When the estate of Vladimir Nabokov announced that the great writer's final, unfinished novel, The Original of Laura, would be published in November, it put an end to years of speculation. At last, we would know how much of the book, which Nabokov was working on when he died in 1977, existed (answer: 138 index cards' worth - Nabokov wrote all his novels on index cards) and whether it was true that it explored similar themes to his most famous novel, Lolita. Published by Penguin in the UK and Knopf in the US, the book will reproduce facsimiles of the cards with a transcript of the text on the facing page.
It all sounds pretty straightforward. But it hasn't been, not by a long shot. As recently as this time last year, Nabokov's literary executor, his son Dmitri, was threatening to burn the cards. He gave two reasons for this. One, his father had asked him to destroy them on his deathbed. Two, Dmitri felt protective towards the book and disliked the idea of it being pored over by critics, especially the critics he calls "Lolitologists", who favour the kind of psychoanalytical readings that his father particularly disliked. (Nabokov's response when asked by an interviewer why he hated Freud so much is worth quoting in full: "I think he's crude, I think he's medieval, and I don't want an elderly gentleman from Vienna with an umbrella inflicting his dreams upon me.")
So what happened to make Dmitri change his mind? Perhaps the 74-year-old former opera singer needed the money, or (unlikely) felt suddenly, overwhelmingly guilty about the Nabokov fans he'd spent years teasing by calling The Original of Laura - a book he alone had read - "brilliant, original and potentially radical" and "the most concentrated distillation of [my father's] creativity". Actually, no: his father's ghost told him to do it. "I'm a loyal son and thought long and hard about it," Dmitri explained, "then my father appeared before me and said, with an ironic grin: 'You're stuck in a right old mess - just go ahead and publish!'"
Would that the issues surrounding posthumous publication were always resolved so easily. Alas, supernatural intervention is rare. As Simon Prosser, publisher at the prestigious Penguin UK imprint Hamish Hamilton, points out: "Some writers die having left strict instructions that all their unpublished writing - including notes, letters and diaries - be destroyed, and some literary executors may make the very difficult decision to override that. Others die having left no clear instructions at all, and some may have died leaving apparently conflicting instructions. I think you have to take each case individually and reach a conclusion based on the advice of those closest to the writer - the family and friends who knew him or her best."
When the bestselling thriller writer Michael Crichton died of cancer last November, he left at least one finished novel, Pirate Latitudes, and one-third of a second that will be finished by a writer to be chosen by Crichton's agent. (There is a precedent for this: Dorothy L Sayers' final Lord Peter Wimsey novel, Thrones, Dominations, was completed by Jill Paton Walsh. The result was mostly judged to be a success.) The Chilean-born novelist Roberto Bolaño died of liver failure shortly after sending his editor a first draft of 2666, his extraordinarily complex, 1,000-page-long inquiry into a series of brutal serial killings. That he was never able to give it a final polish didn't blight its reception - it was hailed as a masterpiece by just about everyone. Compare this to the recent uproar in France over the publication of the late literary theorist Roland Barthes' Journal de deuil (Bereavement Diary). His friend and former editor François Wahl told Le Monde that Barthes, who died in 1980 after being hit by a laundry van, would have been "positively revolted" by the dissemination of his pained musings on his mother's death and said its publication "violated his privacy".
Perhaps it did. But wouldn't it be great to be able to read Byron's diaries - burned by his publisher John Murray to protect the poet's reputation (and the world from their scandalous contents)? And what of all the great books, bona fide literary classics, that we wouldn't have if their authors' wishes had been respected? Virgil requested that The Aeneid be burned. Franz Kafka's literary executor, Max Brod, ignored the writer's stipulation in his will that all his work be destroyed after his death in 1924. (When asked why he had seemingly betrayed his friend, Brod replied: "Franz should have appointed another executor if he had been absolutely and finally determined that his instructions should stand.")
