The Original of Laura is a glorious mess. It tells the story—or begins to attempt to tell the story—of two main characters: a 24-year-old petulant beauty named Flora and her rotund older husband, the famous neurologist Philip Wild. Flora enters the novel in a burst of pure attitude, sleeping with a lover after a party, on someone else’s bed, her fur coat spread out “with comic fastidiousness” underneath her. (She uses the tender post-coital moments to call another lover and cruelly break up with him.) When she returns to her villa, we get a vintage Nabokovian micro-scene. Flora’s fat husband appears “walking a striped cat on an overlong leash.” (“The scene might be called somewhat incongrous,” Nabokov writes—one of the subdermal pleasures of reading Laura is watching the great perfectionist persistently misspell words.) As Flora heads for the front door, her husband picks up the cat and follows, and the episode ends with an odd, trivial detail that adds a tiny flare of joy to an otherwise miserable scene: “The animal seemed naïvely fascinated by the snake trailing behind on the ground.”
Flora has a depressing backstory: a photographer father who commits suicide after discovering “that the boy he loved had strangled another, unattainable boy whom he loved even more”; a ballerina mother who sells the father’s self-portraits of his suicide to a tabloid, then takes up with a creepy older lover whose improbable name, “no doubt assumed,” is Hubert H. Hubert. (He tries to feel up Flora one day; she kicks him in the crotch; her mother scolds her.) The upshot of all of this is a life of casual and joyless promiscuity. Flora is a shadowy, unfinished character, which seems to be at least partly by design: “Everything about her is bound to remain blurry.”
Flora’s husband is a famous lecturer whose body—like Nabokov’s—is failing him: He has chronically painful feet and a “humiliating stomack ailment” (“I loathe my belly, that trunkful of bowels”). He spends most of his time conducting radical experiments in what he calls “auto-dissolution,” an ecstatic process in which he puts himself into “hypnotrances” and flirts with death by mentally making parts of his body disappear. “By now I have died up to my navel some fifty times in less than three years,” the professor writes in a manuscript about his experiments.
Wild’s manuscript is one of two books hidden inside The Original of Laura. The other is a best-selling novel called My Laura, written about Flora by one of her ex-lovers. (This makes Flora “the original of Laura.”) Wild declares it “a maddening masterpiece”; Flora buys a copy but just sits with it, hesitating to read.
Was Nabokov right to want his Laura destroyed? I’m still undecided about the ethics of its publication. (In his gratingly arrogant introduction—about which probably the less said the better—Dmitri Nabokov offers no real justification for his decision.) But from a purely selfish standpoint, as a reader holding the book in my hands, I’m glad Nabokov was overruled. Laura offers just enough of the familiar Nabokovian pleasures to be enjoyable as a straightforward read: style, invention, humor (“I strongly object to the bipedal condition”), occasional sprays of archaic vocabulary (inguen, nates, hallux, omoplates, volupty). But its deepest pleasure is the one Nabokov wanted us never to have: a peek at the imperfect, ordering intelligence behind all of his finished products. This glimpse shouldn’t hurt his reputation; if anything, it should help. It’s like seeing an unfinished Michelangelo sculpture—one 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. It humanizes the perfection. Laura helps us to imagine, more concretely, the labor behind the rest of Nabokov’s labor-intensive masterpieces. His index cards are precise, incremental—a paragraph here, an obsessively revised image there—the exact opposite of, say, Kerouac’s giant On the Road scroll. It’s fun to watch the systems and subsystems organize themselves and begin to cohere. (He uses an entertainingly wide variety of little tags to keep his cards in order: numbers, letters, Xs, circles progressively filling with lines.) Nabokov’s published polish is so familiar, so thick, that the eye almost bounces off it. To see him rough is to see him new.
In his introduction, Dmitri calls the book an “embryonic masterpiece.” Unfortunately, it’s too embryonic to make that kind of judgment with any confidence—it could just as easily be an embryonic minor work. If it is a masterpiece, I’d like to think it’s a more radical one than Dmitri suggests. The circumstances surrounding The Original of Laura are deeply, almost ridiculously Nabokovian. He was, after all, the Einstein of the text-life continuum, proving over and over that books and life are always intertwined. His novels are full of lost manuscripts, self-parodies, authorial stand-ins, writers who wander into their texts and tamper with characters. And it’s impossible to imagine him ever ceding control, even to death. My inner Kinbote suspects, in fact, that Laura isn’t unfinished at all—that it’s actually a perfectly executed work of literary performance art, a carefully engineered posthumous spectacle that its author spent his entire career preparing us to receive. I imagine him reaching down, even now, to crank the recursion machine harder than it’s ever been cranked. Those 30 years of drama, perhaps, were part of the work itself. He may not have even wanted the manuscript destroyed: It’s possible he wanted it read at precisely this moment, under precisely these circumstances. Incompleteness is the book’s central theme, so it could only have been finished by being left unfinished. Like Philip’s body in the midst of one of his trances, Laura survives, ecstatically, with key parts missing. It could be Nabokov’s very last brilliant joke: a black hole of textuality that he conjured and then slipped into, pulling his pencil behind him.
In the end, Philip Wild’s manuscript—the first-person account of his experiments in “self-deletion”—ends up finished but unpublished: He dies of a heart attack before his secretary gets a chance to type it up. One of Laura’s last cards suggests that a mysterious figure steals the book, intending to publish it in a different venue than Wild had planned. Nabokov’s manuscript, of course, was published, yet remains eternally unfinished. Both books, however, teach the same lesson, the orgasmic pleasures of incompleteness.