Monday, January 11, 2010

The Original of Laura - Vladimir Nabokov

If The Original of Laura were as great as Knopf would like everyone to believe, then I would have read about it before last September, or October, or whenever, when I read that Wall Street Journal article about "Ghost Writers" and new books by Kurt Vonnegut, Nabokov, and Ralph Ellison.

I love Nabokov; I am one of his biggest fans. But it was a mistake to read The Original of Laura before the majority of his other work. Oh, I have tackled Lolita three times, Pale Fire once, Speak, Memory once, Bend Sinister twice, Laughter in the Dark once, Despair once, Pnin once, and several of his short stories out of the sixty-five in the collection I have of his--but Ada looms as the final masterpiece that I have yet to digest--and it will be soon.

But still, even with Ada sitting on my shelf, there are so many others remaining: The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, Invitation to a Beheading, The Defense (which seems boring--if it is about chess...), The Eye, Look at the Harlequins!, King, Queen, Knave, Transparent Things, and I am probably forgetting one or two others. I bet all of these are far superior to Laura, and yet it is Laura which will receive far more attention than anything he has done since Lolita.

Why is Laura such a hot topic? Well, it's the myth surrounding it, but let me clear something up, probably the only time I feel like I am being a good samaritan since my review of the Times New Viking album back when this blog started--this is more of an arts and crafts/board game "Let's Play Author!" than a real novel. When I checked it out from the library, I was like, whoa, that's thick. Some 270 pages, not a slight novel in the least--but there is all that talk about index cards, and how there are only 120 or so, and that comprises all of the text....

Okay, so the edition is beautiful, credit where credit is due. It goes for $35.00 and I would be shocked if they print this in paperback. It's the index cards that represent the majority of the publishing costs--they are lovingly re-created, and anyone interested in Nabokov's handwriting will love it.

But it was one of the most bizarre reading experiences of my life--every two pages would not contain even a whole paragraph. As if this weren't annoying enough, almost half the time, the next index card poses no resemblance to the previous one, which means the story has almost zero continuity.

Well, here is the myth that surrounds this volume and accounts for its popularity--Nabokov revivalism. Probably around the 30th anniversary of his death, his son Dmitri must have decided that it would be a good time to put a different sort of book into the marketplace. Basically, Vladimir was working on this at the time of his death, and he told his wife to burn the index cards if he never completed it. Well, she didn't, and years later, Dmitri decided it should be published, despite intimations from the man himself that the work was not up to code.

Dmitri's introduction to the volume is probably the best thing about it, because you get about five or six pages of memories of Vladimir, as he neared death, and it is quite alluring, for example, to read about how he once collapsed while hunting for butterflies, and his cries for help were laughed at by passerby. But Dmitri compares himself to Max Brod, publishing Metamorphosis and The Trial after Kafka's death, though Kafka instructed him to burn them. The Original of Laura is not Metamorphosis. No. Fucking. Way.

What is Laura about? Well, it seems to me to be a highly self-conscious (which makes it seem interesting for Nabokov lovers, but really it's not so much) meditation on being a novelist in love who has published a thinly-veiled story about a girl named Flora titled Laura--the novelist Philip Wild's wife--and Wild is dying, and while in the hospital, he methodically imagines each of his bodily appendages and organs being removed, which becomes a kind of ecstasy to him. That is it.

Now, some passages are pretty good, but they are never attached to anything else to make them stand out as "great." This is not a great novel, or even a good novel, or even a bad novel. It is not a novel. It is supposedly "a novel in fragments," and in the introduction Dmitri states that "despite its incompleteness, was unprecedented in structure and style," (xvii) and maybe I'm not reading closely enough, but it hardly seems like Nabokov intended for so many of these index cards to abruptly cut and move on to something completely unrelated.

If Nabokov had lived another year or so, Laura might have germinated into something truly wondrous, a volume that could fit alongside his absolute best work. It is true that the basic story could have been a winner. But I am sorry, I feel bad saying this because I want to like this book, and I like Dmitri--his writing style is clever enough as it is--but I really feel that Vladimir's wishes should have been respected.

Take out the index cards, shuffle them as the author probably did, read them aloud at a dinner party, and laugh about how "dying is fun." But don't expect to read a real novel. Here's looking forward to Ada, and another entry in the "most difficult books to read reviewed on Flying Houses" category.

1 comment:

km said...

the defense is sort of boring, if you read it as a chess game, which you can do if you're fluent enough in chess. the chess in it is too much (i'm hard pressed to find reference to any color in the first couple of chapters that are neither black nor white) at times, but i've been struggling, and will continue struggling, with a different reading of it.

SK and invitation are much better. CC in invitation is the precursor, imho, to HH.