Mary-Anne Harrington, the associate publisher at Headline Review, invokes what she calls the Suite Française argument (referring to the posthumously published novel by Irène Némirovsky) to cover this sort of scenario. "A book that good deserves to be out there," she says, but adds that completeness is an issue: "No shoddy first drafts should end up in print." For some, this is one of the problems with The Original of Laura. Nabokov was a perfectionist who would have hated the idea of his unfinished work being in circulation. Yet this prompts the questions: why did he not burn the cards before he died? And why did his wife, Vera, who died in 1991, not burn them when she realised he hadn't? The American literary critic Ron Rosenbaum raised some broader issues when he asked in Slate magazine: "Does the greatness of an artist diminish his right to dispose of his own unfinished work?" It's a question that's fun to ponder - but no practical help.
Writers are predictably divided on whether Dmitri has done the right thing. Speaking to The Times of London in 2008, John Banville said that the work should be published. But Tom Stoppard, in the same piece, took the opposing view: "Nabokov wanted it burned, so burn it. There is no superior imperative." Matt Thorne, whose Cherry was longlisted for the 2004 Man Booker Prize, admits he's torn on the whole business: "It seems fairly clear from everything we know that Nabokov would not want this book to be published, but as a reader I can't wait to read it. From what I've heard, it's unlikely to be a lost masterpiece, but I do prefer Nabokov's later books to his early ones and would like to know what direction he was going in when he died as he was still at the top of his game." What about the device of reproducing the novel as a manuscript facsimile? Does flaunting its incompleteness make any kind of moral difference? Thorne thinks not - "though it might have done if they'd published it as index cards in a box".
Thorne says he would hate the idea of anyone seeing his half-written books: "I wouldn't want readers to see them in that state." Deborah Moggach, the author of the bestselling Tulip Fever, agrees: "The thought of anyone reading, let alone publishing, a work-in-progress turns my bowels to water. It's only the endless rewriting that makes something halfway good, and if people could see the banal, clunky, horribly embarrassing earlier versions I would die of shame. No - let The Original of Laura rest in peace. Besides, the whole thing reeks of exploitation."
The case of David Foster Wallace, however, is subtly, crucially different. Wallace killed himself in September 2008, 14 years after the publication of his last novel, the enormous Infinite Jest. Two hundred draft pages of a novel to be called The Pale King were found two months later by his wife, Karen Green, when she was clearing out the garage he used as a study. Set in a tax office in the American Midwest, The Pale King is a novel about choice and how we construct meaning out of the random data the world flings at us. It will be published in the UK by Prosser at Hamish Hamilton, home to writers such as Zadie Smith and Hari Kunzru. Prosser says he decided to publish based on the advice of those closest to Wallace, including Green; his long-term editor in America, Michael Peitch; and his agent, Bonnie Nadell. "I trust them to have made the best decision based on all the evidence available to them," he says. "Having read a substantial part of the manuscript myself, I'm certain that publishing it is in the public and academic interest. It's probably the strongest new writing I've read in five years."
The "academic interest" argument is compelling here, as it is for Nabokov. The Pale King was a new type of book for Wallace - a move away from his trademark maximalist style towards something tauter and more streamlined. The tragedy in his case is that the difficulties he was having completing the book to his satisfaction may have contributed to his death. A manic depressive, Wallace had been trying to wean himself off his medication so that he could finish The Pale King "with a clean brain". Reading what exists of the novel with this knowledge - that it was written with what its author considered a "dirty" brain, a brain that was impeding him - will be a bittersweet experience for fans.
Then again, if the material is bad, in a sense these books don't matter. They will remain curios; appendices to a canon rather than integral to it. It's interesting to consider examples from other media. Stanley Kubrick's AI, developed and directed by Steven Spielberg after the Eyes Wide Shut director's death, worked neither as a Kubrick film nor as a Spielberg film. When Jimi Hendrix died, the producer Alan Douglas took unfinished and damaged tracks that the guitarist had been working on and, using session musicians, "completed" them to create a sequence of posthumous albums, the most successful of which was 1975's Crash Landing. But no one really listens to them today, for the simple reason that they sound terrible.
That is the debate in a nutshell: why, if you're not a Nabokov scholar, waste valuable time reading The Original of Laura when you can read Pale Fire? We'll have to wait until November for a satisfactory answer.