oedipal irony in the fact that Dmitri, now in his 70s, seems to have defied a father who could not abide Freud.

Nabokov once told an interviewer who asked to see a copy of his rough drafts, “I’m afraid I must refuse. Only ambitious nonentities and hearty mediocrities exhibit their rough drafts. It’s like passing around sputum.” But he also told his publisher before his death that the working title of his book was TOOL–an acronym for The Original of Laura, and a word game he has used elsewhere in his work. Laura does present us with Nabokov’s tools in a way that only a rough draft can.

Designed by Chip Kidd, Laura is not just a book; it is an object of art that reveals Nabokov’s literary process. Each page shows a facsimile of one of Nabokov’s trademark handwritten notecards with the text transcribed in typescript below it, on the same page. There are 138 cards in all, some marked with cross-outs and erasures. A handful include only a few words. Some are clearly labeled with chapter numbers and sections, but others are not. Dmitri did the work of ordering them, and added explanatory notes in a few places. Perforated, the cards can be punched out and shuffled as Nabokov himself is known to have done when he composed his novels.

Before we have even begun to read, the book seems to offer several potential “authors.” The dotted lines on each page pose a dare. Will readers presume to know better than Dmitri the shape Nabokov wanted this story to take? Will they give it a shape of their own? When asked who he saw as his ideal readers, Nabokov replied “lots of little Nabokovs,” and with Laura this ideal comes to life. Who “authored” Laura is a question that becomes even more complicated as the story unfolds.

Nabokov is famous for creating elaborately layered puzzles inside his novels, and this one is no exception. But with Laura, sorting out these puzzles becomes even more complex because the book is unfinished and lacks Nabokov’s usual polish.

Nabokov is famous for creating elaborately layered puzzles inside his novels, and this one is no exception. But with Laura, sorting out these puzzles becomes even more complex because the book is unfinished and lacks Nabokov’s usual polish. There is great pleasure in trying to decipher Nabokov’s last great riddle, but it takes a close reading. The prose shifts abruptly in tone, style and point of view, and occasionally slips into metafictional loops, making it difficult to know who is telling the story or where the “story” itself lies.

The novel carries many of Nabokov’s signature tics–literary allusion, doubles, pseudonyms, Russian exiles–and rehearses his favorite themes–sex, death, solipsism. The plot, distilled into detailed scenes in some places and elsewhere loosely sketched, centers around Philip Wild, a wealthy, obese neurologist, and Flora, his haughty, slender and highly promiscuous wife. Flora’s adolescence is a condensed parody of Lolita, with many of the details intact or altered only slightly. When Flora is 12, her mother begins dating a man named Hubert H. Hubert, who has designs on Flora. In places, the comedy is hilariously overripe. Hubert buys Flora a chess set as a gift, “with tickly-looking little holes bored in the squares to admit and grip the red and white pieces; the pin-sized pawns penetrated easily, but the slightly larger noblemen had to be forced in with an enervating joggle.” Flora is spared Lolita’s tragic fate, as Hubert dies of a stroke in a hotel lift a year later. “Going up, one would like to surmise,” the narrator blithely adds.

In her late teens, Flora goes on to experiment vigorously with sex. She loses her virginity to a boy her age at 14, but is dispassionate and wry about the act. “She observed with quiet interest the difficulty Jules had of drawing a junior-size sheath over an organ that looked abnormally stout and at full erection had a head turned somewhat askew as if wary of receiving a backhand slap.” She drops him as soon as he can’t keep up with her sexual appetite. Other lovers and group sexual romps in a Parisian park follow.

On the day of her graduation from college, Flora’s mother dies suddenly, and Flora meets Philip. She marries him for his fame and fortune, quickly becomes bored when she finds he is reluctant to spend his money as lavishly as she would like, and begins to cheat. One of her many lovers writes a book about her, which briefly becomes a bestseller, titled My Laura. Here Nabokov’s story takes a surreal and bizarre turn, as Philip begins to attempt suicide by imagining his own self-erasure, projecting the image of a disappearing “I” onto the closed interior of his eyelids. Philip starts from his toes and works up, resurrecting himself after each little death. The exercise is pure pleasure for Philip, but, he points out, not orgasmic.

It is here, two-thirds of the way through the book, that a second story line begins to surface: The Original of Laura is at least three books in one, serially related. The first is the bestseller My Laura, which describes Flora’s extramarital infidelities. The next, narrated by Flora, recounts her adolescence and youth. The third, told from Philip’s perspective, describes his discovery of the book, My Laura, and his wife’s infidelities, as well as his attempts at suicide by meditation. But our narrators are unreliable. In the transition from the story of Flora’s early marriage to Philip, to the story of Philip’s meditative death, for example, we are told that the account we have just read is not quite right. “This is Flora of the close-set dark-blue eyes and cruel mouth recollecting in her mid-twenties fragments of her past, with details lost or put back in the wrong order, TAIL betwe[e]n DELTA and SLIT, on dusty dim shelves, this is she. Everything about her is bound to remain blurry, even her name which seems to have been made expressly to have another one modeled upon it by a fantastically lucky artist.”

What’s more, who is narrating is never totally clear-cut. After a second reading, for example, one begins to notice Phillip’s obsession with feet and some of his medical language appearing in the part of the book that is meant to have been narrated by Flora’s lover. One is led to believe that this novel is not just about an elusive woman who will give herself to no one–Laura, Flora, “FLaura”–but it also about a novel within the novel that is being revised, and remains incomplete. This is not foreign territory for Nabokov. In his Pale Fire, John Shade, a famous poet, leaves a final epic poem in notecard form after his death. The manuscript must be pieced together. The Real Life of Sebastian Knight is both an account of a brother’s attempts to write a biography about Sebastian, and a biography of Sebastian.

Nabokov said more than once that a full picture of “reality” is unattainable since, like a prism, it is an endlessly layered series of refracted perceptions that never fully converge. In this sense, Flora’s story is most “real” as told from multiple, competing perspectives. As Flora’s lover tells us, “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…”

Some of Philip’s obsessions–toenails, bedclothes, nurses–reflect ones that, Dmitri tells us in his foreword, Nabokov himself had at the end of his life while writing Laura. The author often said he thought death was a nasty, meaningless trick. But Philip seems to have reclaimed death and resurrection as his own. Though Nabokov despised critics who tried to project him onto his characters, is it possible that he changed his mind about death when he was dying himself? Did he want one last shot at immortality, to live eternally through an infinite number of little Nabokovs, forever puzzling over his final work? It’s too late to ask, but one can imagine him enjoying a haughty laugh somewhere beyond the grave.

Kristen French is a writer living in Brooklyn. Her previous work for Guernica includes a profile of Vik Muniz, published in January, 2009. She has been a business journalist and editor for over ten years in New York and Santiago, Chile, and is currently a student at CUNY’s Graduate Center in The Writer’s Institute program.

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