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The reviews pour in for Nabokov's 'The Original of Laura'

November 13, 2009 |  2:14 pm

After being locked up in a Swiss vault for decades, Vladimir Nabokov's final work, "The Original of Laura," has been published by his son, Dmitri. Although Nabokov left instructions with his wife that his last novel-in-progress -- written on 138 index cards -- should be destroyed, she couldn't bring herself to follow his wishes. As she'd saved "Lolita" from a similar fate when he'd tried to burn it, her hesitation is understandable.

"The Original of Laura" doesn't look much like a novel. Nabokov's index cards are faithfully reproduced on the upper half of each page and fully transcribed in prose below. Noted book designer Chip Kidd surrounded the index cards with perforations so they can be punched out, stacked and reshuffled -- just as Nabokov used to shuffle them himself. But that still doesn't make it a book, and "the lavish packaging is more than a little disproportionate," our reviewer James Marcus writes. "As a novel -- even as the sketch of a novel, with operating instructions enclosed -- 'The Original of Laura' is largely an exercise in frustration."

The plot of "The Original of Laura" is described by the Wall Street Journal: "A flighty adventuress named Flora, the daughter of an artistic couple, becomes, as the years pass, the subject of a scandalous novel, 'My Laura.' It has been written, we are told, 'by a neurotic and hesitant man of letters' (a former lover, it is suggested). Young Flora experiences sex early, not excluding a groping encounter at age 12 with a lecher named (drum roll) Hubert H. Hubert, a paramour of Flora's own flighty mother. Years later, she marries fat, wealthy Philip Wild, another older man, with whom after three years she becomes bored—then faithless."

In our review, Marcus writes: "At once we are given to understand that Flora, with her protective carapace of contempt, is not only the heart of the work but is also herself a walking, talking, fornicating metaphor. 'Her exquisite bone structure,' we read, 'immediately slipped into a novel -- became in fact the secret structure of that novel, besides supporting a number of poems.' No doubt we are encountering the original of 'The Original of Laura,' who the enchanting author will now put through her metafictional paces." But Nabakov fails to follow this through in much length.

Instead, he switches focus to Flora's husband, Philip Wild, who is attempting to imagine erasing himself out of existence, in a "process of self-obliteration." In the N.Y. Times, Michiko Kakutani writes, "Most hauntingly, given the circumstances of its composition, 'Laura' explores the subjects of death and the otherworldly with contemplative urgency."

"Philip Wild's 'dying by auto-dissolution' is a clever device of a particularly Nabokovian sort, with the added heft of Nabokov's actual dying looming over it," Aleksander Hemon writes in Slate. "The editing and packaging  of 'The Original of Laura,' complete with the subtitle 'Dying Is Fun' and the obliteration list at the end, suggest a concerted effort to exploit to the hilt this possible relation to Nabokov's own disintegration: His illness and suffering are meant to enhance the weak text and fuel the industry-orchestrated drama. Otherwise, the fragments dealing with Wild's self-eradication traverse the border between plain silly and ridiculously serious -- and are, at times, sloppily prolix...."

At Bookforum (free registration required), John Banville doesn't mind. "The book is deeply interesting, not so much for what it thinks itself to be as for what we know it is: a master's final work." What does set his teeth on edge is the son's introduction. "Dmitri Nabokov's introduction is a lamentable performance, stridently defensive, slippery on particulars, and frequently repellent in tone."

But while most reviewers, including our own, think the work makes for an interesting artifact, Hemon disagrees. "It is safe to say that what is published as the novel titled 'The Original of Laura (Dying Is Fun)' is not a result Nabokov desired or would welcome," he writes. " 'The Original of Laura' can't escape the musty air of an estate sale: The trinkets that piled up in the attic; the damp books from the basement; the old man's stained cravat; the lonely figurines that used to be part of a cherished set; the mismatched, overworn clothing -- all are brought out in the hope that there might appear a buyer for those sad objects, someone blinded by literary nostalgia and willing to rescue the family possessions from the waste basket."

As for estate sales, well, the Nabokov estate is having one. The blog the Literary Saloon points us to this auction at Christie's: Nabakov's 138 "Original of Laura" index cards are up for auction and are expected to sell for $400,000 to $600,000.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Vladimir Nabakov in Switzerland in 1973. Credit: R.T. Kahn