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Lingering over ruins: A very serious examination of Vladimir Nabokov’s The Original of Laura

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“[D]o not linger over your own ruins.”

Lesser minds examining Vladimir Nabokov’s posthumously published The Original of Laura (Dying is Fun), A Novel in Fragments will be tempted to begin by quoting index card D2, page 133, in which the great Enchanter writes, “Now comes the mental image. In preparing for my own experiments — a long fumble which these notes shall help novices to avoid — I toyed with the ides of drawing a fairly detailed, fairly recognizable portrait of myself on my private blackboard.” This is a trap of course, neatly set by that great player of literary games, that the present reviewer shall neatly sidestep by instead noting that when the great Nabokov passed away in 1977 (as harrowingly related by a character purporting to be Nabokov’s son, Dmitri, in T.O.O.L.‘s introduction), I was four years old, and had only just recently discovered his works. I was halfway through my second re-reading of Pale Fire – I hadn’t yet found all the clues as to the butterfly/Hazel Shade connection – and I was devastated in that way that only the near-infant fan of a great author can be when he learns his favorite author has shuffled off this mortal coil.

I resolved at that point to ensure I read all of the Enchanter’s works before I turned five (kicking myself that I’d spent so much time reading Pale Fire three times that I’d been unable to read all of his works before his physical death, as if that would have any bearing on my enjoyment of them). During that period there were times when I felt that I must have been, myself, a character from the Enchanter’s works (by which I mean of course that I often confused myself with a pre-adolescent American girl with fine hair on my legs and generally going about with one sock and sucking a lollipop, or a pretentious but ultimately sympathetic and lovable older gentleman with some physical ailments brought on by the natural aging process but still with a great deal of sophisticated charm).  But, as so often happens and Jackie Paper-like, by the time I hit puberty I’d moved on.

Or so I thought. Does anyone really move on from Vladimir Nabokov? For one thing, there was the fact that an irritatingly catchy pop song served as a ridiculous reminder of his presence. That song, with its line in which the vocalist attempted to rhyme the Enchanter’s last name with the words “shake and cough” by horribly mangling it, ironically did more to expose Nabokov to the masses than his books themselves — while at the same time ensuring that most who’d heard of him would never understand his works. Nabokov’s name has that wonderful, masculine “bow” tied right around the middle of it, “na-BOW-kahv,” and how can anyone appreciate this talented if idiosyncratic author’s works if they cannot even pronounce his name?

(As an aside I note with wry irony that my spell check insists on underlining the literary spell-weaver’s last name, as if emphasizing it, with a jagged red line. Word’s inability to recognize the great Enchanter’s name speaks to the illiteracy of the age.)

But more important than that silly pop song was the fact that every major writer of last half of the 20th century, and the first decade of the 21st, was influenced by Nabokov’s works. That is obvious enough on its face to make further comment superfluous. Nabokov’s echoes can be found in the works of J.K. Rowling, Dan Brown, Sarah Palin, and Paul Auster.

Which brings me to his last published work, The Original of Laura (T.O.O.L.). The novel was interrupted by the author’s rather inconvenient death, while still pupating on his series of index cards. These index cards are reproduced on each of the novel’s cardstock pages (and perforated, so that the reader can punch them out and arrange them in any way he sees fit, as the most erudite “Choose Your Own Adventure” story ever written; indeed, perhaps the only such work that doesn’t make the reader want to “choose to read something else”), with a transcription beneath. The transcriptions are presented with “corrections” by the editor, the aforementioned “Dmitri Nabokov.”

Here the sophisticated reader registers his first complaint, which of course has nothing to do with the flawless Enchanter: the font chosen for the transcriptions, Filosofina (described in the section entitled “A Note on the Type” as “a reinvention of Bodoni“), is highly inappropriate to a work of this magnitude. Imagine a newly discovered work by Joyce (not the creator of the massively over-rated Finnegans Wake, but the sublime creator of the only slightly over-rated Ulysses) being presented in Times New Roman, and you have some idea of the mistake that’s been made. It is to the credit of Nabokov that the work itself is able to overcome this dreadful error.

Furthermore, some of the “corrections” are mind-boggling. On index card Four-2, the line “A few photographs moved among the crowd as indifferent to it as specters doing their spectral job,” is amended so that the “photographs” become “photograph[er]s,” when it is clear from the context that the Enchanter is referring to floating pictures, ephemeral stand-ins for solid memory, not the takers of said pictures. This reminds me very much of a dream I once had.

Another correction, this one ironic enough to stand without further commentary from me (further commentary would only be intrusive upon the work itself): “Similarly spare prose of the author with its pruning of rich adjectives,” becomes “Similarly [the] spare prose of the author with its pruning of rich adjectives.” Preposterous!

Those corrections are made by the book’s editor, who provides an introduction worthy of the greatest Nabokov characters, because it was written by a great Nabokov character. “Dmitri Nabokov,” who claims to be Nabokov’s sole offspring, presents himself as a kin to Kinbote, playfully insisting his father would not have wanted him to become his “Person from Porlock,” while using the opportunity of the introduction to settle a series of old scores. Among those upon whom judgment is handed down are the college student who might have stolen his inscribed copy of Lolita and sold it for a mere $2 (was he irritated over the theft, or the relatively low price?), a maid who threw out his father’s road maps (lined with notes taken during the composition of Lolita which is, as Dmitri helpfully reminds us, “acclaimed as one of the best books ever written”), a customs official who might have stolen a flask of Cognac from the family as they entered America, and all the “half-literate,” “fashionable morons,” and “lesser minds” who would dare question anything that he or his father did – including to publish the index cards Nabokov wanted destroyed (“Dmitri’s dilemma,” he calls it), should the novel be unfinished at his death.

