Nabokov Lives OnPrint
Why his unfinished novel, Laura, deserved to be published; what’s left in the voluminous archive of his unpublished work
By Brian Boyd
March 1, 2010
Many writers and readers now consider Vladimir Nabokov to be at least among the greatest novelists of the 20th century. Martin Amis, in New York last November to celebrate Nabokov on the eve of the publication of his unfinished novel The Original of Laura, told me that he would rate Ulysses ahead of any Nabokov novel (as would I, more often than not), but rightly stressed that Nabokov comes out far ahead of Joyce in grand slams.
In the 1920s and 1930s Nabokov, always a prodigious worker, was at his most prolific, although writing mostly for the small and shrinking audience of the Russian emigration, which Soviet propaganda caricatured as reactionary and effete. By the time of his arrival in the United States in 1940, he had a huge backlog of acclaimed Russian works, which he urgently wanted to appear in English, but not until Lolita made him famous in 1958 did publishers seek his Russian output. His son, Dmitri, recently graduated from Harvard, was just then becoming old enough to serve as his principal translator. By the 1960s a stream of old work joined the steady flow of new work to make a flood. His books began to appear with exhilarating but almost exhausting rapidity, despite his slow, superscrupulous habits of composition: 15 new or thoroughly revised books appeared in the decade before his death. Six of these volumes were translated by Dmitri—who was by this time an opera singer and, to his parents’ relief, no longer a race car driver—in conjunction with his father.
Nabokov had the first inkling of what became The Original of Laura in 1973, but needed to finish Look at the Harlequins! (1974) and, driven by a sense of personal honor, revise and virtually rewrite the translation of Ada for his French publisher after his translator had a breakdown. At age 76, Nabokov’s intense work on the translation, from 5 A.M. each morning, drained him, as did, over the next two years, severe falls, operations, and infections. As a result he could not finish The Original of Laura before his death in 1977. Although he had asked his wife, Véra, to destroy the manuscript should it be left uncompleted, she could not bring herself to do so.
Two years after Nabokov’s death, Simon Karlinsky published the correspondence between Nabokov and Edmund Wilson, which offered the first real insight into Nabokov’s casual human side, and Véra Nabokov published Stikhi, his selected Russian verse. That year, I finished my Ph.D. on Nabokov at the University of Toronto, and Véra, after reading my thesis, invited me to visit her in Montreux, Switzerland, where she and her husband had lived since 1961. I had already begun research on a bibliography that would record the circumstances and processes of Nabokov’s composition and publication. It could also therefore serve as a kind of biography and as compensation for the dearth of fact and the glut of error in Andrew Field’s 1973 bibliography and his 1977 biography. In June 1979 I stopped in Montreux for four days, quizzing Véra, long past her usual bedtime, about the composition and publication of her husband’s works.
I traveled home to New Zealand, where I had a university teaching job, and two months later she wrote asking if I would sort out Nabokov’s archive for her. Would I? Would I? I did, during breaks from the university over the next two years. I also persuaded her to allow me to see the papers Nabokov had given to the Library of Congress between 1959 and 1963, an archive he had stipulated should remain closed for 50 years.
Even after his death, Nabokov’s past hard work was continuing to expand his literary legacy: Lectures on Literature (1980), Lectures on Russian Literature (1981), and Lectures on Don Quixote (1983). Soon after beginning to catalogue the archives, I rediscovered “Volshebnik,” a long story that we might now call “The Original of Lolita,” which was published in Dmitri’s translation as The Enchanter in 1985.
Although I had free access to the Montreux archives and controlled access to the Library of Congress Nabokoviana, I could not see the materials that Véra guarded in her bedroom: Nabokov’s letters to his parents and to her, his diaries, and The Original of Laura. I kept pressing her for access, especially to the letters to his parents. To my repeated requests she eventually replied, “Why do you need to see the letters if you are doing only a bibliography? If you were writing a biography, of course I would show you everything.”
