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A Glorious Mess

Nabokov never wanted us to read his unfinished last novel. Unless, thrillingly, he did.


The work of Vladimir Nabokov is an obsessive study in the risks and rewards of total control. This applies on both the micro level (his books) and the macro level (their creation). In his novels, control is often a sinister force—a tool that ends up turning on its user. Humbert Humbert controls Lolita, but the cost is that he himself is controlled by his compulsion to control her. Charles Kinbote, the unreliable pseudo-scholar at the center of Pale Fire, seizes interpretive control over a dead poet’s manuscript only to abuse it so thoroughly that his authority gradually implodes. There’s a certain irony, then, in the fact that Nabokov, as an artist, was a legendary control freak. He polished his prose all the way down to the subatomic level. “I have rewritten—often several times—every word I have ever published,” he once said. “My pencils outlast their erasers.” He mocked novelists who claimed that their characters took on lives of their own. “My characters are galley slaves,” he said. Even his interviews were scripted; he claimed (absurdly, controllingly) that his command of English, a language he had spoken since he was 4, wasn’t strong enough to allow him to speak off the cuff.

This authorial fascism yielded huge dividends—most obviously a precise linguistic razzle-dazzle that often rose to the level of Shakespeare and Joyce. Every Nabokov paragraph is a rich little stylistic Versailles: orderly cadences, exotic vocabulary, clauses nested in whimsical rows, meticulous touches of color, puzzles built out of concentric sub-puzzles, alliterative accents, perfect tropes. (One metaphor from Lolita has stuck with me for years as a model of deep simplicity: “the dandelions had changed from suns to moons.”) But this control could also be suffocating. As V. S. Naipaul once put it, “the very precision with which he gets his effects is in the long run fatiguing.” Nabokov’s wildest lyrical flights all had to be filtered through the part of his brain that liked to design chess puzzles. As a result, even his best work can leave a slightly unsettling residue: the paradoxical feeling of crazy invention fussily controlled—like the most exciting Mardi Gras of all time lavishly re-created, for a film shoot, in October, in Vancouver. His work leaves us with a nagging question: What would he have looked like with his aesthetic hair down, his literary bed unmade, his grip on the novelistic wheel slightly relaxed?

The publication of The Original of Laura, Nabokov’s very unfinished final novel, seems like a good place to start answering that question. It’s a unique chance to see the master out of control. He started writing the book in 1975 at age 76, in the midst of a late flurry of energy and ambition. (He was also assembling a book of short stories, working on the French translation of his long novel Ada, and collecting his letters and Russian poems—all while finding time for butterfly-hunting expeditions.) He hoped to finish Laura within a year; five months into the process, he estimated he was halfway done and wrote to a friend that he was having a “marvelous time.” Unfortunately, his body refused to cooperate. The last year of his life was a long tailspin of illness: pneumonia, lumbago, delirium, influenza, insomnia, fever, and various infections. As he drifted from hospital room to hospital room, and in and out of lucidity, he could see the complete book in his mind but couldn’t get it down on paper. He had to settle for reciting the finished product to (as he described it in a letter) “a small dream audience” consisting 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.” He died, in 1977, of fluid in his lungs.

Nabokov fully intended that his imaginary audience of birds and ghosts would be the largest group ever to enjoy Laura. Before his death, he left instructions that the manuscript should be destroyed. (Only amateurs keep drafts, he once said.) His wife, Vera—who had stopped him at least twice from burning drafts of Lolita—couldn’t bring herself to do it. Their son, Dmitri, couldn’t do it either. The manuscript sat in a Swiss bank vault for 30 years, the subject of occasional long-distance arguments over whether it should be published or burned.

And now, finally, we have the object itself. It turns out to be an exquisite thing. Knopf has tried to bring us as close as possible to the original of The Original of Laura, and the result is a showpiece of intelligent book design built on a deep respect for the manuscript. Nabokov handwrote the book on index cards (his standard late-career practice), and all 138 of them are reproduced here, back and front, in full color, with the text transcribed underneath. The cards are even perforated, so you can punch them out and shuffle them, as Nabokov would have done as he revised. Every page contains the author’s surprising handwriting: biggish and slanted and loopy, with generous white space around his words. (I was expecting, for some reason, tiny cramped writing that colonized every available millimeter of space.) Some of the cards are heavily revised, which allows us to see, for the first time, the work of Nabokov’s famous eraser: fuzzy little storm clouds of smudged graphite loom behind neatly rewritten words. It’s a fascinating read on many levels. If Knopf were to publish a series of painstakingly reproduced Nabokov manuscripts, I’d pawn my Kindle to buy them all.

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