Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Original of Laura by Vladimir Nabokov

The subtitle of this posthumous novel is "Dying Is Fun," and one senses the sarcasm even from beyond the grave among the bones of this work. Nabokov, as he succumbed to a host of ailments toward the end of his life, left "The Original of Laura" with his family to destroy - the first draft of a novel scrawled on 138 index cards, which are faithfully reproduced for the reader after decades of indecision by Nabokov's family. Index cards, we are told, because Nabokov liked to arrange and rearrange his passages as the mood hit him.

One sees, upon a first reading, why Nabokov might have wanted to spare the public this work in progress. It is hard to divine just where he was headed, what he might have changed, what he might have expanded upon. What is here is only the barest outline of a plot - a young woman named Flora becomes the subject of a novel as she is prisoner in a lifeless, loveless marriage. Beyond that, it's difficult to judge where he intended to go. Scenes are only barely sketched in. Extended dialogue is scarce. This is only the beginning of birth pangs.

What is here is interesting, nonetheless. There are typical Nabokovian puns and putdowns - observations such as how people seem to stare with "nasty compassion," or how an aging child molester died of a stroke in an elevator - "going up, one would like to surmise." We get the opinion that Malreux and Mishima, among other writers, "could get away with the most excreble writing, provided they represent their times." The introduction proves that this kind of literary snobbery did not die with the author but is alive and well with Nabokov's son, Dimitri, who wrote the forward.

And that makes the whole business tantalizing enough. I found myself wishing there were just a little more flesh here among the bones. It is nearly impossible to see what Nabokov meant by some of this. For example, would he have retained the name Hubert H. Hubert for one of his characters, which seems such an uninspired homage to "Lolita?" While Nabokov's style is evident here, it is not fluid and not constant throughout. The total is occasionally as indicipherable as his handwriting.

But this is clear: much of the book deals with self-destruction. From what we know about the state of his health just before his death, this would have been a welcome subject for Nabokov, as it is for his narrator. What few observations are intact among these pages deal with losing toes, limbs, and the welcome effects of oblivion:

"I hit upon the art of thinking away my body, my being, mind itself. To think away thought - luxurous suicide, delicious dissolution! Dissolution, in fact, is a marvelously apt term here, for as you sit relaxed in this comfortable chair (narrator striking its armrests) and start destroying yourself, the first thing you feel is a mounting melting from the feet upward...(card ends)."

Christianity, critics often charge, has been too obsessed with the body, or its negation. Those who take it too literally, we are told, pay too much attention to covering up the body in unseemly modesty, or placing too much hope in the promise of resurrection and not enough on the here and now. Explanations for everything from the rise of obesity in America to perceived Republican indifference to the hungry and poor have been wrapped up in such criticisms. Nabokov's novel (and the circumstances under which it was written) reminds us that the inescapable fact of life is that it is not eternal, in this reality at any rate. The very fact that this novel is not finished, that the intelligence that created it has been gone for thirty years, is enough to drive that point home.

But much of who we are is wrapped up in our bodies, and warped by them. When we are most beautiful, we may be simultaneously powerful and vulnerable. Age showers us with the wisdom of experience at the exact moment we become spectators instead of actors. Bodies break, and the spirits within them do as well. Shuffling the cards may change the organization, but the ending is always the same, written or unwritten. This is an unpleasant truth, but it means that unlike another posthumous author's work - Dickens' "The Mystery of Edwin Drood" - the ending, and the culprit, has already been divulged.

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