Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Nabokov from the grave

Apparently, this is both old news and pre-news, but when Vladimir Nabokov died in 1977, he left instructions with his son, Dmitri, to destroy his final, uncompleted novel.

Now, while I bow to literary genius, I'm not a colossal Nabokov fan. But this is an interesting story.

And it comes to the fore because someone in the Writers' Room of Boston, my hangout, posted a 'what do you think?' question about it on our social media forum: the chalkboard the hangs over the toilet.

Anyway, having put aside any number of interesting Pink Slip topics that have presented themselves in the last couple of days - the threatened euthanasia of some animals at Boston's Franklin Park Zoo due to state budget cuts; Bernie Madoff's fleeting time served in the same Federal pen in Atlanta where Charles Ponzi did time; the well-timed share dumping of some Goldman execs - I'll offer up a brief musing on this topic.

Vlad the Father apparently had a last wish that Dmitri the Son burn the manuscript for The Original of Laura. After agonizing over his decision for a scant 30 years, Dmitri decided to save the work from its eve of destruction.  It will be published next fall.

Dmitri has supposedly claimed that the ghost of literary giant past appeared to him, giving him the okie-dokie to go ahead and let the presses roll.

Now Dmitri, who was his father's translator, was not in this to do the business thang and make a buck. Obviously, 30 years of agonizing is 30 years of agonizing, and whatever he makes off the sales of the book, well, probably won't amount to much payback if you figure it on a per annum basis.

What he has done is allowed the literary world - especially those Nabokov aficionados who actually know him for more than Lolita - to be able to read more of a brilliant, treasured author. It would have been a shame if his final, almost-but-not-quite-finished work had ended up being licked by the flames of a Duraflame log.

Now, I wouldn't make myself crazy or distraught over it, but if there were some remnants of my favorite writers  - the still with us William Trevor, Alice Munro, and a few others - lying around, I would be thrilled to be able to read them.

Last winter, The New Yorker published an end-of-life poem that John Updike had written while in the hospital a few weeks before he died. To me, it was a wondrous gift, showing us how a writer who'd always grappled with the ages of man was dealing with the final one.

Of course, Updike had written the poem for publication - he hadn't asked his executors to toss it on the fire.

Although the circumstances are different, I laud Dmitri Nabokov's decision to go ahead and publish his father's last work.

It is highly unlikely that Vladimir Nabokov's whatever has any idea whatsoever what's happening with the last words.

I'm sure that Dmitri Nabokov wouldn't have allowed the publication to occur if the writing had been sub-par, the literary shadow of his father's former self. We certainly don't anticipate anything along the lines of, "It was a dark and stormy night. The beautiful, buxom, raven-tressed, ruby-lipped Laura pressed her pert nose against the leaded-glass window of the castle turret where her evil guardian had kept her imprisoned for nearly a year now. 'I really hope that my knight in shining armor rides up on a big white steed and gets me out of here,' she sighed."

So, 30 years after the fact, Dmitri, in my read, is truly honoring his father's legacy.

Life and literature - you heard it here - belongs to the living.

Not that I'll leave any coveted literary estate, but whoever cleans up after me is free to toss out, eBay, and laugh at whatever they want. (I would like Nanny's cookie jar, Grandma's sampler, the steer horns from my grandfather's saloon, and a few other treasured objects to stay en famille. But, in truth, my ashes will be in no position to tut-tut if someone decides to toss  my treasures in a dumpster.)

I actually may go out and buy a copy of The Original of Laura.

Just because.

1 comment:

Rick said...

Unlike you, I am a Nabokov fan, but I am not really looking forward to this new book being published. VN wrote his later books on 3X5 cards initially, which he then would use to put the final version together. Given the complexity of his novels, there could be some significant changes between card and page. If all his son had was the cards, as the article in Wikipedia about VN claims, then the novel still had a long way to go before VN would consider it finished. It might be interesting to read, but it might be closer to notes for a novel rather than the novel itself. That said, I agree with you that Dimitri is doing the right thing by not destroying the cards, but maybe keeping them around or reproducing them for scholars makes more sense than claiming that they comprise a finished novel by VN.