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Nabokov's Unfinished Work
Writer Vladimir Nabokov is shown in Montreux, Switzerland, in Dec. 1976. (AP Photo)

Writer Vladimir Nabokov is shown in Montreux, Switzerland, in Dec. 1976. (AP Photo)

The great novelist and short story writer Vladimir Nabokov emigrated to the United States, made his fortune with the publication of the incendiary “Lolita,” and then decamped to a hotel in Switzerland for the rest of his life.

He died in 1977, leaving behind — on 138 handwritten index cards — the fragments of a final book titled “The Original of Laura.” He wanted it destroyed. His wife, who once saved “Lolita” from the flames, declined.

Now, it’s out. Nabokov’s last work, published against his dying wish.

This hour, On Point: from the fragments of a master, Vladimir Nabokov’s “The Original of Laura.” 

You can join the conversation. Tell us what you think — here on this page, on Twitter, and on Facebook.

Guests:

Brian Boyd, University Distinguished Professor in the Department of English at the University of Auckland, New Zealand and author of numerous books on Nabokov, including “Vladimir Nabokov: The Russian Years,” “Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years,” and “Nabokov’s Pale Fire: The Magic of Artistic Discovery.” His most recent book is “On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction.”

Leland de la Durantaye, a professor of English at Harvard University and the author of “Style Is Matter: The Moral Art of Vladimir Nabokov.”

More links:

To mark Nabokov’s 100th birthday in April 1999, Random House created a special site devoted to the author’s life and work.  It’s a good introduction, and includes an essay by our guest Brian Boyd on Nabokov’s memoir, “Speak, Memory.”

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  • http://www.facebook.com/oDionysos Dionysos

    Laura should had never been published.
    Its a sin and its a sham, from the fact that;
    the testament of the author was not respected!

  • Steve T

    I will not read it nor listen to this debate. To go against a personal death wish, then to pick apart the person is apprehensible.

  • Brett

    I went into this show, in the first couple of minutes, with a bit of ambivalence. After hearing more and more of Nabokov’s wishes and nature, and what he actually had produced, I began to think it has been a travesty to publish this book. The guests mentioned how Nabokov approached being interviewed, how he worked on several drafts of his novels to polish them, and how he had produced only fragments of his last work…he sounded as though he was very careful about how he presented himself and his work publicly. He clearly was not pleased with what he had written of his last work. For him to demand complete disclosure of all asked questions before agreeing to be interviewed, and to develop all of his answers to those questions before being interviewed, he revealed a man behaving with fastidiousness toward how he was to be presented. One can only assume he wanted that sort of control over how his work was handled.

    Perhaps he would have been willing to proceed had he been farther along and had produced something more to his liking in subsequent drafts, but that is not what was left for his wife and son.

    Artists need to have complete say over what they wish to make public. I have cringed over the years when I’ve heard of artists’ rough drafts, letters unedited by them, etc., (and even visual artists who’ve had unfinished paintings or sketch books displayed that they never intended for others to see), being published posthumously. I suppose I might feel differently if he had not left any expressed wishes as to the manuscript’s fate and if it had simply been locked away for a number of years only to be accidently found and published as lost fragments. But this was not the case.

    One can only speculate as to his wife’s and son’s motives, but if they wished to bring to light something they felt of importance of his, irrespective of his wishes, they could have written a book on life with the man. His final years and work could have been a compelling part of the book, and passages from the rough draft of his last work could have been included in part of the final chapters. That approach would have covered his family’s desires of publishing something of his previously unknown, and it would have provided them with money, if that was their motivation.

  • http://whilewestillhavetime.blogspot.com/ John Hamilton

    One way to look at the rightness or wrongness of publishing Nabokov’s unfinished novel is to put it in relative terms. If wrong, is it as wrong as lying the country into invading another country? Is it as wrong as waterboarding? Is it as wrong as looking the other way when criminals are plotting to fly planes into buildings?

    If it is proper to publish Nabokov’s last work against his wishes, is it more right than a successful defecation? Is it more right than a good night’s sleep? Is it more right than a good meal? Is it more right than national health insurance? Is it more right than closing the prison in Guantanamo? Is it more right than full employment?

