1 February, 2010Issue 11.2FictionLiterature

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Over Nabokov’s Dead Body

Julia Maxfield

foerVladimir Nabokov
The Original of Laura
Penguin Classics, 2009
304 Pages
£25
ISBN 978-0141191157

The fastest way to refute Roland Barthes’s cult manifesto “The Death of the Author” might well be to utter the magic words “Vladimir Nabokov”. Nabokov was in some ways Churchill’s literary equivalent: a one man island superpower defending individual imagination amidst a sea of critical discourses bent on dismantling transcendent selfhood. His titanic ego and his elitist pretensions have always been objectionable. What excuses these faults in the eyes of his admirers is the fact that his desire to indelibly impress the stamp of his genius on the institution of literature was matched by an equally strong urge to bestow immortality on all that he loved. Old Russia, space travel, entomology, philology, human faces, chess wizardry, landscape painting, slapstick farce: few authors can have spread their powers of enchantment over such a generous ambit of interests. His talent for endowing the objects of his curiosity with a divine particularity earned him the right to have readers respond to his outrageously solipsistic narrators in the spirit that he intended: as being no more and no less than freakish marvels of literary inventiveness.

Before he died, Nabokov requested that the 138 hand-written index cards comprising the uncompleted draft (five chapters and miscellaneous notes) of his final work, The Original of Laura, be burned. Now, over 30 years after Nabokov’s death, his son Dimitri has decided to publish the manuscript. In doing so, he has compromised the privacy of imagination that his father defended so tenaciously.

In 1962, Nabokov’s horror at the idea of posthumous exploitation led him to invent Kinbote, the megalomaniac scholar of Pale Fire who uses the poet Shade’s unfinished manuscript as a pretext for his own cracked literary fantasia. One wonders if he’s now turning in his grave at this violation of his authorial intention. Not so, according to Dmitri, who, in a rather bombastic preface outlining what he describes as “Dimitri’s Dilemma”, coyly invites “adventurous commentators” to conjecture that permission to publish came from his father’s ghost, which lives on “in a kind of virtual limbo”.

Now a family outsider can scarcely argue with this—especially since the idea of Nabokov revisiting his son chimes serendipitously with the theme of benevolent hauntings that runs through his fiction. On a less mystical plane, however, there remain questions about the health of Nabokov’s imagination—the organ he defined in an interview as the “muscle of the soul”—over the duration of the work’s composition, which took place as he battled a terminal illness. The problem is as much one of artistic priorities as it is one of ethics. Throughout his preface, Dimitri emphasises parallels with the publication of Lolita (1955), a draft of which Nabokov’s wife famously saved from the incinerator. In aesthetic terms, however, the two works are strikingly different.

Laura’s plot, or at least the direction in which it is headed, seems vintage Nabokov in many particulars, if not in scope or larger resonance. It consists of two major strands: one recounting the early life of a 24-year-old ex-nymphet named Flora and her love affair with a “brilliant” neurologist-cum-author named Philip Wild, which an unnamed and elusive artist has metamorphosed into a fiction called My Laura. The other strand, left in a more fragmentary stage of completion, describes Wild’s morbid attempts to systematically think away his massive and decrepit body in a literal demonstration of mind over matter.

The sections describing these experiments in “self-dissolution” are narrated by Wild himself, while other chapters are told by a bland omniscient voice employing a spectral first-person plural, a technique pioneered in Transparent Things (1972), Nabokov’s experimental nouveau roman/ghost story. An embryonic metafictional guessing game; an otherworldly enigma in a richly gothic vein; and—yet again—the perilous magic of nymphets: there is much within the story itself to whet the appetite of Nabokophiles, yet not nearly enough for one to be sure that the finished book would have made a satisfying meal.

Penguin Classics, however, have beefed up this brew of tantalising ingredients, accentuating the sensational circumstances of the book’s posthumous publication in their hard cover edition, which offers the thrills of Heat magazine and of Derridean deconstruction rolled together. The snoop-proof plastic packaging, the front cover blurb touting the book as “one of literature’s most fiercely guarded secrets”, and the perforations enabling readers to dismember the book and play with photo replicas of Nabokov’s manuscript index cards seem to cater—like the work itself—to an unwholesomely large and ambiguous field of curiosity. Despite giving an uncomfortable sense that both readers and the dead author are being swizzed, this priapic book design does capture an illuminating and troubling aspect of the work: the connexion it suggests between the deviant impulses of Nabokov’s nymphet-loving characters and the author’s own impulse to transcend mortality and penetrate into otherworldly mysteries.

