Review: Vladimir Nabokov’s The Original of Laura

There has been a great deal of hand wringing over Dmitri Nabokov’s decision to publish his father’s unfinished novel The Original of Laura. Dmitri recognizes this by dedicating the book to “all the worldwide contributors of opinion, comment, and advice, of whatever its stripe, who imagined that their views, sometimes deftly expressed, might somehow change mine.” Poppa Vladimir made it perfectly clear to his wife that he wanted her to burn the manuscript if he died before finishing it, but she wavered and then died herself. The decision fell to Dmitri, who explains in the introduction that he feels that his father did not really want him to burn it. The obvious retort here is that he did want that, and said as much to his wife, explicitly. But dead men make no complaints, and Dmitri and Knopf have seen fit to publish a beautiful book from the messy little cards.

Each page contains a reproduction of one index card with a transcription of the card’s contents beneath it. The cards are perforated, and Dmitri suggests that you remove them and shuffle them — like Dad did. To be perfectly clear, this is a collection of notes and very short snippets of actual dialogue and exposition, not a working draft of a novel. There are series of cards that seem to constitute chapters, but taken together, they amount to only a few dozen sentences, and it’s obvious that Nabokov fully intended to expand on the skeleton material.

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There was, however, a fully formed novel in mind, and that is readily apparent even if the eventual structure isn’t clear. The central plot concerns Flora, a young, defiant, and rather unambitious woman who’s orphaned the day she graduates college. She marries an obese and ugly man twice her age who also happens to be both famous and wealthy. Flora cheats, often and shamelessly, and one of these jilted lovers goes on to write a novel titled My Laura. Her husband reads it and, in chapters that are written from his point of view, reflects on his relationship with Flora. But he spends more time discussing his plans and gradual attempt to delete himself from this world; he seeks, in his own words, dissolution. According to Dmitri, some of his thoughts on old age and the accompanying ailments mirror Nabokov’s, lending the sections a heartbreaking sense of despondency.

Fans of Nabokov will find plenty to revel in, especially the clever wordplay and circuitous, multi-leveled plot. One can’t help but smile when a character named Hubert H. Hubert appears, and even the obvious transformation from Flora to “ofLaura” has its charm. And there are plenty of phrases and sentences that are very nearly perfect, even in their initial versions. But this is not in any way an actual unfinished novel, and to treat it as one is horribly unfair to the author who wanted it eviscerated upon his death. Instead, treat it as what it is: a pleasantly confusing, yet wonderfully entertaining glimpse into the working mind of one of the greatest writers of the last century.