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A posthumous piece of fiction

BY TOMMY MORGAN JR. | NOVEMBER 19, 2009 7:21 AM

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While the term “a novel” usually accompanies the title on the cover of a fiction book, a different phrase appears on Russian legend Vladimir Nabokov’s last work, The Original of Laura.

It is a novel, but as the cover points out, it’s “a novel in fragments.”

The Original of Laura is a book that was not supposed to exist. Nabokov began composing the text on a set of note cards in 1975, and he did not complete it before his death in 1977. Son Dmitri Nabokov says Nabokov instructed his wife to burn the cards should he not finish the novel in time.

When she died, the task was passed on to Dmitri Nabokov, who instead decided to publish the novel.

In The Original of Laura’s introduction, he defends his decision: “Nor, as I have said, do I think that my father or my father’s shade would have opposed the release of Laura once Laura had survived the hum of time this long.”

The truth behind this point is moot. As would be the evaluation of The Original of Laura as a complete novel, or even “a novel in fragments” — it simply would not be just.

But, even as an incomplete work, The Original of Laura is still strong. The tale of aspiring writer Philip Wild and his wife, Flora, is classic Nabokov, especially in regards to its fascination with death and the afterlife. Nabokov’s gift with language and character is easily apparent (but it should be noted that the work is unfinished, and its state reflects that — saying that the book is a poor read because the narrative is fragmented and messy would be to miss the point entirely).

The story told in the novel is secondary to the story of the novel itself. The book jacket and introduction do not mention the inside plot and instead tell the tale of Nabokov’s struggle to complete the novel and Dmitri Nabokov’s decision to publish it.

Similarly, the structure of The Original of Laura is about the writing process — not the actual writing. Each page contains the text of the novel, but it is displaced by copies of the note cards on which Nabokov wrote. These copies are perforated, meant to be removed and played around with, as Nabokov himself perhaps would do. One does not so much read this novel as experience it from the eyes of the author.

True, all of Nabokov’s initial mistakes are present, but this also means that so are his original ideas. Cross-outs, erasures, editorial marks, and notes are preserved for the audience to see. With this, it’s easy to follow Nabokov’s writing process, which in turn creates an unparalleled inside look at the mind of a literary genius.

Examining the physical first draft of The Original of Laura — errors and all — is a learning experience for any writer or reader. It’s akin to reading a recent publication of the original text of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, but more personal and with more insight into the writer at work.

To be taken this far into the mind of Nabokov and into his process is a brilliant revelation. Instead of seeing only the final edition of a work, edited a hundred times by myriad eyes, The Original of Laura treats the reader to glimpses of Nabokov hard at work. The result is perhaps the best textbook on writing, even if unintentionally so, this side of The Elements of Style.

In addition to being considered one of the greatest writers to put pen to paper, Nabokov is famously known as a lepidopterist — a studier of butterflies — and a critic and teacher. It seems fitting, therefore, that his final gift to the world was not just another novel but a learning experience.

Like Nabokov out in the field, the reader is able to study The Original of Laura as a caterpillar forming its cocoon in preparation for greatness. It is indeed a shame that the world is unable to see the final butterfly it could have become. But, watching the transformation as it happens is equally delightful and perhaps more revelatory.


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