Obliterate

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Robert McCrum, “The Final Twist in Nabokov’s Untold Tale,” The Observer 25 October 2009 (Features section, p.4)

“…As his condition deteriorated, he worked obsessively to finish the new novel that was so synaesthetically vivid in his imagination. In the end, he had to acknowledge his fate. If the manuscript could never be finished to its perfectionist author’s satisfaction, it must never see the light of day. Now the spell he had nurtured would become an old man’s malediction. He instructed Vera that, after his death, it should be destroyed forthwith.

Nabokov died from bronchitis on 2 July 1977, in the presence of his family and, according to his son, Dmitri, “with a triple moan of descending pitch”. The writer’s departure seems like just another piece of wizardry. “The echo is so strong,” his son writes, “that I imagine that it is indeed all staged, that he will soon speak again.”

It could not be and the spell became a curse. The 138 index cards of “Tool” were placed in a safe deposit box in the vault of a Swiss bank while Vera wrestled with her late husband’s injunction. From time to time, she enlisted sympathetic outsiders for advice. Brian Boyd, Nabokov’s distinguished biographer, was given a taste of the manuscript amid conditions of great secrecy during the mid-80s and advised against publication, an opinion he later rescinded. “People shouldn’t expect to be swept away,” he has said, tactfully. “It’s the kind of writing that induces admiration and awe but not engagement.”

Those for whom Nabokov is, in the words of Martin Amis, “the laureate of cruelty”, see his deathbed decree as peculiarly vexing. But it was not unique. Virgil instructed his heirs to destroy The Aeneid, and was defied by the emperor Augustus. Kafka asked his friend Max Brod to burn all his papers, which included the novels we know as The Trial and The Castle. “Fortunately,” said Nabokov in his own lecture on Kafka, “Brod did not comply with his friend’s wishes.” This remark has been used by the Nabokov estate as a prescient approval of its failure to destroy The Original of Laura.

… In November 2005, [Ron] Rosenbaum, who enjoys a reputation as a literary gadfly, wrote a column, “Dear Dmitri, Don’t burn Laura!” in the New York Observer.

Having rehearsed the history of “Tool”, Rosenbaum reported an email exchange with Dmitri Nabokov about the manuscript (“He will probably destroy it before he dies!”) and closed with a passionate plea: “Won’t some university library step forward with a detailed plan for funding the preservation of The Original of Laura, this irreplaceable literary treasure ?”

The result: uproar. The eccentric, worldwide fraternity of Nabokov scholars had a field day. Dmitri, apparently maddened by the controversy, now adopted his father’s teasing stance. He declared himself to be “torn” between his obligations to posterity and to his father’s shade. Asked if he would burn or shred the manuscript, he replied, mischievously: “Perhaps I already have and prefer not to reveal the method.”

The teasing went both ways. In 1991, an American librarian published a literary critical essay, apparently by a Swiss professor, entitled “A first look at Nabokov’s last novel”, which was quickly exposed as a brilliant spoof. Others became entangled in the debate. “It’s perfectly straightforward,” said Tom Stoppard. “Nabokov wanted it burnt, so burn it.” Novelist Edmund White, whose early work had been championed by Nabokov, was equally blunt. “If a writer really wants something destroyed,” he told the Times, “he burns it.” John Banville said that this situation was “a difficult and painful one”. Conceding that The Original of Laura may turn out to be inferior, Banville decided that it should be saved from the flames. “A great writer is always worth reading,” he said, “even at his worst.” …

…Designed by Chip Kidd, The Original of Laura will appear in a highly collectible edition: Nabokov’s handwritten index cards are reproduced in facsimile to display his neat handwriting, his furious crossings-out and his fascinating inserts. There’s one valedictory wink from the great magician, a final card containing a list of synonyms for “efface” – expunge, erase, delete, rub out, wipe out and… obliterate.”

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