I suppressed a great gulp. I knew she and her husband had felt betrayed by Field’s biography, and I knew at first hand of Véra’s intense privacy. About to start my second year of teaching and just building a classroom repertoire, I could not begin a biography without extended time off. Back in New Zealand, I applied for a fellowship on the basis of the Nabokov bibliography, won it, and wrote to Véra reminding her of her promise to show me everything. She agreed to condone my working on a biography.
In late 1981 I returned to Montreux to begin. Several months later, I discovered at the bottom of a pile of otherwise empty boxes behind a wardrobe a box full of manuscripts of Nabokov’s Cornell lectures on Russian literature regarding authors other than those discussed in Lectures on Russian Literature. Véra had been perturbed all along that this material seemed lost. “EUREKA!” I wrote in huge capitals on a note I left for her to find the next morning. I am now editing these lectures with my former student, Stanislav Shvabrin. They range from saints’ lives to Vladislav Khodasevich, whom Nabokov considered the greatest 20th-century Russian poet. They cover the literary material that he knew best, that he devoured as a boy, studied at Cambridge, and was brought to Cornell to teach. In the lectures, Nabokov opens up the whole range of Russian literature, injecting all his passion and imagination into discussions of Pushkin or digressions on literature, art, and life. The lectures should be published in three years or so.
By the time I unearthed this treasure, Véra had already let me see Nabokov’s diaries and his letters to his parents. But it was not until I returned to Montreux in the winter of 1984-85, after she had seen the first chapters of my biography and realized she would not regret trusting me, that she allowed me oblique access to Nabokov’s letters to her. She would not let me read or hold them, but sat at the small round dining table in her sitting room while I sat opposite. In her 80s, still coughing and husky from a recent cold, she read aloud from the letters into my tape recorder, session after session, skipping endearments and anything else she thought too personal, announcing “propusk” (“omission”) at each cut.
Late in 1984 Véra had told me she would “of course” eventually let me see The Original of Laura, but she made such promises mainly to silence my persistence. In February 1987 she at last agreed to my entreaties. My awe at holding Nabokov’s manuscripts had long passed. For seven years I had been cataloguing and rearranging them for Véra and transcribing and indexing them for my own purposes, letting myself into the archive room and the “library” in the Nabokov rooms of the Montreux Palace Hotel’s Cygne wing, often working there from morning till after midnight.
Véra placed the small box of index cards—Nabokov’s usual medium for composition since about 1950—on the maroon-and-silver striped period sofa in her small living room, and positioned herself on the matching sofa two meters away. I was allowed to read the manuscript once only, her sharp eyes fixed on me like a drill, and to take no notes. I also had to cede her the right to refuse anything I might write about the novel that depended on this single noteless reading. The conditions could hardly have been worse.
Not long afterward, on Dmitri’s next visit to Montreux, Véra and Dmitri asked me what I thought they should do with the manuscript of The Original of Laura. I said, to my own surprise, “Destroy it.” How glad I am now that they ignored my advice and that their attachment to Nabokov’s work overrode even their respect for his last wish.
In 1950 Nabokov would have burned another manuscript, that of a still-incomplete book entitled Lolita, if Véra had not stopped him on his way to the incinerator. Of course Nabokov, Véra, Dmitri, and the whole world have good reason to be thankful that that didn’t happen. But he finished Lolita, and he came nowhere near finishing The Original of Laura. So why am I now thankful about this publication?
The Original of Laura could have been published badly, as if it were a new Lolita or at least a new Pnin. Instead it was better published than I could have imagined. Subtitled “A Novel in Fragments” on the cover and “(Dying Is Fun)” on the title page, the index cards now bound into book form rightly flaunt their unfinishedness. Readers should not expect a new story to rival Lolita’s intensity or a new character to match Pnin’s pathos, but instead glimpses of a famously demanding writer still challenging his readers and himself, in his late 70s, with death closing in.
What troubled me so much when I first read The Original of Laura and recommended that the text be destroyed? And what has changed so much in my sense of the novel that I welcomed its publication?
