Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Nabokov’s unfinished

Vladimir Nabokov. The Original of Laura (Dying Is Fun). New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009. $35.

One sample (transcribed exactly):

Black fans and violet ones, fans like orange sunbursts, painted fans with clubtailed Chinese butterflies oh they were a great hit, and one day Wild came and bought five (five spreading out her own fingers like pleats) for “two aunts and three nieces” who did not really exist, but nevermind, it was an unusual extravagance on his part[.] His shyness suprized and amused FLaura.
I awaited the publication of Nabokov’s final unfinished work with great excitement, but reading The Original of Laura fills me with immense and simple sadness — because Nabokov did not get time enough to finish this work, and because no one will ever know what these fragments would have come to.

There is much twinning in the story these fragments suggest: faithless young Flora (FLaura) is in some sense the original of Laura — as in My Laura, a novel by a man with whom she has had an affair, a writer who now “destroys his mistress in the act of portraying her.” But the original of Laura also has her own originals. Flora’s husband Philip Wild (much older, a neurologist, a lecturer at the University of Ganglia, a man “who had everything save an attractive exterior,” seen buying fans above) sees in Flora his young lost love Aurora Lee. Aurora had a twin brother with whom Philip had one brutal sexual encounter. Flora’s mother’s husband Hubert H. Hubert (his name “no doubt assumed”) sees in Flora his dead daughter Daisy. He also sees in Lanskaya, Flora’s ballerina mother, his dead actress wife. Lanskaya is reborn in My Laura as Maya Umanskaya. Note that in the above passage, Nabokov’s FL turns Flora/Laura into a telephone exchange name: given these shifting identities, I can’t imagine that the pun is unintended. Lolita, Poe’s Annabel Lee, and Petrarch’s Laura are of course originals of Flora as well. And Otto Preminger’s 1944 film Laura hovers somewhere in the background. In that story, the relationship between original and copy is oddly reversed, as a painting of Laura Hunt becomes the original of Laura, the image with which detective Mark McPherson first falls in love.

Most curious and poignant in these fragments is the figure of Philip Wild, a man who despises his body — stomach, legs, feet — and who is engaged in a practice of self-hypnosis or trance whose goal is the obliteration of that body, part by part. Thus the novel’s subtitle, Dying Is Fun: “the process of dying by auto-dissolution,” Wild writes, “afforded the greatest ecstasy known to man.” As Flora’s lover destroys his mistress, Wild destroys himself. And here’s more twinning: Wild visualizes his body as a pronoun, an I, the letter prominent in his name. Like his creator, he is working on a book. Like his creator, he writes with a pencil. But unlike his creator, he finishes before dying. What becomes of Wild’s manuscript, taken from his typist by “that other fellow,” who wants to give it “a place of publication more permanent” than a little magazine, is a mystery whose answer we’ll never have. (My suspicion: the other fellow is Nabokov, incorporating Wild’s manuscript in his own.)

The Original of Laura is beautifully designed by Chip Kidd (yes, that’s a real name), with reproductions on heavy stock of the 138 index cards that hold the text, itself transcribed, card by card, with what appears to be absolute accuracy. Penguin (the book’s UK publisher) has online reproductions of several cards.

A related post
Vladimir Nabokov’s index cards

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