This month’s big book—it would have been nice to say ‘this year’s’, but having got hold of a copy I discover it more curio than cry-it-from-the-rooftops—is Nabokov’s last, unfinished novel: The Original of Laura. Three things:
This is a large, thick-paper, orgulous and ultimately self-regarding exercise in the material business of book-making. Plush. Each of Nabokov’s original note-cards is reproduced in facsimile form, with all his neat, slightly childish, un-joined-up pencil handwriting upon them. The text of each card is set out in print (‘Filosofia’ a variant of ‘the classic Bodoni font’) below; but (can you smell that? that whiff of gimmicry?) each of the facsimile note-cards is perforated such that they may be removed from the book ‘and rearranged’, says Dimitri Nabokov, invitingly, in the book’s preface, ‘as the author likely did when he was writing the novel.’
All of this seems to me very poorly judged. I can understand, from a practical point of view, Penguin wanting to make an ‘event’ book out of this title—not least because there’s so little here, practically speaking, of the actual novel to be excited by. But it is based on a false premise. Dmitri Nabokov's introduction, despite his crotchety, old aristocratic manner, is actually inviting a sort of intimacy of the reader. He rehearses his father’s instruction that the unfinished book be burned, and then goes through the reasons why he did not do so, sniping at ‘the lesser minds among the hordes of letter writers that were to descend upon me’ as he does so. The whole book, from a physical point of view, is a sort of mummification. ‘You and I,’ it says, confidentially, ‘we understand the difficulties; we care about Vladimir and his literary genius—we share a filial duty. We respect his reputation too much to ... let us say ... carp at the rubbishy aspects of what is, viewed objectively, barely-a-fifth-finished project. Instead, with ritual solemnity, we shall play the game, and go through the motions: as if the book is still being written, as if the decision not to burn the MS could conceivably be based on aesthetic, rather than commercial, grounds.' The book, in short, is being presented to us as a fetish.
But here’s the thing: I neither have nor want that sort of relationship with my imaginary Vladimir Nabokov. He is of course one of the twentieth-century writers I admire the most, even—for some of his novels—adore the most; but this admiration, and adoration, has never been about intimacy. He’s not the reader’s friend, or father-figure, or anything like that. He’s something much more aloof—that’s the whole point of him. This exercise in faux-filiality grandly misses the point.
And the work itself? There are some glimmers of the old fire under this crust of grey ashes, but it's a tale very much in the Look at the Harlequins! groove, and not (say) another Pnin, or Pale Fire or indeed anything near as original as The Original [of] Lolita. As with Harlequins there’s the sense of a novelist rummaging through the storage-chest of his own career to no very edifying ends: a novel within the novel (called My Laura) about a beautiful, fatal-glamorous nymphet; Flora, the real-life prototype of that Laura; Flora’s sexually-predatory paedophilic stepfather, called ‘Hubert Hubert’—N. wrote another name first, but rubbed it illegibly out and then superscriptively tied his pencil handwriting into this weary intertextual knot. The main characters are: faithless Flora herself, a promiscuous young sex-bomb (bombe de sexe?); and her husband, ‘Dr Philip Wild’, a brilliant, wealthy and morbidly obese doctor, one of the narrators of the piece. There is a third character, a second and unnamed narrator, the author of the novel My Laura (he has enjoyed a Lolita-like international success with this book). He may be called ‘Eric’, this fellow (235) but it’s not clear.
As for the unfinished and fragmentary nature of the work—unfinished according to that unusual logic whereby we have the opening section, a few shards, and then bits and pieces of the last couple of chapters.
Anyway, the narrator’s obsession with Flora/Laura drives him to, brace yourself, are you ready for this, cut off his own toes in an obscurely purposed ‘experiment’:
I was enjoying a petit-beurre with my noontime tea when the droll configuration of that particular bisquit’s margins set into motion a train of thought that may have occurred to the reader even before it occurred to me. He knows already how much I disliked my toes.Actually, this dislike is news to us; but perhaps only because N. did not get around to filling in the earlier section making this clear—which perhaps would have come immediately after the Lolita-piggybacking section that notes ‘there is, there was, only one girl in my life, an object of terror and tenderness, an object too, of universal compassion on the part of millions who read about her in her lover’s books. I say “girl”, and not woman, not wife nor wench’ . Anyway, where were we? The reader
… knows already how much I disliked my toes. An in grown nail on one foot and a corn on the other were now pestering me. Would it no[t] be a brilliant move, thought I, to get rid of my toes by sacrificing them to an experiment that only cowardice kept postponing? [157-9]He doesn’t chop the toes away, but instead treats them with some agent that makes them rot and fall off (‘I know my feet smelled despite daily baths, but this reek was something special’). As he does so he cultivates a ‘special self-hypnotic state’; by sinking into this state he hopes to smooth away all the excrescences of his body. This bizarre conceit flirts, of course with ludicrousness; but I rather warmed to it, on reading, certainly more than I did to the rather laboured straining-to-shock erotic material (young Flora fondled by her stepfather; Wild remembering having sex with a ladyboy and so on). That bittersweet admixture of the bizarre-bathetic and the gorgeous-gemlike is very characteristically Nabokovian, after all; and when it works, as it almost does here, it generates a unique, elegantly dislocating effect.
The writer, like the self-hating Dr Wild (‘I loathe my belly, that trunkful of bowels, which I have to carry around’), is aiming for a physical nirvana ... several of N.’s cards contain details scribbled notes on this (‘Nirvana blowing out (extinguishing), extinction, disappearance. In Buddhist theology extinction …’). Wild is a Buddha (‘he sat with widespread legs to accomodate his enormous stomack … he sat perfect still, like a meditative idol’ 231) and I take it that N.’s project in this book was to somaticize, and indeed eroticize, the ‘religious rubbish and mysticism of Oriental wisdom/The minor poetry of mystical myths’ :
A process of self-obliteration conducted by an effort of the will. Pleasure bordering on almost unendurable exstacy, comes from feeling the will working at a new task: an act of destruction which develops paradoxically an element of creativeness in the totally new application of a totally free will. Learning to use the vigor of the body for the purpose of its own deletion[.] After the toes, the legs. And indeed erasing the body ‘up to the navel’ produces ‘an ecstasy superior to anything experienced before’ —which shows, inter alia, that N. can spell ‘ecstasy’ properly, when he puts his mind to it.
Now there is something interesting in this—not intrinsically, for it’s conceptually pretty commonplace stuff; but rather as a gloss upon The Original of Laura itself—a novel, after all, in a state of disassemblage, one that metaphorically deliqueses as you try to read it, a novel yearning to be made into literal ashes. Dmitri Nabokov’s instructions to the reader to push out all the perforated faux-index-cards, with the facsimile Nabokovish handwriting upon them, and rearrange them ‘as the author likely did when he was writing the novel’ seems to me to miss the point. The assemblage entailed by any such activity contradicts what the novel is about. Better, I suppose, to stack the cards, and then start, by stages, to throw them all away.
Was Nabokov’s spelling always this endearingly poor? Or is this (‘bycycle’, ‘bisquit’, ‘exstacy’, ‘accomodate’, ‘stomack’) only the result of his final illness?
Also: the versos of all these facsimile note-cards pedantically reproduce N’s habit of crossing each of these blank spaces through with a large, slightly quavery ‘X’. This produces an inadvertent extra narrative, one that goes, like a lover’s letter, or an ideally censored message: XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX. I believe I like this text best of all.