All my initial dissatisfactions have been echoed in the responses of gifted reviewers like Martin Amis, John Banville, Jonathan Bate, John Simon, Alexander Theroux, and Aleksandar Hemon.
My first disappointment was that the fragments remain just that. I knew that Nabokov had had the idea for the novel almost four years before his death and that when he still had more than 14 months to live Véra had reported that he was “about halfway” to completion. I had expected much more than I found. Reading and understanding need trust. The embryonic nature of the text sapped my trust, especially when I could read it only once under Vera’s wary eyes. For reviewers, their reluctance to trust an inchoate Nabokov text was compounded by their suspicion of the rationale for its publication.
My second regret was that there were no sympathetic characters and no characters that loom large in the imagination like other Nabokov protaganists, such as Luzhin, Humbert, Pnin, Kinbote, or Van Veen.
The third was that the narrative driveshaft seemed broken. In Lolita, Pale Fire, and Ada, Nabokov reinvents fiction without forfeiting the pleasures of plot. The Original of Laura has a beginning, a middle, and an end, but it’s hard to see how readers would have been impelled from one to the next even if the novel had been completed.
The fourth was the recurrence of unpleasantly heartless sex, as in Transparent Things, and the fifth, the recurrence of a Lolita theme. Nabokov had recycled the name of Lolita, or much more, in Pale Fire, in Ada, and in Look at the Harlequins! In The Original of Laura he introduces a character called Hubert H. Hubert, the partner of Flora’s mother. When his hand touches 12-year-old Flora’s legs under the bedclothes, she kicks him in the groin. Do we really need a fourth reprise of Lolita, even with this twist?
The sixth disappointment was that the hero has a problem too strange to engage the imagination. Luzhin’s love of chess haunts even readers who cannot play the game. Humbert’s desire for Lolita compels readers despite their feelings about child-rape. But in Nabokov’s last completed novel, Look at the Harlequins!, Vadim Vadimych’s maddening problem is merely that he can’t imagine turning around to walk the other way along a street, an act that he can readily perform in real life but that sends his imagination spinning—and a problem that has always failed to turn my imagination. In The Original of Laura, Philip Wild wants to find out how to will his own body dead, inch by inch, from his feet upward, so that dying becomes fun, and a reversible relief from the itch of being. Most of us surely think about death, and most of us have times when we wouldn’t mind rewriting our bodies, but Philip Wild’s obsessive quest to erase his body seems far from an ordinary human preoccupation.
My seventh concern was the novel’s style. In a 1974 review a stern young Martin Amis had greeted Look at the Harlequins!: “[its] unnerving deficiency . . . is the crudity of its prose. . . . In the book’s 250-odd pages I found only four passages that were genuinely haunting and beautiful; in an earlier Nabokov it would be hard to find as many that were not.” I too was sadly disappointed by Look at the Harlequins! and wondered if it marked an irreversible decline in Nabokov’s powers. Yet he still sparkled in interviews and introductions. As Nabokov’s biographer, I sweated in 1987 as I picked up the first of the Laura index cards: would I be able to describe Nabokov’s invention as undimmed, or would the manuscript confirm a decline? My fraught first reading, alas, bore out my fears. Above all, I felt that whatever might have become of the novel, the cards that survived fell far short of Nabokov’s standards and should be destroyed as he wished.
If you have not yet bought The Original of Laura you will now be thinking that you need not bother. Read on: I want to change your mind. And rest assured that I’m not someone who approves of whatever Nabokov writes. I have sometimes been harsher than anyone on those of his works I think not up to his high standards.
My estimation of The Original of Laura has changed dramatically. It’s not another Lolita or Pale Fire, but it could have been, and already is, another fascinating Nabokov novel, and a priceless entry into his workshop. What’s changed my mind? Not reading under impossible conditions. Not reading with wrong expectations. Reading for what’s there and not for what’s missing. Rereading. Trusting more. Re-rereading, and trusting still more.
