When Vladimir Nabokov died in 1977, he left instructions for his heirs to burn the 138 hand-written index cards that made up the rough draft of his final and unfinished novel, The Original of Laura. But Nabokov's wife, Vera, could not bear to destroy her husband's last work, and when she died, the fate of the manuscript fell to her son. Dmitri Nabokov’s decision finally to allow publication of the fragmented narrative—dark yet playful, preoccupied with mortality—affords us one last experience of Nabokov's magnificent creativity, the quintessence of his unparalleled body of work.
|Publisher:||Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.32(w) x 7.82(h) x 0.93(d)|
About the Author
One of the twentieth century’s master prose stylists, Vladimir Nabokov was born in St. Petersburg in 1899. He studied French and Russian literature at Trinity College, Cambridge, then lived in Berlin and Paris, where he launched a brilliant literary career. In 1940 he moved to the United States, and achieved renown as a novelist, poet, critic, and translator. He taught literature at Wellesley, Stanford, Cornell, and Harvard. In 1961 he moved to Montreaux, Switzerland, where he died in 1977.
Date of Birth:April 23, 1899
Date of Death:July 2, 1977
Place of Birth:St. Petersburg, Russia
Place of Death:Montreux, Switzerland
Education:Trinity College, Cambridge, 1922
Read an Excerpt
Excerpted from the introduction by Dmitri Nabokov
As a tepid spring settled on lakeside Switzerland in 1977, I was called from abroad to my father’s bedside in a Lausanne clinic. During recovery from what is considered a banal operation, he had apparently been infected with a hospital bacillus that severely lessened his resistance. Such obvious signals of deterioration as dramatically reduced sodium and potassium levels had been totally ignored. It was high time to intervene if he was to be kept alive.
Transfer to the Vaud Cantonal University Hospital was immediately arranged, and a long and harrowing search for the noisome germ began.
My father had fallen on a hillside in Davos while pursuing his beloved pastime of entomology, and had gotten stuck in an awkward position on the steep slope as cabin-carloads of tourists responded with guffaws, misinterpreting as a holiday prank the cries for help and waves of a butterfly net. Officialdom can be ruthless; he was subsequently reprimanded by the hotel staff for stumbling back into the lobby, supported by two bellhops, with his shorts in disarray.
There may have been no connection, but this incident in 1975 seemed to set off a period of illness, which never quite receded until those dreadful days in Lausanne. There were several tentative forays to his former life at the hôtel Palace in Montreux, the majestic recollection of which floats forth as I read, in some asinine electronic biography, that the success of Lolita “did not go to Nabokov’s head, and he continued to live in a shabby Swiss hotel.” (Italics mine.)
Nabokov did begin to lose his own physical majesty. His six-foot frame seemed to stoop a little, his steps on our lakeside promenades became short and insecure.
But he did not cease to write. He was working on a novel that he had begun in 1975—that same crucial year: an embryonic masterpiece whose pockets of genius were beginning to pupate here and there on his ever-present index cards. He very seldom spoke about the details of what he was writing, but, perhaps because he felt that the opportunities of revealing them were numbered, he began to recount certain details to my mother and to me. Our after-dinner chats grew shorter and more fitful, and he would withdraw into his room as if in a hurry to complete his work.
Soon came the final ride to the Hôpital Nestlé. Father felt worse. The tests continued; a succession of doctors rubbed their chins as their bedside manner edged toward the grave- side. Finally the draft from a window left open by a sneezing young nurse contributed to a terminal cold. My mother and I sat near him as, choking on the food I was urging him to consume, he succumbed, in three convulsive gasps, to congestive bronchitis.
Little was said about the exact causes of his malady. The death of the great man seemed to be veiled in embarrassed silence. Some years later, when, for biographical purposes, I wanted to pin things down, all access to the details of his death would remain obscure.
Only during the final stages of his life did I learn about certain confidential family matters. Among them were his express instructions that the manuscript of The Original of Laura be destroyed if he were to die without completing it. Individuals of limited imagination, intent on adding their suppositions to the maelstrom of hypotheses that has engulfed the unfinished work, have ridiculed the notion that a doomed artist might decide to destroy a work of his, what- ever the reason, rather than allow it to outlive him.