    In these various contexts, I think it is safe to say that the clamor, such as it is, about to publish or not to publish is much ado about not very much. It is a question for masturbating egos.

  • Jason

    What were the 4 books that Nabokov considered the best written?

  • Expanded Consciousness

    Dying wish be damned!

    Kafka wanted all his unpublished stuff burned. Thankfully his best friend Max Brod ignored the request. We are far better off having those great works. Works which shed light on the human condition, helped countless readers, and inspired legions of artists and thinkers who discovered that Kafka had spoken their soul.

    Last wishes do not reign over all other concerns. How many attempted suicides have jumped off a bridge and lived and said they changed their mind half way down and were glad they survived? Many. If Kafka had lived longer perhaps he would have changed his mind as well. People are conflicted and one day feel one way and the next day another.

    Nabokov is dead and can not feel embarrassed or disrespected. There are higher concerns that overrule Nabokov’s wishes. Like having access to all of a great artist’s works that scholars and the general public can.

    If his wife had listened to him, she would have let him burned “Lolita” and we would have lost one of the 20th century’s most significant novels.

    Most importantly, there is proof Nabokov was conflicted. HE did not burn his final manuscript! If he really and completely never wanted it to see the light of day, he would have burned it or thrown it away himself. A simple act to do. Many authors have done just that.

    So, with that correct reading of Nabokov’s psychology, I can only conclude that deep down he actually wanted it published. Authors want and need to express and expose themselves.

    Let all the truth out!

  • A Nabokovian

    I am sure that all artists do not wish their incomplete works to be read or viewed or listened to by anyone, since they, above all people, are aware of their shortcomings, and their final, completed potential. But we, as readers, viewers or listeners, can find a wealth of ideas or images or cadences in even unfinished work. If the unfinished work takes off in a new direction, or reveals unexpected new ways of viewing a work, then it does no disservice to the dead artist to publish their work. They cannot foresee how much it will offer to their admirers, only how much it falls short of expectations. We, however, can gain so much by seeing the latest work in progress and despite the lack of finish, these incomplete works can enlighten us as to how art is made.

  • Brett

    With Lolita, Nabokov WAS persuaded, and this work we now know is a finished polished work. Who knows what we would have gotten had Nabokov died just after his first draft of Lolita. Also, he could not burn his manuscript in this case because he was in hospital. I also didn’t hear any conflicted feelings on his part about his final work. This doesn’t really sound like his work; it sounds like fragment of his work tied together by another writer. (Reminds me of Kubrick’s last film, which wasn’t Kubrick at all.)

    I also don’t think speculating on whether Nabokov would have changed his mind is a compelling reason to disregard his final wishes. Nabokov, had he lived and wanted to save the manuscript, would have probably devoted energy to more drafts/polishes, so what he might have thought if circumstances had been different is irrelevant, especially since the idea of considering what he might have thought seems trivialized and ill-applied because of lack of consideration for what he actually wished for this manuscript. If the reasoning that he might have shifted his thinking had he lived to conform to what was done with his work stands over what he actually asked for, then speculation is more important than respect or reality. It undermines the concept of respecting his wishes had they been different or had changed.

    The most important aspect to being an artist is that the world accepts them on their terms, not on the world’s terms. It is kind of the definition of an artist. And, is anything an artist throws away or attempts to burn fair game if it can be rescued? Are dying wishes never to be honored? And if they are, under what conditions? Only if they are not important?

    I think there are interesting elements to having it published. I agree with the idea that we can glean some insight into the creative process, and I’m sure the unfinished work does offer something of value. But I also think it is a kind of voyeurism, and the notion that he doesn’t know about this/doesn’t care/isn’t alive so what is the difference, seems very similar to a voyeuristic justification.

    Let us not define someone else’s “truth” for them.

    This is like a publisher not honoring the galley’s proof and printing the piece (which would be against the writer’s consent and any agreement, which is highly unprofessional on their part.

    I do see the other side of it. I can’t only see one side because I haven’t read the novel. It does almost sound like false advertisement to promote the book as Nabokov’s. I would be interested to see the cover notes.