My first disappointment was that the novel was so fragmentary, so unfinished. It still is, but there’s a strong beginning, a vivid middle, a wry end, and an already intricate design. The more I reread, the more I think that Nabokov may indeed have been nearly halfway to another short novel like The Eye or Transparent Things.
My second was with the characters. True, none is sympathetic, but the heroine Flora is deliciously unlikable, and her husband, the neurologist Philip Wild, is an unforgettable presence from his tartan booties and his ingrown toenails to his Buddha-like bulk to his brilliant brain trying to erase his feet.
My third lay with the plot. But if there’s little plot tension there’s also headlong action from reckless Flora and comic inertia from Wild’s repeated self-erasures. Perhaps one in two of Nabokov’s novels lacks a powerful plot impetus. Unless I’m mistaken, as you know by now I can be, The Original of Laura would have offered different pleasures from those of suspense: the contrasts of helter-skelter narration and meditative stasis, and the puzzles of who has created, and who has obliterated, whom.
Three problems down, three to go. You’ll still be far from persuaded.
My fourth: the frequent focus on sex, and the replay of the Lolita theme. Why I thought the former disappointing on first encounter I now can’t imagine. I now find Nabokov’s descriptions of sex here hilariously unappetizing, prodigiously unsatisfying emotionally and often physically comic in their painful shortcomings. Just forget the tension of Lolita or the ecstatic, “passionate pump-joy” release of Ada; forget, above all, the romance of first love in Speak, Memory or in Mary. In The Original of Laura, he writes:
Flora was barely fourteen when she lost her virginity to a coeval, a handsome ballboy at the Carlton Courts in Cannes. Three or four broken porch steps—which was all that remained of an ornate public toilet or some ancient templet—smothered in mints and campanulas and surrounded by junipers, formed the site of a duty she had resolved to perform rather than a casual pleasure she was now learning to taste. 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 at the decisive moment. Flora let Jules do everything he desired except kiss her on the mouth, and the only words said referred to the next assignation.
Nabokov has focused on sex before, but never has he shown it so divorced from feeling. But he surely amuses and appalls us in a new way with the sexual activity he depicts.
My fifth concern yielded even greater surprises. Nabokov evokes Humbert Humbert not to replay Lolita but to mislead our expectations. Mr. Hubert H. Hubert lost a daughter at 12, run over by a truck. He sees her in a sense resurrected in Flora, Daisy’s age when she died, and wants to be nearer Flora than she wants him to be; wants, even, to brush her hair with his lips. But as far as I can see, his feelings toward her are only those of the father of the lost daughter whom Flora keeps reminding him of. Flora, who knows about sex but not about love, misreads his intentions, as do readers misled by Nabokov’s expert deception. The real link to Lolita we should make from Hubert H. Hubert is not to Humbert crushing Lolita under his memory of Annabel Leigh, but to the Kasbeam barber, whose appearance Nabokov in his essay “On a Book Entitled Lolita” identifies as one of “the nerves of the novel . . . the secret points, the subliminal co-ordinates by means of which the book is plotted,” a sentence that, he reports, cost him a month of work:
In Kasbeam a very old barber gave me a very mediocre haircut: he babbled of a baseball-playing son of his, and, at every explodent, spat into my neck, and every now and then wiped his glasses on my sheet-wrap, or interrupted his tremulous scissor work to produce faded newspaper clippings, and so inattentive was I that it came as a shock to realize as he pointed to an easeled photograph among the ancient gray lotions, that the mustached young ball player had been dead for the last thirty years.
In this novel of human erasures, Daisy’s death has not been erased for the father who remembers his lost child so painfully, so hopelessly. Nabokov has hidden under our noses the beating core of tenderness in this apparently heartlessly hard novel: Flora as potential Daisy, not as Lolita, is one of this novel’s “secret points.”
