In 1962, prodded by an interviewer to share a glimpse of a first draft, novelist Vladimir Nabokov replied, “Only ambitious non-entities and hearty mediocrities exhibit their rough drafts. It is like passing around samples of one’s sputum.” Now, more than 30 years after his death, we have an opportunity—against Nabokov’s expressed wishes—to examine such a sample.
As he lay dying in 1977, the author of Lolita, Pale Fire and 17 other novels of unsurpassed artistry instructed his wife to destroy his unfinished work on a prospective novel, tentatively titled The Original of Laura, a story of an author transforming his love affair into fiction. Véra Nabokov could not bring herself to obey her husband, and asked their son, Dmitri—an opera singer and the elder Nabokov’s sometime translator—to carry out the task. Dmitri dallied for three decades. Finally, he has decided to publish.
That decision is beyond the scope of any outsider to judge as healthy or greedy, vengeful or generous, careless or noble. Dmitri’s public act results from a private relationship between a man and his father. Artistically, however, one can grumble. Nabokov believed—alongside one of his characters in The Real Life of Sebastian Knight—that an author should leave behind only finished work. “I used to be a little conjuror when I was a boy,” the author said, and he rated most highly those authors who were “enchanters.” He believed the best art was like magic, and everyone knows how to ruin a magic trick
Now the curtain drops and we are allowed backstage, allowed to read Nabokov’s unfinished work (billed by its publisher as “a novel in fragments”), which he famously wrote on index cards in pencil, a primitive word-processing system. Readers can detach perforated reproductions and re-order them to create their own version, a jolly game of Nabokov shuffle. But just as a “vase in fragments” is not a vase, The Original of Laura is not a novel.
A few chapters cohere and then fade; a flash of plot is discernible as through a rainstorm. Nabokovian characters are still early in the process of distinguishing themselves from previous, more individual versions (Margot in Laughter in the Dark, Pnin). Sentences are scratched out, reworked. There are outlines, notes, scraps. One index card is just a list of synonyms.
Reading Laura brings a literary hero down a little to the workaday world. We see him trying to organize his thoughts, weigh his options, do some research, feel out his wordings and narrators. Single lines sit alone on cards, similar-sounding words tested for their affinity or conjuring power: “ITS TEMPTING EMPTINESS” is one example, a phrase that’s symbolic of the entire project.