Where the two are associated in earlier works, it is only the unreliable narrator who insists upon the connexion. In the opening chapter of The Enchanter (the Russian novella which grew into Lolita) the nympholeptic narrator asks: “What if the way to true bliss is indeed through a still delicate membrane, before it has had time to harden, become overgrown, lose the fragrance and the shimmer through which one penetrates to the throbbing star of that bliss?” The ironic, deferred answer comes in the form of a tram car mowing down the narrator in the final scene and bursting “the film of life”. The religiose Humbert Humbert tries to equate his lust for Lolita with Dante’s desire for Beatrice, yet the medievalistic moral framework that he imports into the novel continually betrays him to be more Boschean devil than visionary pilgrim. Humbert’s perfect literary pitch makes him increasingly sensible of the discordant note of evil sounded by his acts of deviancy.

Wild, on the other hand, seems almost exclusively preoccupied by the evils of constipation and ingrown toenails. His overriding desire is to magic away the “obese bulk with formless features and a sad porcine stare” that he confronts in his closet glass. The “extravagantly slender” Flora seems to have been designed as an antidote to his congested corpulence. By cataloguing the “conspicuous knobs of her hipbones”, the “incurvation of [her] ballerina’s spine” and the “mobile omoplates [shoulder blades] of a child being tubbed”, the narrator strips her of the attributes of a mortal adult, leaving something merely skeletal or foetal.

The regressive nature of Wild’s desire is further emphasised when, in one of the less graphic erotic scenes, he is pictured “holding her in front of him like a child being given a sleighride down a short slope by a kind stranger”. The fact that his fantasy of possessing a child plays out only on a metaphorical level—Laura is purportedly 24—seems artistically dishonest: the act of sanitising it betrays a sheepish authorial complicity.

Equally unsettling is Flora’s total lack of personality. Lolita teems with details that show its heroine to be anything but the “disgustingly conventional” girl Humbert claims her to be. In descriptions of her graceful tennis playing or of her enchanting smile “which hung in its own remote flowered void”, the narrator’s fancy prose becomes just transparent enough to allow a sense of her innate dignity and gentleness to emerge. The contrasting failure to supply Flora with the fictional equivalent of a soul is clearly intentional: the narrator observes at one point “a tear of no particular meaning gemm[ing] the hard top of her cheek”. Perhaps her apparent inanity serves to test the reader’s ability to intuit the need for sympathy. But it also seems to have enabled Nabokov to avoid the effort of fully imagining a character in whom he took only a limited interest.

Authorial attention and sympathy are lavished instead upon Wild’s love-hate relationship with his own body. The work’s defining characteristic, in fact, is its tessellation of images, inflected in turn by disgust and fascination, depicting the minutiae of everyday physical experiences. Pre-dormital visions and the daily saga of “grappling with long drawers” are described with Proustian reverence. The work resembles in places a kind of Combray of old age. This quality of visceral self-absorption is heightened further by frequent visual close-ups on inanimate objects. Set in isolation, such objects serve as empty screens onto which the viewer’s sensory microcosm is projected. In the following passage, for example, the libido of Flora’s paramour is mapped with brilliant and sinister dexterity onto the chess set which he gives her:

[there were] tickly-looking holes bored in the squares to admit and grip the red and white pieces; the pin-sized pawns penetrated easily, but the slightly larger noblemen had to be forced in with a slightly enervating joggle.

Compare this passage from Lolita:

On the other side of the street a garage said in its sleep–genuflexion lubricity; and corrected itself to Gulflex Lubrication. An aeroplane, also gemmed by Rubinov, passed, droning, into the velvet heavens.

Here, the warp of Humbert’s mind is shown insinuating itself onto the external scene, but the author also manages to imply with remarkable economy that the street scene and the aeroplane exist independently of it.

Lolita’s narrative continually “corrects itself”—in this way, enabling a live world modelled on the bigger reality of 1950s America to glow through the bars of the solipsist’s prison. The Original of Laura lacks this elevating extra dimension of magnanimous irony—and I suspect that no amount of borrowed time spent writing against the pull of gravity would have enabled Nabokov to supply it. The work contains much fascinating psychological data, but what is missing is inspiration: the energy of imagination required to set it in its place both morally and artistically.

Julia Maxfield is reading for a PhD in English Literature at the University of Warwick. She is writing a thesis on late Shakespeare.