An author may be seriously, even terminally ill and yet continue his desperate sprint against Fate to the last finish line, losing despite his intent to win. He may be thwarted by a chance occurrence or by the intervention of others, as was Nabokov many years earlier, on the way to the incinerator, when his wife snatched a draft of Lolita from his grasp.
My father’s recollection and mine differed regarding the color of the impressive object that I, a child of almost six, distinguished with disbelief amid the puzzle-like jumble of buildings in the seaside town of Saint-Nazaire. It was the immense funnel of the Champlain, which was waiting to transport us to New York. I recall its being light yellow, while Father, in the concluding lines of Speak, Memory, says that it was white.
I shall stick to my image, no matter what researchers ferret from historical records of the French Line’s liveries of the period. I am equally sure of the colors I saw in my final onboard dream as we approached America: the varying shades of depressing gray that colored my dream vision of a shabby, low-lying New York, instead of the exciting skyscrapers that my parents had been promising. Upon disembarking, we also saw two differing visions of America: a small flask of Cognac vanished from our baggage during the customs inspection; on the other hand, when my father (or was it my mother? memory sometimes conflates the two) attempted to pay the cabbie who took us to our destination with the entire contents of his wallet—a hundred-dollar bill of a currency that was new to us—the honest driver immediately refused the bill with a comprehending smile.
In the years that had preceded our departure from Europe, I had learned little, in a specific sense, of what my father “did.” Even the term “writer” meant little to me. Only in the chance vignette that he might recount as a bedtime story might I retrospectively recognize the foretaste of a work that was in progress. The idea of a “book” was embodied by the many tomes bound in red leather that I would admire on the top shelves of the studies of my parents’ friends. To me, they were “appetizing,” as we would say in Russian. But my first “reading” was listening to my mother recite Father’s Russian translation of Alice in Wonderland.
We traveled to the sunny beaches of the Riviera, and thus finally embarked for New York. There, after my first day at the now-defunct Walt Whitman School, I announced to my mother that I had learned English. I really learned English much more gradually, and it became my favorite and most flexible means of expression. I shall, however, always take pride in having been the only child in the world to have studied elementary Russian, with textbooks and all, under Vladimir Nabokov.
My father was in the midst of a transition of his own. Having grown up as a “perfectly normal trilingual child,” he nonetheless found it profoundly challenging to abandon his “rich, untrammeled Russian” for a new language, not the domestic English he had shared with his Anglophone father, but an instrument as expressive, docile, and poetic as the mother tongue he had so thoroughly mastered. The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, his first English-language novel, cost him infinite doubt and suffering as he relinquished his beloved Russian—the “Softest of Tongues,” as he entitled an English poem that appeared later (in 1947) in the Atlantic Monthly. Meanwhile, during the transition to a new tongue and on the verge of our move to America, he had written his last significant freestanding prose work in Russian (in other words, neither a portion of a work in progress nor a Russian version of an existing one). This was Volshebnik (The Enchanter), in a sense a precursor of Lolita. He thought he had destroyed or lost this small manuscript and that its creative essence had been consumed by Lolita. He recalled having read it to group of friends one Paris night, blue-papered against the threat of Nazi bombs. When, eventually, it did turn up again, he examined it with his wife, and they decided, in 1959, that it would make artistic sense if it were “done into English by the Nabokovs” and published.
That was not accomplished until a decade after his death, and the publication of Lolita itself preceded that of its fore- bear. Several American publishers, fearing the repercussions of the delicate subject matter of Lolita, had abstained. Convinced that it would remain forever a victim of incomprehension, Nabokov had resolved to destroy the draft, and it was only the intervention of Véra Nabokov that, on two occasions, kept it from going up in smoke in our Ithaca incinerator.
Eventually, unaware of the publisher’s dubious reputation, Nabokov consented to have an agent place it with Girodias’s Olympia Press. And it was the eulogy of Graham Greene that propelled Lolita far beyond the trashy tropics of Cancer and Capricorn, inherited by Girodias from his father at Obelisk, and along with pornier Olympia stablemates, on its way to becoming what some have acclaimed as one of the best books ever written.
