The Burning of Laura Instead of Nabokov

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It's a subject I seem to find fascinating on a repeated basis: what to do with a writer's work once the writer is dead. The latest thing to spark my interest on the subject was an article I read recently on Slate: Dmitri's Choice: Nabokov wanted his final, unfinished work destroyed. Should his son get out the matches? The issue at hand is that Nabokov left behind an unfinished manuscript, The Original of Laura, and requested that it be destroyed after his death. His widow didn't do it before she died, so now the decision rests with Nabokov's son Dmitri.

Personally, I think that it's up to a writer to determine his or her legacy, and if Nabokov wanted Laura destroyed, then that counts for something. It counts for a lot. But of course, this is something written by Nabokov, which pretty much guarantees that even in manuscript form (handwritten on index cards), it's a fascinating work, so of course people are worried about the loss of a genius's final work to posterity. It's understandable.

I've asked variations on this question before, and I'll probably ask it again in some form someday, but at what point does the writer lose control over his or her work? At death? Or does the fact that the writer created it in the first place trump other people's rights to it?

At the same time, what's the deal with writers saying they want their works destroyed after they die? If they really want to make sure that their works are not published, why don't they take care of it themselves? (I'm looking at you, Kafka.) Do they really mean it? Do we have to take their word for it? And if so, doesn't that mean that the work should be destroyed?

Another facet of the issue at hand is that Dmitri has said that because of interpretations of Nabokov's work by "Lolitologists" -- those who attempt to psychoanalyze the writer through analysis of his writing -- he leans towards the manuscript's destruction if only to save it from the same fate. So here's another question -- does the fact that it's impossible to control the way readers interpret things once they're read mean that writing shouldn't be made public? I mean, isn't that the nature of having an audience -- that once a piece of art is viewed, listened to, read, it's out of the artist's hands?

Which, when it comes down to it, is exactly the point. Certainly any artist who has created something and then had an audience interact with the creation knows that the audience is going to interpret that art in ways the artist never thought of or intended, which is, I believe, why some works never see the light of day. Some things are created just for the hell of it, or never quite get perfected enough, or are never completed. And in the end, doesn't the artist know best which work should be shared and which work shouldn't?

So many questions, and it all ends with one: should The Original of Laura be destroyed or should it be given to the world?
12 Responses to "The Burning of Laura Instead of Nabokov"

by Dan on

The manuscript should be published. Nabokov was, by all accounts, a complex man. Asking that it be burned may have been what he expected his character, VN, a cantankerous novelist, to say, believing that it wouldn't actually happen.

If he had wanted it destroyed he would have done so himself.

Of course I'm biased - I want to read it!

If a published writer of the stature of Nabokov wants something destroyed, he needs to do the job himself. Otherwise, what's left when he dies belongs to the ages.

by Milton on

Exactly. I could never trust my own opinion to have a sufficient amount of detachment here, considering how much I want to read it. And Dmitri isn't helping things with his constant teases.

On the whole, I don't think anyone's literary reputation has ever been compromised by the release of their unfinished work. Even when that work was particularly vicious and racist, like T.S. Eliot's was -- I think people understand that there was a reason the author kept it under wraps. It's actually a testament to Eliot's quality control and (perhaps) conscience that even though he may have written anti-Semitic, misogynist verses, when it came time to publish he knew enough to leave them in the garbage.

Of course, I don't think anyone suspects that "Original of Laura" will reveal Nabokov to be a secret Scientologist or anything. And considering V.N.'s absurdly high standards for his own work, I could imagine that "Laura" might not even appear unfinished to the non-Nabokov reader. The man himself would be horrified at the notion were he still alive, but he's not, and ultimately I don't think we should feel conflicted for wanting to read the last work of the 20th century's greatest writer.

If it is, in fact, the "most concentrated distillation of Nabokov's creativity" (Dmitri's words), then the value of releasing it would be immense. If it turns out to be an unreadable, error-riddled rough draft (not bloody likely, says I), then we can quickly delegate it to the "marginalia" file of Nabokov's work, with little harm done.

In the words of Bela Lugosi, let's read this fucker!

Has anyone ever actually read Camus's last novel, the posthumously published (and appropriately titled) The Last Man? Apparently, a blood-soaked manuscript of it was recovered from the car wreckage where his life ended in 1960. I've never gotten around to picking up a copy; still, I think this title would definitely serve as a fine example of a novel that should have been posthumously published without any qualms from any parties.

by Levi Asher on

Here's what I think -- for the same reasons several have cited above, I do think the book should be published.

However, I can't say I would rush out to read it. I still haven't gotten halfway thru "Pnin". I bet a lot of other people won't read it if it's ever published either, since Nabokov wrote a whole lot of books that *have* been published that hardly anybody ever reads.

Just tossing in that perspective, for what it's worth.

So the consensus here, small as it may be, is for publishing it. One interesting thing I came across while reading the discussion about the article over on Slate was that perhaps the text could be published for use by scholars and archivists and not necessarily put into book form and sold at local bookstores. Thoughts on this? Anyone? Anyone?

Also, yes, I have read The First Man, or at least I've read most of it. My copy of it is around here somewhere. The most interesting thing about it, at least from my perspective, was not the novel itself, but the insight into the way Camus wrote, since it's all annotated with things he wrote in the margins and whatnot.

Michael Norris makes a good point. What's the deal with someone saying, "I want this manuscript destroyed after my death?"

If you want something done right, do it yourself.

by Milton on

Dan says:

"Nabokov was, by all accounts, a complex man. Asking that it be burned may have been what he expected his character, VN, a cantankerous novelist, to say, believing that it wouldn’t actually happen."

And I think that's it right there. When Nabokov was a lit professor at Cornell, he lectured extensively on Joyce and Kafka, both writers who would have incinerated their masterpieces if someone else hadn't intervened. He also wrote a biography of Gogol, who didn't bother with the death-bed dramatics and just personally burned his last work. Nabokov was steeped in the literary history of such things -- if you want your work saved, assign its destruction to someone else; if you're actually serious, break out the matches yourself. He HAD to have known what he was doing.

Furthermore, Dmitri Nabokov knows his father's work better than anyone, having spent most of his life translating it and overseeing his legacy. The man should know a good VN novel better than anyone, and he says this is one.

by Caryn on

Burn, baby, burn! Manuscript inferno!

Just like bacon, this will be much better when burned.

I think what a lot of people are overlooking here is that perhaps he simply just wanted the food poisoning boiled out of it.

Publish it.
The author probably wanted to do one last re-write.
How sick Nabokov was before he passed? Who would deny a dying man his wish to see the manuscript put to ashes before his own eyes [unless he was in an oxygen tent].
Here is a precedent: Long Day's Journey Into Night wasn't to be performed until 50 years after O'Neill's death. The widow put the play out and gave the profits to charity.
Camus' best posthumous work is A Happy Death that first exposed me to conscious and unconscious existence.

by Dan on

Milton -

What manuscript was Joyce going to incinerate?

Just curious.

Yeah, I screwed up in regards to titles: It was The First Man, not The Last Man. The Last Man...Now where did I dig that up...?