Sunday, November 15, 2009


Card trick

My piece on Vladimir Nabokov's The Original of Laura has been posted over at the Los Angeles Times Book Review. I found the book something of a damp fizzle. I'm glad Dmitri Nabokov didn't accede to his father's wishes and destroy the manuscript (actually a pile of index cards), since it's fascinating to see what was on Nabokov's mind during his final months: death and its opposite, sex. But to my mind, Chip Kidd's lavish design has the strange effect of diminishing The Original of Laura. You pick up the 277-page volume expecting it to contain an actual book, and what you find is a fragment: a toothpick pretending to be a tree. I began this way:
In the fall of 1976, a newspaper contacted Vladimir Nabokov in his Swiss refuge and asked him which books he had recently read. He responded with three typical titles: Dante's "Inferno" (in Charles Singleton's deliciously literal translation), a big, fat book about butterflies and his own work-in-progress, "The Original of Laura."

The latter project had preoccupied him over the summer, despite a serious illness. It was, he told his correspondent, "completed in my mind." The revisions went on while he was confined to a hospital bed, a febrile process he describes in some detail in his "Selected Letters": "I must have gone through it some fifty times and in my diurnal delirium kept reading it aloud to a small dream audience in a walled garden. My audience consisted of peacocks, pigeons, my long dead parents, two cypresses, several young nurses crouching around, and a family doctor so old as to be almost invisible."
You can read the rest here. To judge from this handy roundup in the paper's Jacket Copy blog, most critics seem to share my disappointment. Aleksander Hemon, who reviewed the book in Slate, went one step further, characterizing the very publication of the TOOL as a barrel-scraping betrayal of its author: "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.... [The book] 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."

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yep. sure. But as there are always those scholarly types eager to read the very early of an important author there are also those interested in the final outpourings of a well-know and beloved writer.
That he did not want it published bothers some of us; so too Kafka wanted his work destroyed.

Nice job on your part and that got me to Judegment Day, which I did enjoy too.
Hi Fred, and thanks for stopping by. You're right, there will always be scholars (and non-scholarly fanatics) who want to read every last syllable, and I don't fault that. That's why I'm glad Dmitri Nabokov resisted his father's advice to torch "The Original of Laura." What I think is problematic is the urge to peddle the book as a final pinnacle of the author's career. It should have been published in a short, squat, respectful volume, with perhaps some of the cards reproduced in an appendix. No need for perforated versions--that's strictly a fetishistic gimmick dreamed up by the marketing department. It's especially doped because readers are invited to shuffle the cards, even through they're in a very specific order. If that's your idea of fun, just scissor all the pages out of Proust and do the same thing.
James, did you read Boyd Tonkin's piece in the Independent yesterday? Much the same take... I'll go and read yours. I owe you emails. Hope you're well. Life is crazy (and Nabokov knew it).

ps - my word verification is lordski. Oh, Lordski.
Hi, Ms. B! I haven't read Boyd Tonkin's piece but will do so now. Yes, let's catch up soon, we are overdue for a virtual palaver.
Another of Hemon's incidental and zestless Nabokov pastiches, I see! laugh
Hee hee. Yes, the Hemon has a faux-Nabokov ring to it ("the old man's stained cravat," indeed), although I think he overcomes the anxiety of influence in much of his own work.
I have never touched Boyd Tonkin's work as well and think I will grab one this weekend when I go shopping with the kids.

Lovely piece of writing btw :)
Thanks for stopping by and commenting, Helen. Shame on me, I haven't yet followed up on the Boyd Tonkin myself. But I will, I will....
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