I was terrified to start reading Vladimir Nabokov’s posthumously published novel ‘The Original of Laura, or Dying is Fun’. Although it’s been in publication since 2009, I’ve avoided the text for fear that somehow, reading Nabokov’s last work would sully the others, diminishing a bibliography which contains some of the greatest English language works of all time. It frightened me to think that I might see Nabokov, vulnerable and incomplete, like a butterfly pried from its chrysalis before the process of metamorphosis can be completed. These fears were exacerbated by what reviews I’d read of the novel – people like Alexander Theroux and Martin Amis had called the novel an unmitigated disaster which tarnished the esteemed reputation of Nabokov.
However, I managed to stow my fears long enough to start reading, and although there were some aspects which I found troubling (more on that later), it was by no means the catastrophic failure decried by Theroux and Amis. My opinion of the text is very much in line with David Lodge, who wrote: “Is it, as the blurb claims, Nabokov’s ‘final great book’? No. Does it contain brilliant, funny, astonishing sentences only Nabokov could have written? Yes. Should it have been preserved and published? Definitely.”
Although there are a few virtues that would be extolled by a more motivated reviewer (notably the gorgeous jacket design by Chip Kidd), the most fascinating aspect of the novel to me is the protagonist, a girl named Flora. In what has proven my favorite episode thus far, a “sweet Japanese girl” helps Flora to cheat on her French exam by painting her left arm, up to the radial artery, with “miniscule information, in so-called ‘fairy’ script”. The text running up and down Flora’s arms gives an indication as to her true nature. She is not a creature of flesh-and-blood. Pull back her sleeves, and she is revealed to be nothing more than scribbled handwriting, an author’s attempt at passing off a lattice of letters as a living thing.
Of course, outside of the context of the novel, Flora has no objective existence. Even if Nabokov modeled her upon a real individual she is, at best, merely an imitation of life and not the thing itself. Such is the case with all fictional creations, and thus, the fatal flaw in the perspective of the author. Nabokov seems to argue that bred-in-the-bone storytellers can’t help, in the absence of fact, to “finish” the people around them, filling in the gaps with fiction. He describes how the people in Flora’s life hang their stories upon her slender, protruding bones (cue Emily Mortimer, “My bones!”) as though she were a coat rack.
In the novel, Flora is the inspiration for ‘My Laura’, a tale of a writer “who destroys his mistress in the act of portraying her.” Flora is described as being exceedingly slim, and Nabokov seems to suggest that all of her weight, all of her substance is borne out by the layers and layers of narrative that have been laid upon her. In a sense, the stories which she inspires overwhelm her and overshadow her until the original exists only in a penumbra cast by that which is modeled upon it.
Is this, on any level, comparable with his more famous works? I’d say no. Even if you try and make sense of the maddening brief fragments included with the manuscript (on one page, it reads, without explanation “its tempting emptiness”) it would be a stretch to call ‘Laura’ a complete work. It lacks the structural elements that characterize works like ‘Pale Fire’ or even ‘Look at the Harlequins!’, and there are definitely pieces missing from the jigsaw puzzle in terms of thematic development and character work. Someone elected to print Nabokov’s handwritten manuscript along with a typed transcription, and although I found it a little troubling in terms of a reading experience, it was a potent reminder that given the opportunity, Nabokov would likely have continued to revise this text until it achieved the level of cohesion I’ve come to expect from him. Like the acquaintances of Flora Wild, in reading Nabokov’s last work I want so desperately to “finish” the man and his legacy, with ‘Laura’ acting as mark of punctuation at the very end of the story of his life, but given the circumstances surround its writing and publication, it doesn’t surprise me that this is not the case. However, hidden amongst the redactions and misspellings of his messy scrawl I found remnants and reminders of the Nabokov I adore, and in my mind, that justified the reading experience completely.
In no particular order:
- Fundamentals of Phonetics
- The Indispensable Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Waterson
- The Rain Forests of Home, edited by Peter K. Schoonmaker
- Don’t Get Too Comfortable by David Rakoff
- The Myth of Monogamy by David Barash and Judith Lipton
- Jack Staff: Everything Used To Be Black and White by Paul Grist
- Verses and Versions, translated by Vladimir Nabokov
- Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
- The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde
- Society and Culture in Early Modern France by Natalie Zemon Davis
- The Eisenstein Reader by Sergei Eisenstein, edited by Richard Taylor
- The Cavalry Maiden by Nadezhda Durova
- The Odyssey
- The Ancient Maya by Sylvanus G. Morley
- The Boy Scout Handbook
- Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine
- Whelks to Whales by Rick Harbo
- The Complete Grimm’s Fairy Tales
- Wonderful Life by Stephen Jay Gould
- A Rhyming History of Britain by James Muirden
Okay. You now know everything about me there is to know.