The highways and motels of 1940s America are immortalized in this proto–road novel, and countless names and places live on in Nabokov’s puns and anagrams. In 1961 the Nabokovs would take up residence at the Montreux Palace and there, on one of their first evenings, a well-meaning maid would empty forever a butterfly-adorned gift wastebasket of its contents: a thick batch of U.S. road maps on which my father had meticulously marked the roads and towns that he and my mother had traversed. Chance comments of his were recorded there, as well as names of butterflies and their habitats. How sad, especially now when every such detail is being researched by scholars on several continents. How sad, too, that a first edition of Lolita, lovingly inscribed to me, was purloined from a New York cellar and, on its way to the digs of a Cornell graduate student, sold for two dollars.
What People are Saying About This
“In these pages readers will find bright flashes of Nabokovian wordplay and surreal, Magritte-like descriptions." —The New York Times
"Tantalizing, fascinating. . . . A generous gift to readers. . . . Filled with sly wit and memorable images." —The Christian Science Monitor
"A beautifully printed objet d'art in its own right, the book of previously unpublished writings offers a thrilling insight into the great writer's creative process, 28 years after his death." —The Kansas City Star
"A unique chance to see the master out of control. . . . It's like seeing an unfinished Michelangelo sculptureone of those rough, half-formed giants straining to step out of its marble block. It's even more powerful, to a different part of the brain, than the polish of a David or a Lolita." —New York magazine
"This is no ordinary manuscript. . . . The Original of Laura is an astonishingly accurate representation of a genius' shards. But, my God, what shards these are. What devotee of Nabokov, much less mere reader, could possibly regret Dmitri Nabokov's decision to give us this gift? . . . What we have is a novelistic genius's fever dream—one of the great literary talents of his century aswirl with ideas and last thoughts." —The Buffalo News
"Nabokov's last metafictive parable. . . . One of the most interesting short stories Nabokov never wrote." —San Francisco Chronicle
"Bits and pieces of Laura will beckon and beguile Nabokov fans, who will find many of the author’s perennial themes and obsessions percolating through the story of Philip. . . . In these pages readers will find bright flashes of Nabokovian wordplay and surreal, Magritte-like descriptions." —The New York Times
“Undeniably handsome. . . . Nabokov’s ornate vocabulary is predictably fun, especially when applied to body parts.” —The Guardian (London)
“The more I reread it, the more I discover and admire. . . . His style may be most extraordinary not so much as prose but as story. . . . For centuries, I predict, scholars of narrative will focus on the opening chapter of The Original of Laura as proof of the new finds to be made in fiction—in characterization, setting, action, speech, narration.” –Brian Boyd, The Globe and Mail (Toronto)
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
After reading several books by Mr. Nabokov, I was very excited to receive and read this book. As with his other novels, the wording and phrasing of the story is beautiful, though the content itself is extremely demented; The book never finishes, though within the pages that have been completed, we find two major characters- Flora Wild; a flirty, flighty young girl who only married her husband because of his large amounts of money and cheats on him almost constantly, and Phillip Wild: An awkward, grotesque and overweight old doctor who wants to be recognized by his fellow peers. There are two main conflicts; the first one is rather strange. Dr. Wild decides that he wants to kill himself, and does so through imagination; thus, he can reverse the effects whenever he wishes. He feels extreme ecstacy every time he destroys a part of himself, and is obviously an unfortunate masochist. The second conflict is a bit less disturbing; Dr. Wild agreed to marry Flora only because she reminded him of a past lover-thus, the two have nearly no feelings toward each other and their relationship is not at all satisfying. We find out that a book has been written by one of Flora`s admirers, which makes Dr. Wild very angry. However, we don`t ever get to see how their relationship is affected by this, or if Dr. Wild ever succeeds in killing himself, because the novel comes to an ubrupt halt, as it is not completed-I nearly cried when it ended. The bad part is that I`ll always yearn to know the ending, though there will never be one. Although, since it was at my own discretion that I started reading the novel, I can`t complain. The design of the book itself is stunning; I love how realistic the notecards look--you can even punch them out if you so desire! It`s very ingenious and I love it. This book deserves nothing less than five stars-it`s magnificent!
