A landmark publication of the literary master's unfinished final work is a fragmented draft as hand-written on 138 index cards that were originally requested for destruction and have been released by his son, in a volume that features removable facsimile reproductions.
Contrary to the atmosphere suggested by the published review (from Slate), this book certainly does not have "the musty air of an estate sale". There aren't any mouldy, crumbling books or broken heirlooms or discarded costumes from Mardi Gras of years past. The atmosphere of this book is quite a bit sparser.
This manuscript is far from being a novel. The first few sections, having more polish than the rest, do seem to promise a very interesting novel to follow. There's some phrases that catch the reader's eye, like "[...] strelitzias (hateful blooms, regalized bananas, really)", and Flora, the original of Laura, is introduced to the reader, in a fashion. But a goodly portion of the book is what would be more aptly called "rough notes" and "scribblings".
There might be a novel here; there might be themes, a plot, main characters, etc. But, if there is, the reader would have to read them into the book.
If you're a Nabokov fan and you have the patience to read through half a manuscript, followed by a collection of half-written scenes, followed by pages of incoherent scribblings - all of which are interesting and good fodder for imagining what might have been - then this is a lovely book, beautifully bound, and the tacky, punch-out index cards contain samples of Nabokov's handwriting and evidence of his writing process.
Otherwise, there's not much here in the way of a novel.
Reviewers also agreed there isn’t much in the fragments—that too much had been made of them. Philip Henscher (Spectator, November 25, 2009), called the book “a sphinx without a secret,” and Michiko Kakutani said more or less the same in the NYT. But the book does have secrets. As Kakutani points out, this is the author of Pale Fire and other “postmodern” novels, and so we could have expected something similarly clever here. The closest any review I’ve found comes to this is David Gates (“Nabokov’s Last Puzzle,” NYTBR, November 11, 2009). He points out the open-endedness of the fragments:
“How did Nabokov plan to connect these two strands of his story — the mistress-destroying lover and the self-annihilating scientist? We’ll never know. Wild’s arcane technique of self-erasure must be connected somehow or other with the novelist’s annihilating his mistress “in the act of portraying her”; the association of depiction with destruction is common to both. But the writer can’t have destroyed her in the literal act of writing, since at one point we see the still-living Flora beginning to read a paperback copy of the novel in which Laura dies. “Let me show you your wonderful death,” says a friend who’s already finished the book. “You’ll scream with laughter. It’s the craziest death in the world.” So does the novel “destroy” Flora in some figurative sense? Perhaps reading it goads her cuckolded husband (who calls it a “maddening masterpiece”) into using his mental eraser on her? We assume that the original of Laura has to die some “crazy” death or other, as her fictive double does, but their creator beat them both to the finish line.
“And here’s a puzzle for hard-core Nabokov obsessives. From a freestanding paragraph headed “End of penult chapter,” we infer that after Wild dies of a heart attack, the novelist-lover gets hold of his “testament” — they seem to have the same typist — and arranges for its publication, though we don’t know how, where or why. Are we to suspect that the lover has invented Wild’s mystic manuscript? And even Wild himself? (Readers of “Pale Fire” still argue over whether Shade invented Kinbote or vice versa.) Yet the lover has already made Wild a character in the “Laura” novel, under the transparent name of “Philidor Sauvage.” Would even a trickster like Nabokov invent a character who invents a character and then invents a pseudonym for him? Nabokovians are welcome to take it from here, as long as I don’t have to go with them. And while they’re at it, who’s the oddly named Ivan Vaughan, who seems to know Flora and who appears in one uncompleted chapter to tell us that “the novel My ‘Laura’ ” was “torn apart by a book reviewer in a leading newspaper”?”
This kind of puzzle — which I am not interested in solving — bears on the hope, also noted by most reviewers, that the book might give us a glimpse into Nabokov’s writing method. It does, but not in a way I have seen any reviewer mention: it shows that at least in this case, he wrote around or between the cruxes of the plot. They would have been clear to him; the flesh between those bones would have been what took line-by-line inventing. It is possible there may be novelists for whom this is helpful.
And one other thing: the central surviving image of these fragments is the mental exercise of drawing yourself in your imagination on the inner surfaces of your closed eyelids, and then erasing yourself: an imagined—and then real—act of deliberate self-destruction. That is am amazing idea for a novel, even today, even after Deleuze’s “BwO,” Ballard, and all the rest. It's an amazing idea, more memorable in itself than most books I've read this year.
Next the publish/burn controversy. I wanted to read it, so I'm on the side of publish so no debate here.
Brass tacks, this is not a novel, its the skeleton or scaffold of a novel, what appears to be an interesting multi-layered novel with potentially one or more novels inside. Is it genius ? Well it shows potential, it also shows potential to sprawl in the way Ada does.
What else is there to say ? I'm happy with it, I'm happy with the price I paid both for the form of the book & its contents.
In the case of The Original of Laura, I'm of two minds, and I'm writing this review a bit reluctantly, as I'm not sure my thoughts have completely coalesced. But I'm also acknowledging that perhaps they never will. The book itself is partly cohesive plot and partly postmodern experiment, an obvious work-in-progress with part of it being well conceived and thought out, and the rest existing in scraps and fragments that seem completely unconnected to the rest of the proceedings. The move to actually include reproductions of Nabokov's postcards is inspiring and, to a certain degree, helpful.
But what does it all add up to? I'll confess that the first four "chapters," the most coherent and organized part of the book, are not nearly as interesting as the segmented and not-fully-realized ideas that make up the latter half. It's clear that Nabokov had thoughts and plans that were completely organized and cohesive in his mind, but were a struggle to get down on paper in the correct form. Those who have read enough Nabokov can see in the fragments common threads that he's explored before (Hubert H. Hubert, anyone?) as well as fascinating ideas that you wish he'd have had the chance to properly flesh out. To that end, the book is an interesting and worthy experiment.
But no one is going to care about that. All anyone will wonder is if it was worth it. Was Dmitri Nabokov correct to have published the book in its rough, fragmentary form? I'm not fit to answer that. Nor am I willing, at this point, to delve into the moral and ethical quandaries that such a question raises, not at this point in my life. I purchased The Original of Laura because I was grateful to have just one more fleeting moment with one of my favorite authors. I read it, I thought about it, and I got something out of it. It's not for everyone, especially not the casual reader, and many will be upset and/or downright insulted by it, and that is their prerogative. I can't honestly place myself in any particular camp except one, which I feel will be ignored and long forgotten once the brouhaha settles down: oh, to have been able to see what the master would have done with what he began here!
Seeing the capacious and exquisitely subtle mind of Nabokov itself reduced to unintelligible fragments was more than painful. It felt like an intrusion into a disordered mind stripped of its former magnificence, as if we might peer into Leonardo's closet and see what he painted after losing his eyesight.