Nabokov’s Laura Is Saved From Burning; Who Was This Woman?

Breathe easy: I think it’s safe to say without much exaggeration (and only an understandable modicum of self-congratulation) that The Observer has saved Laura. Saved the last, incomplete, unseen Vladimir Nabokov manuscript from a threat of destruction.

In a convoluted way, my plea to Dmitri Nabokov, the son, translator and defender of his father’s legacy (“Dear Dmitri Nabokov: Don’t Burn Laura!”, The Observer, Nov. 28, 2005) has apparently resulted in the revocation of the threat.

I suppose I should feel good, but in fact I feel uneasy. I can see the arguments on the other side. I spoke of my conflicted feelings in the initial column: about the argument that Nabokov deserves to have his unequivocally expressed wishes carried out— The Original of Laura (full title) burned. But if she lives or dies, I think, as we’ll see, it’s now possible to make an educated guess about the identity of the original Laura of The Original of Laura.

Why the conflicted feelings over this apparent rescue? Well, Nabokov made clear that he didn’t want to leave behind an imperfect version of something he cherished. Despite what we might want him to want, he wanted the incomplete manuscript of Laura—30 to 40 index cards of handwritten draft that Dmitri says would have become “the most concentrated distillation of [his father’s] creativity”—destroyed. Before he died in 1977, VN asked his wife Véra to do it, and when she hadn’t by the time of her death 14 years later in 1991, the burden of his father’s injunction was bequeathed to Dmitri.

Dmitri, an honorable and devoted son, obviously has a conflict. His father wanted him to do one thing; the world wants him to do something else. Most of those who know about Laura—and, until recently, not many did—hoped or assumed that Dmitri would ultimately find some way to make the manuscript available. After all, it was a document that might provide both clues to the final aesthetic direction of the greatest writer of the past century—and a new perspective from which to look at his astonishing, puzzling, endlessly rewarding past work.

I certainly would like to study it, but I don’t feel that the argument for preserving it is as obvious as most people seem to assume. The argument that “Nabokov’s genius belongs to the world” in effect punishes him for being the greatest writer of the past century, by declaring he is so great that we need pay no attention to him, to his heartfelt wishes about the disposition of his drafts. I can see Nabokov’s stern face saying, “But I said destroy it and I meant destroy it. What part of ‘destroy it’ don’t you understand?” Well, I can’t see him saying the last sentence, but I’m talking about the sentiment, the gravamen, here.

Before I get deeper into this question and the fascinating debate that has subsequently developed about who the “Laura” of The Original of Laura might be, let me explain my claim that The Observer saved Laura.

After my story was published, two developments rapidly ensued. It was picked up in the European press from Ireland to Moscow, and the headlines were variations on the theme of “NABOKOV SON TO DESTROY FATHER’S LAST WORK.” I had cited Dmitri’s comment from his e-mail to me that he would “probably destroy it.” The headlines omitted “probably,” but they put a spotlight on Dmitri as the sole custodian of a work he had described as something that 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 final distillation! All we know about the novel’s content, aside from the fact that it’s a “distillation” of something, is the testimony of the editor of Nabokov Studies, Professor Zoran Kuzmanovich, who apparently heard Dmitri read some excerpts of it at a gathering of Nabokovians at Cornell in the 90’s. Professor K. tells us that Laura seemed to concern “aging but holding onto the original love of one’s life.”

My Observer story put the focus on the apparently perilous situation of the manuscript, whatever Dmitri (now 71) decides. He told me that knowledge of the location of the safe-deposit box containing Laura (which he disclosed to me was in Switzerland) was limited to him and “one [unidentified] assistant”—raising the question of whether the manuscript might be lost before anyone had a choice whether to burn or preserve it. I called upon some museum, foundation or university to offer a plan for its preservation and access for scholars. At the very least, get it out of the questionable confines of some bank vault. Banks have been known to be robbed, flooded or burned, after all. The locations of secret Swiss safe-deposit boxes have been known to be lost upon the death of their holders, due to the banking-secrecy laws there.

And so it appears that once The Observer made his threat public, and the eyes of the world were upon him, awaiting his decision, Dmitri rethought words he may have uttered in haste or irritation. What he initially told me was that because of “the repugnant atmosphere typical of current ‘Lolitology,’” as he called it, “I shall probably destroy it.” In the past, he’d spoken of consigning it at some point to a scholarly institution that would preserve but not publish it, and that would permit access to certain scholars. While it may have contravened his father’s wishes to destroy the unfinished work (maybe a third of a short novel), it was a reasonable compromise. Was his displeasure over “Lolitology” (presumably a reference to the furor over the claim by German scholar Michael Maar that VN had, in some conscious or unconscious way, taken the name and plot of Lolita from a forgotten 1916 German short story with that title) reason enough for consigning Laura to the ashes?

