SHORED AGAINST HIS RUINS
The Original of Laura: A Novel in Fragments
By Vladimir Nabokov (Penguin Classics 278pp £25)
In 1962, following the international success of Lolita that made him financially independent, Vladimir Nabokov gave up his professorial post at Cornell and settled in Montreux, Switzerland, where he resided at the Palace hotel with his wife Vera and wrote his later novels, until his death in 1977. In the last two years of his life, which were marred by various accidents, illnesses and increasing physical debility, Nabokov worked on a novel called The Original of Laura, writing it, as was his habit, by hand in pencil on small index cards. It was unfinished - very far from finished in fact - when he died, and he had expressly directed Vera to burn the manuscript in that eventuality. Having rescued Lolita from the incinerator many years before, when Nabokov had a sudden failure of nerve about publishing it, his widow understandably hesitated to carry out his wishes with respect to his last work. The Original of Laura has lain in a bank vault for thirty years, the object of intense curiosity and speculation among aficionados, while Vera and the Nabokovs' son Dmitri agonised over whether or not to allow it to be published. They finally decided to do so, and here it is.
The work has been lavishly and reverently designed and produced. Every index card is photographically reproduced in the top half of the recto page, white on a pale grey background, with a printed transcription underneath. On every verso page there is the reproduction of another, blank, index card, perhaps to represent the words Nabokov never lived to write, perhaps to give the reader a convenient space to make his own notes, perhaps merely to bulk out a text of no more words than a long short story to make a full-length book.
The subtitle, 'A Novel in Fragments', was presumably not Nabokov's, since he hoped to complete it, but it is an accurate description. Nabokov was never a straightforward storyteller - he always required close concentration from readers and delighted in setting them little traps and puzzles and surprises - but we have to work especially hard to construe and connect the various fragments of The Original of Laura. The first line is a typically Nabokovian tease, an answer to a missing question: 'Her husband, she answered, was a writer too - at least, after a fashion.' The 'she' here is Flora, a young woman married (we discover in due course) to an older man, Dr Philip Wild, a grossly obese but distinguished neurologist who was not able to attend the party at which she is speaking to a writer who must have asked the question, 'What does your husband do?'
In this first episode, which is narrated from the writer's point of view, he accompanies her to a borrowed flat where they have sex, or rather the coitus interruptus that is her preferred contraceptive method. The daughter of a ballerina and a photographer, both of Russian extraction, Flora is a femme fatale, beautiful, wanton, cruel, irresistible, 'an object of terror and tenderness' to her husband, and of the same lineage as Lolita. To the writer 'the cup-sized breasts of that twenty-four year old impatient beauty seemed a dozen years younger than she'. Lolita was twelve when Humbert Humbert first met her, and the prepubescent Flora, we learn, suffered the attentions of an elderly lover of her mother's called Hubert H Hubert. She lost her virginity at fourteen and was soon enjoying al fresco boyfriend-swapping. 'Sometimes a voyeur would be shaken out of a tree by the vigilant police.'
The writer uses Flora as the transparently recognisable model for Laura, the heroine of a bestselling novel, which her husband, when he can no longer resist reading it, will find a 'maddening masterpiece', one more item, as he says, in 'the anthology of humiliation to which, since my marriage, I have been a constant contributor'. Philip Wild's main comfort in his unhappy personal life is a strange application of his professional expertise: he develops a technique for sending himself into a kind of trance in which he is able to remove various parts of his anatomy by a kind of virtual amputation, projecting a stylised image of his body upon the screen of his closed eyelids and deleting a selected area. He begins with his toes (Dmitri Nabokov tells us in his introduction that the author himself was tortured by ingrowing toenails in the last months of his life) and moves on to more vital parts of the body. 'I hit upon the art of thinking away my body, my being, mind itself. To think away thought - luxurious suicide, delicious dissolution!' The trick is, he emphasises, to retain the ability to come out of the trance before one actually kills oneself. In this way he explores various possible kinds of death without actually succumbing to it and achieves a kind of orgasmic ecstasy in the process. The last recto page of the book reproduces not an index card but a small piece of graph paper down the middle of which Nabokov scrawled in a slanting hand a list of words: 'efface expunge erase delete rub out wipe out obliterate'. It makes a fitting tailpiece to the book, but it was not of course Nabokov who placed it there.
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The way the manuscript has been ingeniously edited and reproduced overcomes to a large extent the disappointment and frustration inherent in reading an unfinished and disconnected narrative, and achieves an interesting aesthetic effect unintended by the author. If the manuscript had been printed in the conventional way we would have hurried through it vainly seeking some coherent plot or hint of its ultimate direction. As it is the book invites us to linger over the text's quiddity, relishing not just its stylistic feats but also the physical marks on the index cards, the poignantly shaky hand of an ailing author, his revisions and insertions and smudged rubbings out, and the tantalising space he left to be filled in later when he found the right word. 'The only way he could possess her was in the most position of copulation'.
Few readers will probably read the whole text continuously from the cards, but the matching printed text underneath also has a defamiliarising effect on the act of reading when, quite often, the last line does not extend to the margin. Page 7 for instance ends 'when they and their dog do not happen', and by habit one's brain tries to make sense of this as a complete clause before turning the page to find 'to need it.' This is an effect akin to a caesura in poetry, and indeed the structure of the work as a whole is more akin to modern poetry of the Eliot-Pound kind than a conventional novel, shifting from one voice to another without explanatory links. Towards the end these jump cuts become more abrupt, and there are more cards which bear just a few lines, sometimes evidently Nabokov's notes to himself. A line from The Waste Land, 'These fragments I have shored against my ruins', might have been a suitable epigraph for The Original of Laura, but the last lines of page 21 would make a better one: 'Only by identifying her with an unwritten, half-written, rewritten difficult book could one hope to render what'.
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.
David Lodge is a novelist and critic, and Emeritus Professor of English Literature at the University of Birmingham. His most recent novels are 'Author, Author' and 'Deaf Sentence'.