x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

A pale fire is still a fire

Books Even unfinished fragments of Nabokov's work, Sam Munson writes, possess a distinct moving brilliance.

Even unfinished fragments of Nabokov's work, Sam Munson writes, possess a distinct moving brilliance. The Original of Laura: A Novel in Fragments Vladimir Nabokov Penguin Modern Classics Dh152 Efface expunge erase delete rub out wipe out obliterate. So runs the final fragment of Vladimir Nabokov's unfinished 18th novel, The Original of Laura. This list of synonyms is as fitting an end for an unfinished work as could be imagined, especially in the case of Nabokov, a writer who never abandoned the lifelong joy he took in constructing - then playing to the end - brutal and delightful games with his several languages, with meaning, and with literary structure itself.

Laura's three finished sections, now published (along with sketches for further chapters, plot notes, and other scaffolding) on elegant reproductions of the index cards on which Nabokov composed his novels, indicate that the book was to have been a meditation on the themes that defined his career: art, sexual infidelity, human will, and the cosmic, comic conjuring tricks of fate. Laura, as far as we can tell, is a character in a novel (called The Original of Laura) produced by the ex-lover of a ruthlessly unfaithful woman named Flora Lind-Landskaya. Flora is married to Philip Wild, an obese, long-suffering neurologist. Wild loves Flora for her close resemblance to a woman from his past; Flora subjects him to sexual humiliation upon sexual humiliation. Thus emerges his plan to kill himself, one limb and organ at a time, by willing and imagining his gradual death creeping upwards from his feet.

Hence the list of synonyms above, hence the book's overwhelming air of loss. No matter one's original stance on the question of whether the book should have been published (Nabokov ordered it burnt upon his death), or even on the larger question of Nabokov's merit as an artist, it would require a calculated muting of the faculties to remain unmoved by Laura's extinguished promise. Whether Philip Wild succeeds in his self-deletion; who, precisely, Flora's novelist-lover is (and what motivates him); the fate of Flora herself - these answers will remain forever unclear. But the pieces presented here nonetheless possess a more forceful and considered compositional wholeness than many completed novels.

This wholeness is evident, first and foremost, in the book's agile and dazzling prose, Nabokov's hallmark. Updike misnamed this prose "ecstatic"; it was always more suggestive, however, of tremendous, steely control - control Nabokov exercised even, it seems, in his last months, on his last pages. Here he introduces us, with a single, glancing blow, to Flora, to her literary shadow, to her infidelity and her careful, cold practice of it, to her lover's fervently observational eye. In short, to the whole thematic complex that was to animate this book:

"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, because newborn and thus generalised, in the sense of primitive organisms of art as opposed to the personal achievement of great English poets dealing with an evening in the country, a bit of sky in a river, the nostalgia of remote sounds ... Readers are directed to that book - on a very high shelf, in a very bad light - but already existing, as magic exists, and death, and as shall exist, from now on, the mouth she made automatically while using that towel to wipe her thighs after the promised withdrawal."

Those hundred-odd words! Their effortless, simultaneous evocation of the metaphysical and the glaringly, irrefutably physical - such consummations are what we hope for from literature. Richard Powers drones on in high, wooden prose about love, Philip Roth engages in bottomless carnal rumination, Foerian pornographers of tragedy eagerly show us their wares - and Nabokov's fragments, even in their bereaved condition, reveal that the ideal and the fleshly, form and mind, need not suffer division. In doing so, they reveal how hollow so much serious (a synonym, these days, for self-serious) contemporary literature is.

Nabokov once wrote that more should be said and written of a man's life than can fit on his tombstone. The Original of Laura would justify the lives of many artists who achieved far less than Nabokov. So let us dispense with the hand-wringing: no matter how brilliant its design or illustrious its pedigree, no matter how sanctified it may be by the literary executor's agony, the publication of an unfinished work is always a controversial occasion, especially when it contravenes the express wishes of the author. And such controversies are dumbshows, in the end - arguments between envious mediocrities. The worst that a failed posthumous work could do - as we will admit once we set aside our sentimental notions of literary perfection and glory - is add one more kink, one more whorl, to Nabokov's already irreproducible fingerprint.


Sam Munson is a regular contributor to the Review. His first novel, The November Criminals, will be published in the spring by Doubleday.