My sixth problem was Philip Wild’s obsession with willing his own death. Wild’s quest is certainly singular. But many of us have wished to shed intense pain or discard excess weight. Wild wishes both. Many have sought to train the mind to control and transcend the self, through meditation, and Wild has not only the shape of the fattest Buddha but the same urge to reach nirvana (the text makes references to both) and to eliminate the self. In Wild’s case, life has pained him, with his vast bulk, abscessed toes, writhing gut, and the “anthology of humiliation” his life has been since he married Flora. The word anthology derives from the Greek for “collecting flowers,” but in Wild’s case, his Flora casually plucks and casually or viciously jettisons other men.
Nabokov has some sympathy with Wild in his humiliation, and so should we, but he is no Pnin. All of us might wish at times we could control our own death or restoration but Nabokov surely presents Wild’s as exactly the wrong way to transcend death. Eliminating the self promises no worthwhile passage beyond life. The only transcending of death Nabokov could imagine wanting would take the self through death to a freer realm of being but not deny its accumulation of experience: “I am ready to become a floweret / Or a fat fly,” John Shade writes in Pale Fire, “but never, to forget.” In Ada, Van Veen explains “the worst part of dying”: “the wrench of relinquishing forever all one’s memories—that’s a commonplace, but what courage man must have had to go through that commonplace again and again and not give up the rigmarole of accumulating again and again the riches of consciousness that will be snatched away!”
For many over many millennia, but never more than for Nabokov, transcending death has seemed somehow akin to escaping earth’s gravity. Fat Philip Wild flopping over on erased toes succumbs to gravity more grotesquely than ever. And his whole obsessive quest seems an apotheosis of self and of stasis, a self-fixated and self-enclosed attempt to circumvent the limits to the self that death imposes. To the extent that Nabokov imagines passing through death—and that’s to a very considerable extent—he sees it as a transition that hurtles the self into a state retaining accumulated selfhood but no longer subjected to “the solitary confinement of the soul.”
Wild conjures up an image of an “I,” “our favorite pronoun,” on his mental blackboard, its three bars representing his legs, torso, and head, and sees his autohypnosis as akin to successively rubbing out each bar. Images of erasure or self-deletion pervade the whole novel, in ways that reveal Nabokov’s customary care in constructing and concealing his patterns. To take one example: Wild feels delight and relief at erasing his agonizing ingrown toenails. Flora by contrast wipes not a mental blackboard but her own flesh: she requires her menfolk to withdraw before ejaculation, and promptly wipes the semen off her groin, or as the novel once phrases it, her “inguen.” How many people know this word means groin? Ingrown-inguen: Nabokov covertly links Wild erasing his own life, rubbing out his toes, with Flora briskly wiping off the possibility of new life. The Roman Flora was a fertility goddess, Nabokov’s Flora, a sterility goddess.
Art can offer a kind of immortality, a different promise of transcending death. But not here, not in this novel. Flora’s grandfather, a painter of once-admired sentimental landscapes, falls forever out of favor: “What can be sadder than a discouraged artist dying not from his own commonplace maladies, but from the cancer of oblivion invading his once famous pictures such as ‘April in Yalta’ or ‘The Old Bridge’?” His son, a photographer, films his own suicide, his being rubbed out. The photographer’s wife, Flora’s mother, a ballerina known only as Lanskaya, finds her art fading as her body ages. Flora herself becomes the subject of a kiss-and-tell novel, My Laura, which aims not to immortalize but to expunge her: “The ‘I’ of the book is a neurotic and hesitant man of letters who destroys his mistress in the act of portraying her.” The laurel was associated with literary immortality because its leaves last so long after they detach. Flora, so eager to be deflowered, remains alive at the end of the novel; unlike her husband, obsessed with his own death, she ends The Original of Laura refusing to look at the novel My Laura lying on her lap and at what a friend recommends as “your wonderful death . . . the craziest death in the world.”