    If I was told by a great painter on his death bed to burn all of his unfinished work in his studio, I don’t know if I could do that, especially being confronted with the physical reality of the paintings’ presence and seeing their greatness. It does seem like a moral dilemma. On some level, it seems like a violent act to destroy something someone else created. But publishing is a long way from destroying, and taking a rough sketch from a dead artitst’s studio, one he/she didn’t want made public, then turning it into a finished painting and passing it off as the artist’s work seems a bit inauthentic.

  • Michael Difani

    I did not read “Lolita” but I saw the movie with Sue Lyon and James Mason around 1962 in an army post theater NE of Frankfurt, W Germany. I was 20 and much of it was too ‘deep’ for me to grasp…but I sure was attracted to Lyon, as were most of the GIs. I should read the novel as I was one of those lazy high school students who tried to get away with writing a book report on a novel from ‘Classics Illustrated’ comics.

  • parmelee tolkan

    What were the 4 books Nabokov considered the best?
    I understood
    Ulysses by James Joyce
    ??? Transformation by Franz Kafka
    ???Petersburg by ????
    The first half of “In Search of Times Gone By” by Marcel Proust

    When I first heard the show I thought that the writer’s wishes shouldn’t be gone against, but as soon as I heard the words being read I was glad that even an incomplete unpolished fragment was available. Good writing is good writing and Nabokov was wonderful.
    Any reader should know the history of the book and take its position in his oeuvre into account.

  • Brett

    ‘Any reader should know the history of the book and take its position in his oeuvre into account.’

    Parmelee Tolkan,
    this is a sensible approach to reading the book. Also, thanks for recollecting Nabokov’s book recommendations…I forgot the mention of Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time.” The one whose author/title you couldn’t quite recall was Dostoesky’s, I believe, “The Double: A Petersburg Poem”

  • Expanded Consciousness

    Re” Nabokov’s four

    Off Wiki:

    “Petersburg or St. Petersburg, Russian: Петербург (1913, revised 1922) is the title of Andrei Bely’s masterpiece, a Symbolist[citation needed] work that foreshadows Joyce’s[1] Modernist ambitions.[citation needed] For various reasons the novel never received much attention and was not translated into English until 1959 by John Cournos, over 45 years after it was written, after Joyce was already established as an important writer. It was regarded by Vladimir Nabokov as one of the four greatest novels of the twentieth century, after Ulysses and The Metamorphosis, and before In Search of Lost Time.[2][3]“

  • Brett

    Thanks EC!

  • Elliot

    It was hard to hear the interview in which he mentione dthe books he despises – which Faulkner book did he mention?

  • Expanded Consciousness

    The Nabokov tape runs at 30:30.

    I don’t know which Faulkner book he was saying.

    These are all of Faulkner’s novels.

    Novels

    Soldiers’ Pay (1926)
    Father Abraham (written 1926–27, published 1983)
    Mosquitoes (1927)
    Sartoris/Flags in the Dust (1929/1973)
    The Sound and the Fury (1929)
    As I Lay Dying (1930)
    Sanctuary (1931)
    Light in August (1932)
    Pylon (1935)
    Absalom, Absalom! (1936)
    The Unvanquished (1938)
    If I Forget Thee Jerusalem (The Wild Palms/Old Man) (1939)
    The Hamlet (1940)
    Go Down, Moses (1942), episodic novel made up of seven rewritten, previously published stories including “Pantaloon in Black”, “The Old People”, “The Bear”, “Delta Autumn”, and the title story
    Intruder in the Dust (1948)
    Requiem for a Nun (1951)
    A Fable (1954)
    The Town (1957)
    The Mansion (1959)
    The Reivers (1962)

  • Expanded Consciousness

    A review I came across …

    Review-a-Day: The Original of Laura Wednesday, November 25, 2009

    The Original of Laura
    by Vladimir Nabokov

    The Original of Laura
    A Review by Heller McAlpin

    When Vladimir Nabokov died in Switzerland in 1977, he left explicit instructions for his heirs to destroy the penciled index cards that made up his work to date on his unfinished 18th novel, The Original of Laura (Dying is Fun). Vera, his loyal wife and amanuensis, who died in 1991, couldn’t bring herself to do it. And, fortunately, after much debate, neither could their son, Dmitri.