Dmitri should have just let it go.Seeing the capacious and exquisitely subtle mind of Nabokov itself reduced to unintelligible fragments was more than painful. It felt like an intrusion into a disordered mind stripped of its former magnificence, as if we might peer into Leonardo's closet and see what he painted after losing his eyesight.
This really would make a lovely coffee table book. It has photographs of the index cards on which Nabokov wrote the original manuscript. Contrary to the atmosphere suggested by the published review (from Slate), this book certainly does not have "the musty air of an estate sale". There aren't any mouldy, crumbling books or broken heirlooms or discarded costumes from Mardi Gras of years past. The atmosphere of this book is quite a bit sparser. This manuscript is far from being a novel. The first few sections, having more polish than the rest, do seem to promise a very interesting novel to follow. There's some phrases that catch the reader's eye, like "[...] strelitzias (hateful blooms, regalized bananas, really)", and Flora, the original of Laura, is introduced to the reader, in a fashion. But a goodly portion of the book is what would be more aptly called "rough notes" and "scribblings". There might be a novel here; there might be themes, a plot, main characters, etc. But, if there is, the reader would have to read them into the book. If you're a Nabokov fan and you have the patience to read through half a manuscript, followed by a collection of half-written scenes, followed by pages of incoherent scribblings - all of which are interesting and good fodder for imagining what might have been - then this is a lovely book, beautifully bound, and the tacky, punch-out index cards contain samples of Nabokov's handwriting and evidence of his writing process. Otherwise, there's not much here in the way of a novel.
Not a 'novel in fragments' as Dmitri's cheeky subtitle suggests, but merely fragments of a novel/novella Nabokov started before his death. It is an extremely interesting book, a glimpse of Nabokov at work frozen in time. The surviving fragments sketch the story of Flora, a promiscuous woman immortalised in a lover's novel, and her obese husband, Philip Wild, experimenting with mental self-annihilation. Wild's sections are the most startling and original (with excellent description of toe nail troubles), but the Flora section also contains parts of great artistry (I like the description of the exam cheating techniques). Of incredible interest for Nabokov admirers, it is also a very well designed and beautiful edition.
After all the brouhaha about the publication appears this obese mouse. I welcome the choice of printing detachable facsimiles of Nabokov's index cards. For the sake of legibility, they should have arranged them differently putting more than one paragraph on one page. Having to turn a page after each paragraph is distracting (especially as Nabokov did not limit each paragraph to an index card. As it is, this edition is not reader-friendly. At the same time, it lacks a critical apparatus (despite having ample space on the opposite page), thus is only a starting point for research. Given its long gestation, I would have preferred to see an annotated version by Brian Boyd, for example.
Firstly I have to say this edition is lovely. You can pop out the index cards & give them a Nabokovian shuffle, but I think I'd need a 2nd copy for that.Next the publish/burn controversy. I wanted to read it, so I'm on the side of publish so no debate here.Brass tacks, this is not a novel, its the skeleton or scaffold of a novel, what appears to be an interesting multi-layered novel with potentially one or more novels inside. Is it genius ? Well it shows potential, it also shows potential to sprawl in the way Ada does.What else is there to say ? I'm happy with it, I'm happy with the price I paid both for the form of the book & its contents.
Before incurring the wrath of the reviewers who loved this book, I should say that I have read all of Nabokov's fiction, and much of it I have read twice. I love his bold experiments like Pale Fire and The Gift. But the Original of Laura isn't a book at all; at best it is a sketch, and if it seems avant garde it is by accident. There are a few stylistic innovations, but it also has terrible jokes and none of the master's substance and finesse. Sure, it's interesting to see Nabokov's process, but imagining what this manuscript contained was more satisfying than finally reading it.
this might be the most insightful book ever produced on the writing process.
it is book with original design. High quality paper and cover. This is not usual book, it is something for home private collection. You will have great opportunity to see How one of the greatest writers of 20 century create last book in his life. recommend! sorry for my English=)