We come to my seventh concern, the novel’s style. For an older and still sterner Martin Amis, this by itself would be decisive. In 1999, for the centenary of Nabokov’s birth, the oldest of the five journals devoted to him, the Nabokovian, decided to stage a Nabokov write-alike contest. A panel of judges selected three submissions, which appeared along with what were announced as two “never before published pieces of Nabokov’s prose”—both from The Original of Laura—that readers were informed Dmitri had supplied. Subscribers were invited to pick the original Nabokov. Delightfully, most picked a passage by Charles Nicol, an academic and writer who had been publishing superb work on Nabokov for more than 30 years, and no one picked the passages from The Original Of Laura. Nobody picked Nabokov as the one who wrote most like Nabokov.
What does that tell us? It indicates that even Nabokovians either misconstrue Nabokov’s style or underestimate how new it can be from work to work. We can recognize on sight many hallmarks of his style when we see them “on site,” and we can find many of them already on his construction site for The Original of Laura. But we have not sufficiently recognized how much Nabokov also modifies his style and reweights particular features in each work. To take his best English works, the high, controlled elegance of Speak, Memory differs radically from Lolita’s neurotic twitchiness, and both from Pale Fire’s would-be cloudless craziness; and all three differ from Ada’s rococo supersaturation—and all four from The Original of Laura.
That no one picked the Laura passages in the write-alike contest does not suggest that Nabokov isn’t writing up to par here but, on the contrary, that he’s playing his usual game of changing or reinventing his game subtly to suit the special world of the work.
Nabokov has a reputation for being a great prose stylist, perhaps even the greatest. The Original of Laura makes me want to rethink what constitutes the distinctively Nabokovian: not just elevated prose, a recondite lexicon, elegant quicksilver sentences, minute precision of visual detail, pointed allusion, foregrounded verbal combinatory play, lucid elusiveness. His style may be most extraordinary not so much as prose but as story. Unlike “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins,” the 13 words of the opening sentence of The Original of Laura would win no place in dictionaries of quotations and no prizes as prose. I won’t quote them yet, but taken out of context, the first sentence offers plain words that muffle even their plain declarative force with a doubled concession—but as storytelling, the sentence astounds. It does more as story than we had any right to expect of a first sentence, until now.
All his writing life Nabokov stressed transition as the most demanding skill in storytelling: transition among the focal modes of fiction—character, description, report, speech, or reflection. He sought new ways to shift from one to another, new ways to speed up the shifts or slow them down or highlight or veil them. He wanted both to extend the possibilities in narrative at every moment and to show readers how nimbly their minds can move from present to past or future, from outside a character to inside, from here to there, from actual to possible or impossible, counterfactual or suppositional. In On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction (2009), I marshal the evidence that we have evolved into a storytelling species, and that the main reason we have done so is because stories improve still further the social cognition and hence the shifts in perspective that had already reached such a high level in our species. From childhood pretend play to adult fiction, we speed up the capacity of our minds to leap beyond our here and now by taking on new roles, sidling and sliding this way and that through time, space, minds, and modalities, thanks to the intense doses of social information we deal with in fiction. No one has taken this further than Nabokov does in his last novel. Narratologists and novelists alike will focus on the opening chapter of The Original of Laura as proof of the new finds still to be made in fiction.
The Original of Laura starts with an answer, but we never learn the question, and we never quite keep up with the pace of the story. It reminds me of the myth of Atalanta and the golden apples. At top speed it picks up a stray fact, darts aside, nonchalantly drops one subject, gathers up another, and still races ahead—unless it slows down, and all but stops, with Philip Wild, as he tries again and again to erase himself.
Nabokov not only rewrites narrative texture but from novel to novel reshapes narrative structure. As you read the first chapter of The Original of Laura, look for the unprecedented way Nabokov makes the narrator imply himself and conceal or erase himself throughout—while Laura disregards her new lover, dumps an old one, and ignores her husband.
Do not expect in The Original of Laura the high lyricism of Lolita, Pale Fire, and Ada. Instead look for how much Nabokov does once again by inverting what he values most, but, as always, in a new way. He inverts love as a path to self-transcendence (through procreation, through the tender attunement to lovemaking, through sharing a life with another) in Flora—as sterility goddess wiping the sperm off her groin, in her heartless promiscuity, in the “anthology of humiliation” she offers her husband. Art becomes not a way to self-transcendence here but, rather, the vengeful obliteration of others or the skulking effacement of the tattletale self. Nabokov sees death as a possible release from the confines of the self, not an erasing of the self like Philip Wild’s or an evasion of its limits like Flora’s.
