original of laura


Author: Vladimir Nabokov

2009, Knopf

Filed Under: Literary.

Get a copy at Powell’s.

I’m not exactly sure how I feel about this book. For starters, it’s not really a book at all. Before he died–more than 30 years ago–Nabokov was working on a novel. Before his death, he asked his wife to burn his notes–a stack of 3 x 5 index cards. She didn’t, and now his son has decided to publish the fragmented work. It is in no way a novel, or even an incomplete creative work. If you are looking for any sort of narrative, give up now. This is merely an insight into the writing process of one of the English language’s greatest authors.

So as a big fan, part of me loved picking through this, glimpsing  different moods and reactions in the writing (evidenced in his chicken-scratch pencil script), and I know I’ll go back to it more than a few times. But part of me felt sad, angry, and a bit cheated that this exists.

There are definitely plenty of moments of brilliance in these pages. Nabokov’s genius is evident and ever present. Take the opening lines from the first card marked “Ch. One”:

Her husband, she answered, was a writer, too–at least, after a fashion. Fat men beat their wives, it is said, and he certainly looked fierce, when he caught her riffling through his papers. He pretended to slam down a marble paperweight and crush this weak little hand (displaying the little hand in febrile motion)

or the contents of the unlabelled card (perhaps my favorite) following that marked “D11”:

from heel to hip, then the trunk, then the head when nothing was left but a grotesque bust with staring eyes

But moments of vulnerability also litter these pages. It is very clearly an unfinished, unpolished work; a collection of notes that the author would not have left unmodified had he been able to further his efforts. The whole thing is rife with verbosity and alliteration that rings off key, things Nabokov undoubtedly would have changed and changed again, perhaps altering a hundred times before going to print (or perhaps not at all, we have no way of knowing):

And with a tigerish zest, monstrously magnifying a trivial tiff she had had with him whose pyjamas (the idiot subject of the tiff) were changing the while, in the spectrum of his surprise and distress, from heliotrope to a sickly gray, she dismissed the poor oaf for ever

I haven’t rated this book for this review. Nabokov didn’t consider it a novel and neither should we. (All the text combined would amount to fewer than 50 pages.) I must give the publishers credit though, they don’t try and pass it off as more than what it is. The presentation helps alleviate the ambivalence I feel about this.

It’s bound in heavy card stock, and contains two sided replications of the notecards Nabokov wrote on. There are perforations around each card, so you can punch them out and experience his notes in a more tactile manner if you’re so inclined. This is not a book that is likely to get an ebook edition, and if it does, it won’t be worth the download.

NotecardsBeneath each card the words have been set in print, a paragraph per page. Occasionally, just a line. I knew about the presentation before the book was released, and I disliked the idea at first, but once I had the thing in my hands, it helped me put aside any notions that this was a novel. Nabokov has coded and partially organized the notecards, allowing the editors to put together a semblance of chaptered structure. But because it is really no more than the roughest of drafts, it’s not worth discussing the plot contained within. The language though, however unrefined in parts, delighted the hell out of me.

I loved reading this, but it it was more like picking through a museum exhibit than reading a new work. Readers delving into The Original of Laura should be aware of this. It is an experience akin to reading letters published posthumously: it provides insights into a great mind but is far from a product of that mind. Nabokov might be rolling in his grave over this, but I’m glad we have the opportunity for even one last fresh taste of his genius, even if it’s just a smack.

Similar Reads: Lolita (Nabokov), Pale Fire (Nabokov), Pnin (Nabokov)