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Dying Is Fun…And Profitable

Jennifer Blevins / Wednesday, December 9, 2009 Comments Off

The ghost of Vladimir Nabokov: "I told you to burn that damn book!"

I was troubled when I first read in the New York Times that Vladimir Nabokov’s final, unfinished novel (The Original of Laura (Dying is Fun)) was published against his explicit instructions. At the end of his life, Nabokov told his wife, Vera, to destroy Laura if he had not finished it before he died.  Because she failed to carry out this task, Laura fell into the hands of Nabokov’s son, Dmitri. Dmitri, now in his mid-70s, decided to hand over the notes containing his father’s final creative efforts to a publisher (Knopf) because he felt his father would not “have opposed the release of Laura once Laura had survived the hum of time this long.” Representing what Dmitri claims is “the most concentrated distillation” of his father’s creativity, Laura consists of a series of index cards and notes packaged in a fancy, expensive book. It’s not really a novel but more of a peek into a writer’s creative process.

But should it have been published?

At first I thought “oh hell no” and was very angered by what I interpreted as Dmitri’s callous disregard for his father’s final wishes. But then I read Nathaniel Rich’s article on The Daily Beast. Rich, who has actually read the book (unlike me), says that “to describe The Original of Laura as a novel would be like mistaking a construction site for a cathedral” and calls the three year public debate over its publication “silly, meretricious” and “waged on false grounds.”

Here’s what I think:

Dmitri wants money and people want access to Nabokov’s brain. If Nabokov had truly been committed to Laura’s destruction, he would have burned it himself. So…why the hell not publish it?

What made me change my mind from “oh hell no” to “why the hell not?” was this quote from Dmitri:

“I have decided that my father, with a wry and fond smile, might well have contradicted himself upon seeing me in my present situation and said… Say or do what you like, but why not make some money on the damn thing?”

I think I like Dmitri.

Because maybe he’s right – why not make some money on the damn thing? People expecting a Nabokov masterpiece will be disappointed, but Nabokov fans hungry for a glimpse into his brilliant mind will get a chance to see how important the art of revision was to Nabokov’s process.

The dead are dead and they leave behind bits and pieces of their lives to benefit the living. I can’t even begin to convey how much solace and joy I have experienced from reading Virginia Woolf’s diaries this year; I have been working through them slowly and, to quote the Indigo Girls, it really is as if Woolf “sent [her] soul like a message in a bottle to me.” I find Woolf’s internal monologue to be riveting, hilarious and heart-breaking, and the notes on her works-in-progress gift me intimate access to her creative process. I am grateful that these diaries exist, and I am constantly humbled by them.

But enough about what I think; what do you think? Was it ok for Dmitri to publish The Original of Laura (Dying is Fun), or should we go egg his house?

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  • http://yingleyangle.blogspot.com Paulo Campos

    Another Woolf text you might find interesting is the draft of A Room of One’s Own. It was published 1992 as “Women & Fiction: The Manuscript Versions of A Room of One’s Own” (edited by. S. P. Rosenbaum).

    The differences between her published text and the draft are incredibly interesting. Kind of like seeing a shadow on the floor before the body casting it passes through a doorframe into view.

    Outside a library, I’m not sure how easily this book can be found, but I found some information about it here:

    I’m on the fence about publishing “Laura.” It’s likely an invaluable resource for writers and students of Nabokov’s work. Being outside Dmitri’s family it’s hard for me to comment on that situation. I think I’d be ticked. Regardless: I’m going to buy it.

  • http://alicross.blogspot.com ali

    I don’t have a brilliant response, except to say, that I followed the same line of thinking as you. When I first read your article I was thinking no way, only to find I could nod my head in agreement by the end. And NOW I’m thinking it would be really interesting to see his Laura as it is now. Very enlightening!

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