    Of course, it’s one thing not to burn the partial draft, and another to publish it. But, although Nabokov may be squirming in his grave, Nabokov fans and scholars have reason to thank Dmitri for his brave parental defiance in publishing this invaluable glimpse into the way his brilliant father worked.

    All too often, publications of half-cooked literary fragments are not just disappointing in literary terms, but seem motivated as much by greed as by the heirs’ desire to keep their famous forebear alive in print. But whatever one thinks of Nabokov’s emphatically unfinished book — and we’ll get to that — it certainly hasn’t been rushed into print in an unseemly fashion. Thirty-two years after Nabokov’s death at 78, its publication feels more like a generous gift to readers than a ploy for fame or fortune.

    This is in great part due to the dazzlingly clever presentation of the material. By reproducing facsimiles of Nabokov’s 138 penciled index cards at the top of each page and printing typeset transcriptions with minimal editorial changes and notes below, Chip Kidd, associate art director at Knopf, has designed a format that reminds us forcefully, in graphic terms, that The Original of Laura is a work in progress and not an ordinary manuscript.

    The photographed cards are perforated, to encourage us to stack and shuffle them — as Nabokov apparently did — into an order that might make more sense. Nabokov’s neat handwriting is punctuated by eraser smudges, inserted phrases, and emphatically crossed-out or scribbled-over words.

    But it becomes fainter, sketchier, and more sparse as he races against time and illness in a Lausanne hospital, trying to net ideas and pin down a draft, a goal as elusive as some of the butterflies he chased and collected around the globe.

    Although Nabokov’s last novel is especially intriguing to his devotees, readers whose familiarity with Nabokov’s work is limited to his most famous novel, Lolita (1955), will also find plenty of interest. The story — such as it is — involves “an extravagantly slender girl,” Flora, whom we meet at age 24 in the act of cheating on her older husband. Her current lover is a writer who, shortly after their affair ends, writes a critically attacked but bestselling novel (as was Lolita) about her, called “My Laura.”

    Flora — thus the original of Laura — is the daughter of a ballerina named Lanskaya (as in land and sky) and, probably, her husband Adam Lind, a photographer also of Russian extraction who shoots himself over a jilted homosexual love. Raised by her flighty mother in Paris, lovely 12-year-old Flora is pestered by the too-close attentions of her mother’s creepy older English lover, Hubert B. Hubert — a clear echo of Lolita’s Humbert Humbert.

    Flora’s cuckolded husband is an obese, brilliant neurologist and lecturer named Philip Wild. Flora is “mesmerized by his fame and fortune” but otherwise indifferent to his wit and accomplishments.

    Despite its limited word count — each card contains barely a paragraph or two of prose — the book is filled with sly wit and memorable images, many of which evoke Flora’s girlish body, in sharp contrast with her hard, emotional detachment. A lover “pinafores” her stomach with kisses, a phone rings “ecstatically,” and during sex, “A tear of no particular meaning gemmed the hard top of her cheek.”

    The manuscript gets stranger and more fitfully elliptical in the second half, which largely concerns Wild’s description of his weird psychological experiments. These involve putting himself into a trance and willing the dissolution of various parts of his body, beginning with his painful toes — “suicide made a pleasure.”

    Wild dreams of a high school crush, Aurora Lee, whose “cold gaze” reminds him of his wife (and whose name evokes Flora, Laura, and Poe’s Annabel Lee). But he confesses wistfully to loving “only one girl in my life, an object of terror and tenderness.”

    Perhaps Wild’s desire to “think away thought” and himself and make dying fun by “auto-dissolution” stems from a broken heart over wayward Flora. But it isn’t a stretch to imagine a wretched Nabokov in his Lausanne hospital bed, wishing to “efface/expunge/erase/delete/rub out/wipe out/obliterate” his offending body parts. These are the words listed on the last card of this tantalizing, fascinating, occasionally perplexing manuscript. Pity he didn’t get to finish it. Fortunate we get to see it at all.

    Heller McAlpin, a freelance critic in New York, is a frequent Monitor contributor

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