Ron Rosenbaum

I Helped Save Nabokov's "Laura" and Now I'm Not Sure I Should Have

Here’s the Guardian account of the decision. You’ll notice it emphasizes my challenge to Nabokov’s son Dmitri to stop teasing us: tell us whether he was going to carry out his father’s wishes and burn his father’s final, unfinished manuscript or save it for “posterity”. You can find the whole story here and here.

Perhaps things might have taken the course the eventually did without my intervention, which goes back to 2005 when I first wrote about Laura for The New York Observer. But Dmitri himself, in a backhanded way, seems to have credited me with having focussed enough attention on the issue to force him at long last to decide.

I know this because a week before the official announcement, he passed word on to our mutual friend Deb Friedman though Dmitri’s friend Sandy Klein, that “Laura will be read” and that he’d include Deb in the acknowledgments. In part, I think because it was Deb who (at Dmitri’s suggestion) passed on to me a pre- publication version of his interview in the April ’08 issue of the Nabokov Online Journal in which Dmitri brings up Laura, threatening to destroy it as his father wished, then has some kind words for me (though disputing my thematic speculations about Laura).

And it was this that prompted me to resume writing about Laura for Slate and publicly call on Dmitri to stop “teasing” us with his indecision. The Slate stories were picked up worldwide and it was during a live Australian Broadcasting Company book chat, show on which I appeared along with the world’s leading Nabokov scholar Brian Boyd, that Dmitri’s e mail describing his imaginary chat with his dead father was read. The imaginary chat in which is father gave Dmitri permission to ignore the wishes he expressed when he was alive and gave Dmitri permission to “make some money” off Laura.

But as the latter Slate piece indicates I had some doubts about this decision, some questions about the content of the unfinished manuscript. Dmitri then turned on me, and I’ve developed further doubts and regrets since then. Regret in part for badgering poor Dmitri who had an incredibly difficult decision to make. But regret as well because from what I’ve seen of the unpublished manuscript–just a few paragraphs–I developed a new theory of why Nabokov (Vladimir) wanted it burned–and perhaps why it should be although it now appears too late.

Remember I’m not associating myself with book burners, and part of me wants to read the whole thing to put the few troubling paragraphs I’ve seen in perspective and see what Nabokov might have been working toward in the unfinished, unrevised index-card version of Laura. (Actual title The Original of Laura

No, I’m not for book burning, but on the other hand it wasn’t a finished book, VN had expressed in his earlier work the belief that certain authors (presumably including hmself) have strong feelings about only allowing their final finished versions to be published. And I had assumed that Dmitri might compromise and–while not destroying it–put the manuscript (some fifty handwritten index cards, we’re told) in the hands of restricted archive, rather than publish it as a novel.

Especially because of the potentially sensational nature of the content: VN seemed–from the scant evidence of those few paragraphs available–to be revisiting the most inflammatory aspect of his most inflammatory book, Lolita, and he might well have wanted to refine it more, before letting the world have at it. It’s certainly understandable that he might not want anything but his final, most thoroughly and carefully thought-out version to be read for fear of misinterpretation.

Now however it may be inevitable, the discussion about the manuscript, about Nabokov’s life and work may disproportionately focus on the issue of his moral attitude toward Humbert Humbert’s obsession. In my view it’s always been easy to see the novel as the portrait of a monster, to separate author and character, but any further, more explicit description of the nature of Humbert’s monstrousness, anything more explicit than can be found in Lolita will diminish the attention to the rest of VN’s work; people will be arguing about his life or trying to read his mind rather than his work.

As I said Dmitri may well have taken this course regardless of what I’d written. And he may well have good reasons for it, the emphasis on money may be a self-deprecating way of eliding the fact that he does not want to burn his father’s words. But still, I feel responsible and I wish I didn’t feel misgivings about how it will all work out.