Julia Maxfield

foerVladimir Nabokov
The Original of Laura
Penguin Classics, 2009
304 Pages
£25
ISBN 978-0141191157

The fastest way to refute Roland Barthes’s cult manifesto “The Death of the Author” might well be to utter the magic words “Vladimir Nabokov”. Nabokov was in some ways Churchill’s literary equivalent: a one man island superpower defending individual imagination amidst a sea of critical discourses bent on dismantling transcendent selfhood. His titanic ego and his elitist pretensions have always been objectionable. What excuses these faults in the eyes of his admirers is the fact that his desire to indelibly impress the stamp of his genius on the institution of literature was matched by an equally strong urge to bestow immortality on all that he loved. Old Russia, space travel, entomology, philology, human faces, chess wizardry, landscape painting, slapstick farce: few authors can have spread their powers of enchantment over such a generous ambit of interests. His talent for endowing the objects of his curiosity with a divine particularity earned him the right to have readers respond to his outrageously solipsistic narrators in the spirit that he intended: as being no more and no less than freakish marvels of literary inventiveness.

Before he died, Nabokov requested that the 138 hand-written index cards comprising the uncompleted draft (five chapters and miscellaneous notes) of his final work, The Original of Laura, be burned. Now, over 30 years after Nabokov’s death, his son Dimitri has decided to publish the manuscript. In doing so, he has compromised the privacy of imagination that his father defended so tenaciously.

In 1962, Nabokov’s horror at the idea of posthumous exploitation led him to invent Kinbote, the megalomaniac scholar of Pale Fire who uses the poet Shade’s unfinished manuscript as a pretext for his own cracked literary fantasia. One wonders if he’s now turning in his grave at this violation of his authorial intention. Not so, according to Dmitri, who, in a rather bombastic preface outlining what he describes as “Dimitri’s Dilemma”, coyly invites “adventurous commentators” to conjecture that permission to publish came from his father’s ghost, which lives on “in a kind of virtual limbo”.

Now a family outsider can scarcely argue with this—especially since the idea of Nabokov revisiting his son chimes serendipitously with the theme of benevolent hauntings that runs through his fiction. On a less mystical plane, however, there remain questions about the health of Nabokov’s imagination—the organ he defined in an interview as the “muscle of the soul”—over the duration of the work’s composition, which took place as he battled a terminal illness. The problem is as much one of artistic priorities as it is one of ethics. Throughout his preface, Dimitri emphasises parallels with the publication of Lolita (1955), a draft of which Nabokov’s wife famously saved from the incinerator. In aesthetic terms, however, the two works are strikingly different.

Laura’s plot, or at least the direction in which it is headed, seems vintage Nabokov in many particulars, if not in scope or larger resonance. It consists of two major strands: one recounting the early life of a 24-year-old ex-nymphet named Flora and her love affair with a “brilliant” neurologist-cum-author named Philip Wild, which an unnamed and elusive artist has metamorphosed into a fiction called My Laura. The other strand, left in a more fragmentary stage of completion, describes Wild’s morbid attempts to systematically think away his massive and decrepit body in a literal demonstration of mind over matter.

The sections describing these experiments in “self-dissolution” are narrated by Wild himself, while other chapters are told by a bland omniscient voice employing a spectral first-person plural, a technique pioneered in Transparent Things (1972), Nabokov’s experimental nouveau roman/ghost story. An embryonic metafictional guessing game; an otherworldly enigma in a richly gothic vein; and—yet again—the perilous magic of nymphets: there is much within the story itself to whet the appetite of Nabokophiles, yet not nearly enough for one to be sure that the finished book would have made a satisfying meal.

Penguin Classics, however, have beefed up this brew of tantalising ingredients, accentuating the sensational circumstances of the book’s posthumous publication in their hard cover edition, which offers the thrills of Heat magazine and of Derridean deconstruction rolled together. The snoop-proof plastic packaging, the front cover blurb touting the book as “one of literature’s most fiercely guarded secrets”, and the perforations enabling readers to dismember the book and play with photo replicas of Nabokov’s manuscript index cards seem to cater—like the work itself—to an unwholesomely large and ambiguous field of curiosity. Despite giving an uncomfortable sense that both readers and the dead author are being swizzed, this priapic book design does capture an illuminating and troubling aspect of the work: the connexion it suggests between the deviant impulses of Nabokov’s nymphet-loving characters and the author’s own impulse to transcend mortality and penetrate into otherworldly mysteries.

