Sunday, December 6, 2009

The Original of Laura

The first thing you need to know about this new Nabokov thing is that it is not a novel. It's not even close. It's a bunch of notes, basically, with some quite fascinating bits of story strewn around in it. It has no narrative arc, no coherence--just a few characters and a few scenes that might eventually have become a very good novel, if its author has lived.

I have little to say, then, about the story that The Original of Laura might eventually have become. Rather, I'll comment on this strange heavy literary artifact--the big black book with the fading titles that bears Nabokov's name. First off--I'm glad it was published. It is fascinating, and its destruction in the flames Nabokov requested consume it would have been tragic. (I'm in the camp that maintains no deathbed wish for unfinished works to be burned should ever be honored--indeed, no deathbed wish should be honored, ever. But that's a subject for another day.) Most of the credit here should go to the book designer, Chip Kidd, whose execution is simply brilliant, from the haunting cover to the perforated punch-out note card facsimiles. Some should go to Dmitri Nabokov as well, who, in the end, chose to ignore his father's wishes and publish the cards; his snotty introduction, however, is a missed opportunity to contextualize his father's unrealized achievement and explain better the author's working process.

What amazes me here is how Nabokov apparently went about writing this would-be novel; the cards are divided into "chapters," and it appears to me that Nabokov held in his mind some overarching conception of the story--its general shape, its changing points of view and intersecting plotlines--and composed truncated versions of each chapter first, resulting in an incoherent but seductive novel in miniature. It's a bit like the pencilled study an artist sketches onto the canvas before he begins mixing his paints--a vague outline that suggests various possible brilliances.

About half of this book isn't even that, though--just notes, thoughts, ideas. Some cards only contain a sentence or two, a few scribbled words. Others are impregnated by thrilling erasures, the shapes of the letters still visible underneath the words that have replaced them. I can't imagine trying to write a novel the way Nabokov apparently was here, and it makes me intensely curious about the note cards from his previous, finished novels. Perhaps Cornell has some--I will have to check this out.

In any event, this is absolutely a book worth reading, and more importantly studying, if you consider yourself a student of Nabokov's work. I couldn't help thinking of the Nabokov biographer Brian Boyd, who, in a recent talk at Cornell, described his first reading of these cards, back in the eighties, sitting in Vera Nabokov's living room with the widow staring at him from across the room. You can feel her gaze, and Boyd's amazement, and Nabokov's surprisingly steady hand, in these miraculous pages.


Sung said...

They say it comes in threes, right? Another novel you read this year from a favorite author that doesn't quite work like a novel (the others being Lethem and Moore, though I guess with this one, it was sort of expected). I agree, the cover is just perfect, a shadow of a book that isn't. Sort of reminds me of Stephen King's Just After Sunset hardcover design, the letters of the title doing the heavy lifting.

A few years back, at the New York Public Library, they displayed a whole bunch of Nabakov paraphernalia, and I'm almost positive I saw note cards for his other novels. I don't think it was Lolita -- perhaps Pnin? Or Pale Fire. One of those P books. The other thing that was just precious was a typed note from William Maxwell on New Yorker stationary, asking if he could get a copy of Lolita, which was of course banned at the time in the States. The NYPL has great stuff -- last year, they showcased the scroll that Jack Kerouac wrote On the Road on. Just really neat stuff.

I've always considered Nabokov to be the most talented writer in the English language. I know it's a silly declaration, but nobody made me feel as inept as a writer than this guy...

- Sung

Anonymous said...

No, I agree, he was a master--he noticed the language as only an outsider can...nothing was automatic or invisible to him.

I would love to sift through the cards for Pale Fire in particular.

Pete said...

Not surprisingly, our local Borders, in the latest example of the chain's intention of killing itself, had a copy of The Original of Laura on the shelf. Shrink-wrapped and unbrowsable. Borders is like an art gallery that keeps its doors locked and expects patrons to shove money under the door for works they've never seen.