So here it is, then. The biggest and most controversial publication event in literature since the reissue of A Moveable Feast four months ago.
That last disturbance in the force was caused by Seán Hemingway, retooling a book that was already a posthumous retool of a manuscript left by his grandfather. The Original of Laura is a generation closer: here is Dmitri Nabokov, son of Vladimir, presenting his father’s unfinished manuscript, which he has the sense to do verbatim—in facsimile, no less.
Having left the text itself alone, Dmitri Nabokov contributes an introduction, in which he discusses the history of the manuscript (written during his father’s final years, when his health was failing). It’s a strange introduction, drawing parallels that aren’t quite parallels: he points out that Nabokov had tried to destroy drafts before, including a draft of Lolita, but then, those weren’t published as drafts. He finds himself needing to justify a decision that was really his own to make, and it reveals a lot about the psychology of what’s become known as “Dmitri’s dilemma”.
As for the rest, I must admit that I’m slightly bewildered at the number of people who are trying to assess these drafts for literary merit.
The Original of Laura—novel, novella, call it what you will—has not been and never will be written. Presented here is a rough author’s draft, which is not a standalone work of literature. To take these handwritten notes and to pronounce judgement on The Original of Laura would be like judging a movie after strolling through the set. Was Nabokov’s talent waning in these last years? Who knows—he never finished his last book.
Not that this matters in the slightest. Let’s be honest: very few people are buying this book in order to actually read the bugger. Knopf/Penguin Classics know this, which is why they’ve presented it as, essentially, a coffee table book. At the top of each page is a reproduction in facsimile of one of Nabokov’s index cards; below is a typeset transcription of the text. The cards—which are printed front and back—are even perforated. If you so desire, you can pop them out and, I don’t know, pretend to be Vladimir Nabokov, like a grown-up literary equivalent of one of those post office playsets with plastic coins and real sticky stamps.
It’s beautifully done, and a wonderful piece of reproduction ephemera. Like the 1980s facsimile edition of Orwell’s 1984, this is a book to bring out after dinner, when everybody’s neck-deep in grappa. ‘Oh! Speaking of Nabakov, you have to see this…’
Book reviewers, PhD students studying Nabokov, editors taking a busman’s holiday, and Martin Amis can spend their time assessing these notes for literary merit. For the rest of us—let’s be honest—who probably haven’t even read all of Nabokov’s finished, published works, the question really isn’t ‘Is The Original of Laura any good?’ but rather, ‘Am I going to punch out the perforated cards?’