The Original of Laura

The day that Vladimir Nabokov hoped would never come has finally arrived: The Original of Laura is a book. Thirty-two years after the writer’s death, his last, unfinished work — which has inspired so much gossip, controversy, and reverent speculation among the keepers of the Nabokov cult — is no longer a rumor but a fact. In one obvious sense, this is a promotion, an increase in dignity. What Nabokov left behind was merely a stack of 138 hand-written index cards, the rough fragments of the novel he started to write two years before his death; now we have an imposing, richly produced volume, fit to stand on any bookshelf next to Lolita or Pale Fire.

Yet in another sense, The Original of Laura cannot help seeming like a disappointment, a diminution. The writer Ron Rosenbaum, a leading Nabokovian who campaigned for the text to be published, wrote recently about his sky-high expectations for the book: “it might disclose clues about the nature of a true object of wonder, mystery and intricacy: the mind of Vladimir Nabokov, perhaps seen for the first time in the process of creation.” In this edition, Dmitri Nabokov, the novelist’s son and heir, credits Rosenbaum for helping to influence his decision to override his father’s instructions, which were to destroy the index cards. But Nabokov, the great magician, knew that magic is only an “object of wonder” when the audience is not allowed backstage. And the experience of reading The Original of Laura is uncomfortably like sneaking into the magician’s dressing room as he knots his colored handkerchiefs and stuffs rabbits into hats. The spell is reduced to a trick.

How much the reader enjoys the trick will depend on how much he already loves Nabokov; for the book as we have it is enormously self-referential and self-reflective, a kind of compendium of Nabokovian jokes and mannerisms. Indeed, the structure of the book, so far as it can be deduced from the few completed passages, was to resemble a triple mirror. We start out in medias res, reading about Flora, a beautiful and voracious young woman — a belle dame sans merci — who leaves a party with a man, sleeps with him, then brusquely dismisses him when he is not up for another round (“Not even a quickie? Well, tant pis.”)

Nabokov goes on to fill in Flora’s background — her Russian-émigré ancestors, her adolescent sexual awakening, and her years at Sutton College in Massachusetts. Any reader of Nabokov will instantly recognize that, in this section, he is writing a kind of medley or reprise of his favorite themes. Nowhere is this more teasingly explicit than when he describes the teenage Flora’s seduction by her mother’s boyfriend, “an elderly but still vigorous Englishman…. His name, no doubt assumed, was Hubert H. Hubert.” Is this actually Humbert Humbert, the pedophile narrator of Lolita, under the thinnest of disguises? It would seem so, especially when he “told her stories about sad life…about his daughter who was just like her, same age — twelve — same eyelashes”; surely that daughter, whom he calls Daisy, must be Dolores Haze. And Hubert’s seduction technique — taking advantage of Flora’s sickness to feel under her bedclothes — is all too reminiscent of Humbert’s.

If the first part of The Original of Laura suggests a coy rewriting of Lolita, however, the second sounds more like Lolita’s revenge, as the young woman becomes the tormentor of a ridiculous old man. Philip Wild, a professor at Sutton, is “a brilliant neurologist, a renowned lecturer [and] a gentleman of independent means.” But he is also “enormously fat,” elderly, and ridiculous, and when he marries Flora, he is reduced to despair by her contempt and her open philandering. In this way, the novel pivots into its second, much more interesting story: the internal monologue in which Philip describes his attempts to commit suicide simply by thinking about it.

According to Dmitri Nabokov, his father spent the last two years of his life — the years in which he was writing this novel — suffering “a period of illness, which never quite receded” until his death. It was a time for reflecting on last things, and it is fascinatingly characteristic of Nabokov to approach death, not in a spirit of surrender, but with a final assertion of aesthetic control. Philip Wild imagines, shapes, wills his death, just as a novelist imagines his characters:

The student who desires to die should learn first of all to project a mental image of himself upon his inner blackboard. This surface which at its virgin best has a dark-plum, rather than black, depth of opacity is none other than the underside of one’s closed eyelids…. Soon, with the strong thumb of thought I could rub out its base, which corresponded to my joined feet.

Wild elaborates this mental “process of self-deletion” until he can erase whole organs, which he finds brings him a voluptuous pleasure. It is not clear whether Nabokov meant to allow Wild to actually kill himself by thinking about it — there is a reference, in a later fragment, to his “fatal heart attack,” which could quite possibly have been self-induced. Nor does the existing material fully develop the third strand of the narrative — the novel-within-a-novel, “My Laura,” in which Flora’s lover turns her and Philip into fictional characters (thus explaining the title: Flora is the original of Laura). But there is enough here to suggest that, had Nabokov completed the book, it would have been an intriguing experiment in the limits of aestheticism. Can the writer, even a writer as controlling as Nabokov, convincingly extend that control over death itself?

It is doubly ironic, then, that The Original of Laura should have been delivered to the world in such a manifestly broken condition. Knopf, faced with the problem of how to publish a “novel in fragments” that, I would estimate, does not total much more than 5,000 words, hit on a brilliant design strategy. Rather than disguising the unfinished nature of the text, the book flaunts it: each page contains a photo-reproduction of one of Nabokov’s hand-written index cards, with the text transcribed underneath. (The back of each card is reproduced as well as the front, even though the backs are almost always blank.) What’s more, each card is surrounded by a perforation, allowing the reader to remove them from the book; a “note on the text” advises that the cards can and should be “removed and rearranged, as the author likely did when he was writing the novel.”

The irony, of course, is that Nabokov would be less amused than any novelist you could name by such a procedure. The writer of some of the most overdetermined texts in English literature, who seeded his novels with endless clues and puns, would never surrender his control over the reader in this way. The Original of Laura was conceived as the author’s fantasy of power over death; now that it is published, we can only read it as a symbol of the way death annihilates all authority.