Dear Dmitri Nabokov: Don’t Burn Laura! Let Draft Gather Dust

Oh my God, I’ve stumbled upon what seems to be a terrible literary tragedy in the making. Or perhaps we’re getting what we deserve.

But I feel I would be remiss not to alert the world of letters to the dire new twist in the fate of The Original of Laura, Vladimir Nabokov’s last unpublished manuscript. It exists now in a safe-deposit box whose location is known to only two people. If what I’ve just learned is true, it’s likely never to see the light of day—indeed, it may well be destroyed.

I’m ashamed to admit it, but I didn’t know of the existence of The Original of Laura until very recently, when I learned about its peril. I only came upon reference to it as I was thinking of writing about a surprising new disclosure in the German scholar Michael Maar’s new book, The Two Lolitas. I’d written about Maar’s “cryptomnesia” theory—which attempts to connect a 1916 German story called “Lolita” with Nabokov’s 1955 Lolita—in the April 19, 2004, issue of The Observer, when his essay was initially published in English in London’s TLS. But the new book takes a new turn. And as I was Googling to see whether anyone had seen the significance of Maar’s “Atomite”* discovery, I came across an essay by Harvard professor Leland de la Durantaye on Lolita in The Village Voice, in which he mentions the existence of The Original of Laura:

“When Nabokov died in 1977, he left behind an unfinished novel entitled The Original of Laura. His express wish was that it be destroyed upon his death. Before him, Virgil and Kafka had left similar instructions [to destroy their work]; neither was obeyed. Nor was Nabokov. His wife, Véra, found herself unable to carry out her late husband’s wishes, and when she passed away in 1991 she bequeathed the decision to their son. The manuscript’s location is kept secret.”

NOT ENTIRELY SECRET ANY MORE; I learned something about its location directly from the author’s son, translator and fierce custodian of the VN legacy, Dmitri Nabokov, in a recent e-mail exchange—in which he also disclosed something shocking, which I’ll get to.

But first, what do we know about The Original of Laura? Yes, it is mentioned in Brian Boyd’s biography, but I was relieved to discover I was not alone in my cryptomnesia (O.K., amnesia). At a recent, incredibly appealing—and packed—“Evening of Catullus,” a Bookforum reading from Peter Green’s new translation of the brilliant and imaginatively obscene Roman poet (I translated all the nasty bits in college! Along with the epic beauty of poem 64, of course), the only person I found who’d heard of Nabokov’s Laura among the erudite attendees was the critic Geoffrey O’Brien, also editor in chief of the Library of America (which published three volumes of Nabokov works).

No surprise, really: We have had only sporadic mentions over the years, which have produced conflicting impressions. Most say the incomplete manuscript of Laura was a part (a third? a half?) of what was to be a short novel. It is said to take the form of index cards, on which Nabokov wrote his first drafts. Some say, confusingly, it was 30 to 40 “pages”; some say more.

The only reference I could find by the author himself certainly makes it seem enticing. It’s from the Selected Letters, 1940-1977 (edited by Dmitri Nabokov and Matthew J. Bruccoli), dated October 30, 1976. In it, VN describes “ The Original of Laura, the not quite finished manuscript of a novel which I had begun writing and reworking before my illness and which was completed in my mind: I must have gone through it some fifty times and in my diurnal delirium kept reading it aloud to a small dream audience in a walled garden. My audience consisted of peacocks, pigeons, my long dead parents, two cypresses, several young nurses crouching around, and a family doctor so old as to be almost invisible.”

Just a hundred words or so about Laura, and you can see how its creator was enchanted by it. Fifty times! Peacocks and pigeons! Diurnal delirium, dream audience, walled garden …. And VN reading it, feeling that his “stumblings and fits of coughing” made it less a success than he hoped the finished version “will have … with intelligent reviewers when properly published.”

It was not to be, and perhaps in that last clause, there’s a hint of the origin of his wish for it to be burned. Even in his dream, he was upset by an audience hearing an impaired, “stumbling” version of something he cherished. An anticipation of what, in his illness, he intuited the situation might become? It’s beautiful but heartbreaking, considering what happened.

He died eight months later, leaving behind the burning imperative. So many writers have expressed similar inflammatory wishes and designs. Gogol—VN’s biographical study of whom is one of his most underrated works—actually did it. (The second part of Dead Souls—unbearable!)

But what about an incomplete first draft—would it tell us anything? Why had he ordered it burned? I was thinking of the controversy over “Hand D” in Shakespeare studies. A chapter in my forthcoming book deals with the controversy over the alleged Shakespearean handwritten contribution, a 147-line scene, in the never-published play Sir Thomas More—an unfinished scene, a first draft with cross-outs, cuts, changes. It’s impossible to know for certain, despite thematic suggestiveness, if this is the only example of Shakespeare’s handwritten playwriting in existence, but are we interested?

We are interested—it could, if authentic, tell us something about his creative process, his thematic preoccupations. And in this case, we know it’s VN, and, what’s more, we have the testimony of Dmitri Nabokov, who has read it all and on one occasion quoted passages.

In The Literary Encyclopedia, Dmitri, an accomplished opera singer, now 71, is quoted saying that Laura “would have been Father’s most brilliant novel, the most concentrated distillation of his creativity, but whose release in incomplete form he expressly forbade.”

The Times’ Mel Gussow quotes Dmitri in 1998 saying it would have been “a brilliant, original and potentially totally radical book, in the literary sense, very different from the rest of his oeuvre [but] my father gave the order to destroy it.”