Despite the tyranny of Dmitri’s low expectations, I am not a “lesser mind,” and as such I very much appreciate the younger Nabokov’s decision to forego his father’s wishes — Le fils est père au père, after all.

But now let us turn to those magical index cards. The Original of Laura is the inspiration for Laura, which is the fictional novel at the center of Nabokov’s abandoned work. T.O.O.L. is an examination of the tension between reality and fiction, and the ways in which writers reinvent and impress order upon their own lives in their works. In other words, it is essentially just like everything else the Enchanter wrote, with the added bonus of being unfinished, thereby making it even more open to interpretation than usual — “a darkplum, rather than black, depth of opacity is none other than the underside of one’s closed eyelids” [p. 131].

The author of Laura, a character called Philip Wild, “a brilliant neurologist, a renowned lecturer [and] a gentleman of independent means” [p. 107] was well on his way to becoming one of Nabokov’s typical and therefore wonderful narrators. He is obsessive in the cataloging of his physical ailments, which include ingrown toenails and corns, a “humiliating stomack ailment” [p. 147], a loathsome belly, and “wretched flesh” [p. 159].

Through hypnosis the narrator (who called himself Philidor Savauge in Laura) is attempting to erase himself — something that Nabokov understood instinctively to be impossible (a narrator can never erase himself!) — yet when he returns from his trances he is disappointed to find himself intact, but still heartened that the limbs he’d thought he’d obliterated have gone numb. By page 171 the narrator’s flesh has begun to rot and he declares, “the process of dying by auto-dissolution afforded the greatest ecstasy known to man.” (Hence the deadpan subtitle.)

Because they are hypnotic trances, not unlike the hypnotic trance the reader experiences when reading T.O.O.L., they are necessarily not real — not even in the context of the novel itself, which isn’t even a novel in the first place. It’s a series of notes scribbled on index cards. One can easily imagine Nabokov dying at just the right moment, planning his death much like Philidor I mean Philip is planning his, so as to create the ultimate dizzying index card-novel-game, leaving us all to puzzle over the pieces.

As interesting as Philip Wild/Philidor Savauge is, it is in those descriptions of Flora, who is in fact “the original of Laura,” that the index cards truly begin to float like butterflies. The cards reproduced on pages 13-39 give us beautiful details regarding this “extravagantly slender” Russian girl of 24 with “exquisite bone structure” and “cup-sized breasts.” The woman is later described engaged in the copulatory act with the narrator with the wonderfully evocative phrasing, “he holding her in front of him like a child being given a sleighride down a short slope by a kind stranger” [p. 197-199]. This is easily as erotic as anything in Kubrick‘s sensual masterpiece Eyes Wide Shut (and how ironic that that master filmmaker’s only flawed film was his adaptation of Lolita!).

Flora is not merely a beautiful asphodel to be pinned upon the buttonhole of a brilliant narrator. Nabokov bestows upon her the gift of a back story reminiscent of that of his perhaps most famous creation, Dolores Haze. She loses her virginity when barely fourteen to “a coeval, a handsome ballboy at the Carlton Courts in Cannes.” This act is described as part of a “duty she had resolved to perform rather than a casual pleasure she was now learning to taste” [p. 77]. (That pleasure would be experienced later in that tremendously erotic sleighride with the narrator, mentioned above.) As a girl of 12, Flora is menaced by a character called “Hubert H. Hubert,” which needs no explication from me (obvious echoes of “Humbert Humbert“), who “constantly ‘prowled’ (rodait) around her, humming a monotonous tune and sort of mesmerizing her” [p. 57]. Here in the midst of recalling another of his own greatest creations, the Enchanter chooses also to evoke the lesser novel (Trilby) of a lesser writer (George du Maurier), conflating the two in a mélange of modesty and almost whimsical (“sort of”) description.

Ultimately, as always with Nabokov, the characters, wonderfully and sympathetically drawn as they are (ignore the lesser minds who complain that Nabokov’s works are limited by their supposed lack of compassion for the characters who inhabit them and, therefore, humanity at large — they merit mention merely within a single parenthetical phrase toward the end of a single review of the Enchanter’s final novel), are secondary to the amazing use of dazzling language. While it is clear that the Enchanter was in declining health as these index cards were being composed, the febrile mind is still on verdant display, even in those cards that read as little more than lists of words, notes to the creator in the throes of creation that give the same impression as all those “begats” in that other index card novel, The Bible. This is appropriate, since Nabokov is himself a literary capital-G God, who believed deeply in the authority of the author over all his works.

Now drawing ever nearer the inevitable end of this review, the present author has begun to realize that anyone who is not a lesser mind might be tempted to conclude said review with an abrupt ending, as if arrested by some irresistible force and prevented completing his writing. This dangerous feeling of identification with the author, no matter how brilliant, is

Ricky Sprague occasionally writes and/or draws things. He sometimes animates things. He has a website and he has a blog. He is the author of this recent novel about a horrible fanboy. He is really, really good at putting links in bios.
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2 Responses to “Lingering over ruins: A very serious examination of Vladimir Nabokov’s The Original of Laura”

  1. Excellent review — very Nabokovian. It reminds me, in tone, of Nabokov’s essay on Gogol.

  2. Agree very much with the first poster. I hadn’t thought about Nabokov ( if I’m not mistaken I think he himself okayed ” NA- bokov for sure and at least when he lived in the US. Anyway…) for a while so thanks for the reminder. Among his other great stuff (the gift is one of my favorites),”Speak Memory” has to be one of the best auto- biographies of them all.

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