“Only by identifying her with an unwritten, half-written, rewritten difficult book could one hope to render at last what contemporary descriptions of intercourse so seldom convey…”
—from The Original of Laura
Its weight in your hands approximates that of someone’s remains. It contains the unfinished work of a dying man mediating on physical things, so there’s plenty of sex and a sense of proximity to death all the more unnerving for its relentless playfulness. It’s one of these posthumously published puzzles pulled from the fire, but to my nose smells nothing like literary betrayal nor crass cash-in. Take a look at its thick, largely blank pages: no one could mistake this for anything other than what it is: an art object; an homage; a glorious sketch. It leaves us wanting more, as it should. This “novel in fragments” doesn’t even hold all the fragments necessary to make a whole book—not even a third, I’d guess. But what remains of its narrative ambitions is also something about fragments, about the body as Death’s construction site, or rather demolition zone, a place where fragments of a person can be stolen or actually willed away, piece by piece, in this case from the feet up. There’s another title, not on the jacket but inside: Dying is Fun. I’m not sure if I buy this assertion, but if anyone could transform such irony into articulated desire it would’ve been Vladimir Nabokov.
I stalled an awfully long time on reading The Original of Laura (Knopf, $42), feeling that perhaps I should wait until I’ve read everything else by Nabokov—still working on that one!—uncertain as to how this artifact should be approached. The book came out one year ago and I’m only now finally reporting on it, feeling silly for my trepidation. It’s actually a pretty fun, fascinating read, and the context provided by the packaging and introduction is all the context anyone needs. It can’t be stated too clearly that this represents the roughest of, well, not even something we can call a draft, from an author whose prose is famous for its shining eloquence. But, as with say, the Bootleg Series recordings of Bob Dylan, this roughness, this exposure of process, is partly what’s so interesting to examine.
“Learning to use the vigor of the body for the purpose of its own deletion,” an wealthy, elderly, fat man considers science, writing, and his slow disappearance, as well as his longing for the young woman whose name rhymes with the one in the title. Flora recalls Margot from Laughter in the Dark and, quite obviously, the eponymous nymph of Lolita—she’s even molested as a child by an older man named Hubert H. Hubert. Her backstory is arguably the book’s most coherent section, and includes a suicide recorded on camera and a fatal stroke occurring in an elevator: “Going up, one would like to surmise.” The Original of Laura was the project undertaken by Nabokov during his final, sickly years in Montreux. It was clearly far from completion when he died in 1977, though his son Dmitri offers what seems to me a perfectly convincing case for its survival and publication in his painstakingly Nabakovian introduction, which possesses the faintest echo of Pale Fire, and in its concern with correcting legacy invokes The Real Life of Sebastian Knight.
Designed by Chip Kidd, the cover emphasizes themes of disintegration and absence, with words fading to black before their termination. Nabokov’s text itself appears as facsimiles of the index cars upon which the author composed his works, the edges of which perforated, encouraging consumers to punch them out and perhaps rearrange them in some new order, though, jarring as many of the transitions may be, it’s hard to imagine an arrangement more satisfying than the one presented here. The Original of Laura is fractured and elliptical, a mere hint at something that might have been, peppered with sparks of the old brilliance in search of their final form, mischievously sculpted to make it almost seem intentional, and in precisely this way it’s kind of perfect.