And then Professor Zoran Kuzmanovich, editor of Nabokov Studies, told Salon that Laura seemed to be about “aging but holding onto the original love of one’s life.”

At this point, I think we need to pause for a little speculative title analysis. I once—rather successfully, according to some noted Pynchonians—speculated upon the unreleased Mason & Dixon just on the basis of the title, linking it to “the transit of Venus,” as indeed Pynchon did.

But The Original of Laura? If we take Professor Kuzmanovich’s word for it, it sounds like a tribute of some kind to VN’s wife, Véra. But then Lolita is a return to a lost love as well, the Annabel of Humbert’s childhood. And, needless to say, VN’s finest work, Pale Fire, concerns the disposition of a dead author’s index-card draft.

Part of me wants to believe it was at least half-inspired by Laura, the movie about a detective haunted by a woman whose murder he’s trying to solve. An obsession derived from, fixated on a painting of Laura. Portraits are often said to be taken “from the original.” But what if The Original of Laura were somehow related not to a woman or a painting, but to a literary work? What if it were inspired by the original Lolita, the 1939 Russian novella Nabokov called The ­Enchanter, the manuscript of which he thought he had destroyed, but which was rediscovered in 1959 and translated and published in English after VN’s death.

Already haunting The Original of Laura are ghost afterimages: a parody/homage in McSweeney’s three years ago authored, it appears, under an apparent pseudonym by Penn State Library cataloging specialist Jeff Edmunds.

Then there was the controversy over whether samples of the original of The Original of Laura were entered into a Nabokov “prose-alike” contest sponsored by The Nabokovian magazine—or were they fake originals of The Original?

THERE WAS A READING OF BRIED PASSAGES FROM LAURA by Dmitri at Cornell some years ago that led Professor Kuzmanovich to conclude it was about “the original love of one’s life.” And I’ve heard there’s an “explanation” of some sort of Laura in the Nabokov-Edmund Wilson letters. I only found a copy at the last minute, but riffling though it, there certainly don’t seem to be any excerpts, and I’ve yet to find a clue to the nature or genesis of Laura. (Professor de la Durantaye points out the Wilson correspondence came to an end long before Nabokov spoke of writing Laura.)

I don’t think I’m going to get anywhere productive with this, so let us now turn to its fate.

Through a mutual friend, I was able to get an e-mail to Dmitri Nabokov, who had, I’d been told, some kind words for my thoughts on Pale Fire in a previous Observer piece (July 18, 2005). He was gracious enough to reply to an e-mail I sent asking him for comment on Laura and its disposition. He said two things.

First, that the safe-deposit box containing The Original of Laura was located in Switzerland, in a bank vault, and only Dmitri— and one other person (unidentified)—knew where.

And second, that he will probably destroy it before he dies! Destroy it because of his father’s wishes and what he described as the repellent (he used another word) atmosphere of what he called “Lolitology” these days.

I had known there was trouble in Lolita-land even on the much-celebrated 50th anniversary of that novel. I subscribe to a Nabokov e-mail list serve; I’d witnessed the entire list implode and cease posting for some time due to an explosive controversy between Dmitri and some members of the list over a remark in a new VN biographical study—a blow-up I did not follow as carefully as I’m sure I should have.

And there was the European press’ thick-witted reaction to the Michael Maar thesis about the 1916 “Lolita,” claiming it involved “plagiarism”—which Maar made abundantly clear he did not think was involved at all.

I think you have to understand the difficulty of Dmitri’s position. Whatever we may think VN really meant, his instructions were extremely clear: Destroy it. His wife Véra died before destroying it. It’s Dmitri’s responsibility, and it’s easy for you to say he has a responsibility to the literary world to give us this last fragment of his father’s genius.

On the other hand … VN’s dream of reading Laura aloud in the “walled garden” … It was a nightmare: VN trying to read the story, but stumbling and regretting it. Hoping against hope it would be “properly published.” Clearly, he did not wish a version that “stumbled” in any respect to see the light of day.

Until very recently, the reports were that Dmitri was considering placing the manuscript in the trust of a university, a museum or a foundation, whose trustees would decide upon limited access for scholars.

But if what he says in his e-mail to me holds true, it’s for the flames. I just hope he didn’t make up his previously undecided mind in response to my e-mail. How would I live with that? That’s really the fear that has driven me to alert the world to the imminent possibility of a safe-deposit-box withdrawal and a fire to follow.

ON THE OTHER HAND, I UNDERSTAND DMITRI’S IMPATIENCE with the biographical fetishism that has invaded literature—a product of celebrity culture, I’d argue. I certainly see it in the cultural capital of Shakespeare biographies as compared to studies of Shakespeare’s work.

If the destruction of The Original of Laura is inevitable (and I think it isn’t, and would like to add my voice to what I’m sure will be those of others pleading with Dmitri not to burn it), it’s the reductive biographizing—pathographizing—of literature that is responsible.

Read the works! Life is too short to care more deeply about the life of the one who wrote them, whose secrets are usually irretrievable anyway.

Meanwhile—this is urgent—won’t some foundation or university library (I’d vote for my alma mater’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library) step forward with a detailed plan for funding the preservation of The Original of Laura, this irreplaceable literary treasure? And present the plan to Dmitri and the Nabokov estate. That way, he won’t have to choose between destruction and vague statements of good intentions. Time is running out. What if the safe-deposit box’s location gets lost?

And if something is worked out and The Original of Laura is saved from the flames, they’d better let me read it.