Friday, January 18, 2008

Should He Do It?

An anonymous commenter on the previous thread linked to this article in Slate about Dmitri Nabokov's dilemma--should he burn his father's last, unfinished manuscript, as explicitly directed by the great writer? Or should he release it to the world? The younger Nabokov describes the story as quite groundbreaking, but appears to be leaning toward destruction. His reasoning is evidently related to his frustration with chronic public misinterpretation of his father's work.

Personally, that sounds to me uncomfortably like "People are too dumb to deserve to see this." I am pretty much always against the dead writer in such cases, for two reasons. First, I think it's absurdly arrogant to think that you can control your public image after you're dead. In fact, it's foolish to think you can when you're alive. Of course Nabokov's arrogance is part of what made him such a delight--and if anyone actually deserved to be arrogant, it was him. In any event, death is final, and the dead belong to history--as much as, if not more than, they belong to their descendents.

But more importantly, if a writer wants his stuff destroyed, he ought to have the balls to do it when he's alive. And if he doesn't do it when he's alive, then he doesn't really want it destroyed. What kind of wanker puts a burden like this on his surviving family? Vera was originally instructed to burn the note cards (Nabokov wrote on note cards, and in fact it was Vera who saved the ones containing Lolita from the trash incinerator, less then ten blocks from where I'm sitting right now), but couldn't bring herself to do it. And now Dmitri himself is growing old, and he can't do it either.

But now he might. I think this would be a shame. I'll go a step further, in fact, and say right here, out in public, that I enthusiastically encourage Rhian, our kids, and their future offspring to ignore completely any deathbed requests I might happen to make, especially any involving writing. With any luck I'll be tired, old, delirious, and full of shit, and once I'm gone, you may all do whatever you please.

9 comments:

rmellis said...

Dear God, of course he shouldn't do it. If VN really wanted them destroyed he would have asked anyone *but* Vera to do it.

I believe it's a writer's responsibility to destroy his own work. It's really, really lame to burden some other poor sucker with that decision.

rmellis said...

JRL: Hurray, at last the world will get to read your band novel and that alien abduction story I love so much.

AC said...

I don't know the circumstances of Nabokov's death, but how many of us will know when we've worked on something for the last time? Judging from the funerals I've been to recently, I would say most of us get caught unawares by a heart attack or a car accident. I always feel a pang now when I'm leaving the house for a trip. What embarrassing high school moments are still preserved in some box in the closet that my husband or my mom will have to look through if something happens to me? I can see leaving behind a blanket statement of some kind: throw it all out. Do not look inside. Do not sort.

Anonymous said...

I don't care if anyone publishes my manuscripts after my death, just as long as they throw out my porn collection before Mom finds it.

Anonymous said...

Max Brod ignored Kafka's wishes (thankfully) and did not destroy his work.

5 Red Pandas said...

I think manuscripts and notes on books, etc. should be saved, but perhaps high school pictures where you have big hair, or an unfortunate fashion sense should be gently incinerated. But you have to do the incinerating. Don't make your weeping family do it. They will treasure you in all of your awkwardness! Especially if you're dead.

I personally don't plan on being embarrassed when I'm dead. I hope to be freed from self consciousness too. I guess what I'm saying is that by the time I die, I hope to be a little more Buddhist.

If it was anyone but my mother, I'd totally ignore my loved ones wishes to destroy a manuscript. Not that my mother has written any books, or anything like that, but she already plans on being reincarnated as a powerful American, so I think the fear that she'd haunt me if I don't comply with her wishes, and then once she's reincarnated, somehow take revenge, well that's just not worth disobeying her wishes.

Matthew Tiffany said...

Maybe everyone who proclaims vigorously that it should be destroyed, should sign a pledge that they won't read it if it's published.

aos said...

The explorer and prolific writer Sir Richard Burton's widow destroyed much of his not yet published works because she felt it was morally lacking.

There is enough destroying having already taken place, and so much passing without notice that I would say preserve,and the odds are at some point it will disappear anyway.

myles said...

Anything by Nabokov is too good to throw away. Save it, save it any cost. Unless it turns out to be fan fiction. Then burn it three times and bury the ashes in a deep, deep hole at the bottom of the sea.