Nabokov offers us—in the suppleness and speed of our imaginations as he sends us hurtling along the black trails of his story—a route beyond the rapacity of the sexual self in Flora or the stagnation of the cerebral self in Philip and, if we invert his inversions, what he famously called “a sense of being somehow, somewhere, connected with other states of being where art (curiosity, tenderness, kindness, ecstasy) is the norm.”
I began with Nabokov’s compulsiveness as a writer and the scope, therefore, not only of his published oeuvre but also of the archive he left behind. A few months ago, the world caught up with his final fiction, with the one novel he tried to write when his health would no longer allow him to work compulsively or even steadily. But for decades before he began The Original of Laura he was writing at full intensity. What else remains to discover in Nabokov’s literary leavings?
Another single-correspondent collection of letters even finer than the Nabokov-Wilson Letters or Letters to His Sister (his favorite sister, Elena Sikorski) looms. The letters to Véra that she would not let me see, but only hear and record in her expurgated version, are being prepared in a volume to themselves, transcribed and translated from the Russian by Olga Voronina, former deputy director of the Nabokov Museum at St. Petersburg, and by me, with Dmitri Nabokov adding the final polish and familial tone. They should appear in 2011.
The next correspondence to appear will be Nabokov’s letters to his family, especially to his parents. Like Letters to Véra, these will be published in both English and Russian volumes, as will a next collection of his letters to Russian friends and publishers—usually much more intense and intimate than his comparable letters in English. Allow another six years for these two.
After the two volumes of my biography were published in 1990 and 1991, the next major parts of the legacy to appear were in 1995, in the Stories of Vladimir Nabokov, with a dozen early additions, translated by Dmitri, to the stories Nabokov had himself chosen to collect. Dmitri has since updated the collection with translations of new stories discovered in a uniquely surviving newspaper in Poland (“Easter Rain”) and in an unfinished draft in the archive (“Natasha”).
Dmitri, now 75, has slowed down with age from his four Ferraris to a wheelchair. But alongside his editing and translating his father’s fiction, he has been enjoying translating his father’s poems for more than 20 years, including a very successful recent version, not yet published, of “A University Poem,” his father’s longest Russian poem. A Collected Poems seems about two years off. Meanwhile, Nabokov scholarship has powered ahead elsewhere: in a 10-volume scholarly Russian edition; in the Pléiade edition of Nabokov in France (begun in 1986, volume 2 is only now about to be published); and in a 25-volume, lightly annotated German edition.
I have recently edited, with Stanislav Shvabrin, Verses and Versions: Three Centuries of Russian Poetry (2008), which gathers all Nabokov’s translations from Russian verse except the ones already published in books to themselves, the anonymous medieval Song of Igor’s Campaign and Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin. With the forthcoming lectures, we will have three volumes of Nabokov’s translations of Russian verse and, soon, two or three volumes of his Cornell lectures on Russian literature, plus the two volumes of Eugene Onegin annotations: seven or eight volumes from the man who makes a natural bridge between literature in Russian and English.
Another project now under way I have wanted to undertake for 20 years: a volume of Nabokov’s hitherto uncollected interviews, reviews, and essays, to be called Think, Write, Speak—after the opening sentence of Nabokov’s foreword to his own collection, Strong Opinions: “I think like a genius, I write like a distinguished author, and I speak like a child.”
In some of the many interviews The Original of Laura has provoked, I have sometimes illustrated the reasons for my reversal in terms of the excitement I now feel at the opening of the novel and its narrative novelty. David Gates, in The New York Times Book Review, quotes me and asks: “Does Boyd mean the device of beginning a novel in medias res, with a character answering a question we don’t get to hear? Virginia Woolf did the same thing in the first sentence of To the Lighthouse.” True, Woolf’s landmark novel does begin “‘Yes, of course, if it’s fine tomorrow,’ said Mrs. Ramsay. ‘But you’ll have to be up with the lark,’ she added.” The suddenness of that opening, and its clear announcement of a planned excursion, magnificently sets up the thwarted expedition to the lighthouse.