Where the two are associated in earlier works, it is only the unreliable narrator who insists upon the connexion. In the opening chapter of The Enchanter (the Russian novella which grew into Lolita) the nympholeptic narrator asks: “What if the way to true bliss is indeed through a still delicate membrane, before it has had time to harden, become overgrown, lose the fragrance and the shimmer through which one penetrates to the throbbing star of that bliss?” The ironic, deferred answer comes in the form of a tram car mowing down the narrator in the final scene and bursting “the film of life”. The religiose Humbert Humbert tries to equate his lust for Lolita with Dante’s desire for Beatrice, yet the medievalistic moral framework that he imports into the novel continually betrays him to be more Boschean devil than visionary pilgrim. Humbert’s perfect literary pitch makes him increasingly sensible of the discordant note of evil sounded by his acts of deviancy.

Wild, on the other hand, seems almost exclusively preoccupied by the evils of constipation and ingrown toenails. His overriding desire is to magic away the “obese bulk with formless features and a sad porcine stare” that he confronts in his closet glass. The “extravagantly slender” Flora seems to have been designed as an antidote to his congested corpulence. By cataloguing the “conspicuous knobs of her hipbones”, the “incurvation of [her] ballerina’s spine” and the “mobile omoplates [shoulder blades] of a child being tubbed”, the narrator strips her of the attributes of a mortal adult, leaving something merely skeletal or foetal.

The regressive nature of Wild’s desire is further emphasised when, in one of the less graphic erotic scenes, he is pictured “holding her in front of him like a child being given a sleighride down a short slope by a kind stranger”. The fact that his fantasy of possessing a child plays out only on a metaphorical level—Laura is purportedly 24—seems artistically dishonest: the act of sanitising it betrays a sheepish authorial complicity.

Equally unsettling is Flora’s total lack of personality. Lolita teems with details that show its heroine to be anything but the “disgustingly conventional” girl Humbert claims her to be. In descriptions of her graceful tennis playing or of her enchanting smile “which hung in its own remote flowered void”, the narrator’s fancy prose becomes just transparent enough to allow a sense of her innate dignity and gentleness to emerge. The contrasting failure to supply Flora with the fictional equivalent of a soul is clearly intentional: the narrator observes at one point “a tear of no particular meaning gemm[ing] the hard top of her cheek”. Perhaps her apparent inanity serves to test the reader’s ability to intuit the need for sympathy. But it also seems to have enabled Nabokov to avoid the effort of fully imagining a character in whom he took only a limited interest.

Authorial attention and sympathy are lavished instead upon Wild’s love-hate relationship with his own body. The work’s defining characteristic, in fact, is its tessellation of images, inflected in turn by disgust and fascination, depicting the minutiae of everyday physical experiences. Pre-dormital visions and the daily saga of “grappling with long drawers” are described with Proustian reverence. The work resembles in places a kind of Combray of old age. This quality of visceral self-absorption is heightened further by frequent visual close-ups on inanimate objects. Set in isolation, such objects serve as empty screens onto which the viewer’s sensory microcosm is projected. In the following passage, for example, the libido of Flora’s paramour is mapped with brilliant and sinister dexterity onto the chess set which he gives her:

[there were] tickly-looking holes bored in the squares to admit and grip the red and white pieces; the pin-sized pawns penetrated easily, but the slightly larger noblemen had to be forced in with a slightly enervating joggle.

Compare this passage from Lolita:

On the other side of the street a garage said in its sleep–genuflexion lubricity; and corrected itself to Gulflex Lubrication. An aeroplane, also gemmed by Rubinov, passed, droning, into the velvet heavens.

Here, the warp of Humbert’s mind is shown insinuating itself onto the external scene, but the author also manages to imply with remarkable economy that the street scene and the aeroplane exist independently of it.

Lolita’s narrative continually “corrects itself”—in this way, enabling a live world modelled on the bigger reality of 1950s America to glow through the bars of the solipsist’s prison. The Original of Laura lacks this elevating extra dimension of magnanimous irony—and I suspect that no amount of borrowed time spent writing against the pull of gravity would have enabled Nabokov to supply it. The work contains much fascinating psychological data, but what is missing is inspiration: the energy of imagination required to set it in its place both morally and artistically.

Julia Maxfield is reading for a PhD in English Literature at the University of Warwick. She is writing a thesis on late Shakespeare.