But Nabokov’s openings are still more extraordinary, from “In the second place, because he was possessed by a mad hankering after Russia” (“The Circle”) to “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins,” to the parodic mistranslation and reversal of Tolstoy’s famous first sentence of Anna Karenina in the first sentence of Ada, to the bizarre address from a dead narrator to a living character at the start of Transparent Things: “Here’s the person I want. Hullo, person. Doesn’t hear me.”
And here’s the opening sentence of The Original of Laura: “Her husband, she answered, was a writer, too—at least, after a fashion.” After those other famous first lines, what is it that strikes me as just as remarkable about this succession of individually unremarkable words?
The first word, “Her,” a third-person possessive pronoun, already implies a female possessor we do not know and cannot identify as the narrator. “She” comes along at the third word (“she answered”), but she remains unidentified.
Over the last couple of centuries, fiction has tended to shorten exposition and even to begin in medias res. For that reason, direct speech as a more immediate and dramatic entry has become increasingly common in 20th-century fiction. But indirect speech implies a narrator doing the reporting, and usually follows the narrator’s establishment of the character’s identity. Here we have neither the identity of the character nor the confident establishment of the narrator. Over the next few sentences the volubility of the still-unnamed woman continues to hold the narrator at bay.
As the Japanese Nabokovian Tadashi Wakashima has also explained, we can infer what provokes “her” response: a preceding “I am a writer.” “She” then answers: “My husband is a writer, too—at least, after a fashion.” Later in the long first paragraph we discover that “she” is Flora, that she is at a party, that she is drunk, that she “wished to be taken home or preferably to some cool quiet place with a clean bed and room service.” Within another paragraph she has been offered and has eagerly accepted the apartment of friends, and has begun to undress there to make love with someone whom she has picked up at the party, someone whom we cannot see clearly. As the lovemaking scene enfolds us and unfolds itself, we recognize Flora’s sexual partner as the narrator, yet we also see that he avoids identifying or describing himself or reporting his actions as his, by dint of referring to them only through non-finite verbs. The narrator, we infer, is the writer whom Flora has just met at the party, when she is already drunk, when she has asked what he does, when he has replied, and when she in turn answers, in the opening line of the novel. There she refers disparagingly to her husband—the very husband this new lover will return her to late in the chapter, after dawn, to add another rank flower to his “anthology of humiliation.” She refers to her husband’s being a writer, a profession she casually insults four short sentences later, despite being already in the process of picking up this other self-effacing writer—who in writing this very scene, in these very words, in his roman à clef My Laura, has his revenge on her heartlessness.
No one has ever packed so much story into the choice of the opening word (“Her”), the opening mode (indirect speech), the opening declaration and its antecedents and its consequences in terms of narrative action, narrative voice, and narrative aim. At the same time as he manages all this, Nabokov also shows the narrator effacing himself, and deleting Flora as he portrays her (before killing her off fictively later in My Laura) mentioning her husband as “a writer of sorts,” whose “mysterious manuscript” itself recounts how he erases himself, in another doomed attempt at transcending, or expunging, the self.
After reading Martin Amis’s negative review of The Original of Laura on the day we were to appear in New York on the eve of the novel’s publication, I gave him a printout of a review I had written for publication later that week. Handing it back, he had to say he disagreed with my claim that the opening shows Nabokov “at the peak of his powers.” I stand by, and I can now explain, my claim.
The Original of Laura will be almost the last new Nabokov fiction we will ever see. But there are hundreds, even thousands, more pages to come of Nabokov in full flow, and not dammed up by death.
Brian Boyd is the author of Stalking Nabokov: Selected Essays and On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction.
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