Was he punishing those he felt were not giving Lolita its due by blaming them for denying us a parting glimpse at where VN might have been going after his final published novels, Transparent Things and Look at the Harlequins!

Whatever Dmitri’s thinking process, when someone in the press reached him for comment on my Observer column, Dmitri denied he intended to destroy Laura, which was fine with me. Exactly what I’d hoped for, in fact. What was not fine with me was a report in the press that what I’d written was somehow a distortion of his words. I have his e-mail. There was no distortion.

But if all this allowed him wiggle room to back off from the threat of destruction, I am happy to be of service. After all, it may well have saved Laura from the ashes (though I can make his e-mail available if any confusion persists).

And now, with the eyes of the world upon Dmitri and Laura, that fateful couple, perhaps (as I called for) some responsible institution or foundation will make public a plan for the preservation of Laura.

The current situation, with the manuscript deteriorating over time in a safe-deposit box of unknown security or manuscript-preservation ability, is not a good solution. Nor is allowing only one other person to know its location.

‘The Revengeful Ghost’

But should it be preserved at all? Among the arguments that broke out on the Nabokov discussion list I subscribe to was the question of whether Dmitri has an obligation to carry out his father’s wishes. One Nabokovian posted a message under the subject line “Burn ‘Laura’, Dmitri,” arguing that we had no right to inspect something VN clearly did not want us to see. Those who argue that he didn’t really mean it have only speculation on their side, and a belief that literary history has more of a claim on the unfinished work’s fate than its author.

Did he mean it? One of the most important responses to my column came from Professor Abraham Socher of Oberlin. I wrote about his important TLS piece on Nabokov, Frost and the origin of the opening lines of “Pale Fire” last summer ( The Observer, July 18, 2005). Last week, Professor Socher sent me an astonishing excerpt from Nabokov’s first English-language novel, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight.

In the passage Professor Socher sent me, the speaker is examining his dead brother’s personal effects.

“My first duty after Sebastian’s death was to go through his belongings. He had left everything to me and I had a letter from him instructing me to burn certain of his papers … but I soon found out that except for a few odd pages dispersed among other papers, he himself had destroyed them long ago, for he belonged to that rare type of writer who knows that nothing ought to remain except for the perfect achievement: the printed book … the litter of the workshop, no matter its sentimental or commercial value, must never subsist.”

“That rare type of writer who knows that nothing ought to remain except for the perfect achievement”: Whom could the narrator be thinking of?

“That rare type of writer who knows that nothing ought to remain except for the perfect achievement”: VN speaking of himself? I e-mailed Professor Socher to ask him if he felt there was any irony about “that rare type of writer” in the context.

He said he felt Sebastian was, in fact, “a Nabokovian figure,” and he supplied the passage in the ellipsis he had made as he typed the passage into his first e-mail; a passage that begins after “the perfect achievement.” A passage that is a moving tribute to “the printed book” as the final, Platonic form of written literature, of a writer’s intentions as opposed to its imperfect manuscript or typescript precursors:

“[T]he printed book … its actual existence is inconsistent with that of its spectre, the uncouth manuscript, flaunting its imperfections like a revengeful ghost carrying its own head under its arm.”

It’s almost too perfectly resonant: the revengeful ghost can’t help conjuring up an allusion to the revengeful ghost in Hamlet, a dead father urging his son on to destroy the “imperfect copy” of himself, his brother and murderer, the usurper, Claudius. And here was Dmitri, a son, haunted, like Hamlet, by the ghost of his father, urging destruction of an imperfect version of himself.

Those who wish to comfort themselves by saying, “Well, Nabokov probably didn’t mean it” when he said to destroy the imperfect Laura will have to contend with Sebastian Knight’s sentiment, first published in 1941, which makes the later injunction to destruction seem not only a longstanding inclination, but both heartfelt and premonitory—not a whim or a coy invitation to disregard his wishes.

Dmitri has already shown that he is (honorably) conflicted. Who is Hamlet here—Dmitri, us, both?

The too-easy argument against admitting the relevance of the Sebastian Knight passage is that it refers to “the litter of the workshop”—and that Laura, however incomplete or unfinished, is not “litter.” Still, the passage doesn’t refer only to “litter,” but to a far more advanced but imperfect “spectre” of the final Platonic form, an incomplete or early (“uncouth”) draft. In a passage from VN’s letters I quoted in my last column, he writes of having finished Laura in his mind some “fifty times,” but not on paper, and of fearing that a “stumbling” version of it could notlive up to its final form in his mind: the printed book. Just as in Sebastian Knight.

But again, some have asked why he didn’t burn it himself rather than give instructions for his wife, Véra, to do it. But perhaps VN meant to do it himself but was prevented when final illness incapacitated him, leading him to delegate the task. After all, he almost threw the manuscript of Lolita in the incinerator before Véra stopped him. We’re glad, most of us, that she did, but this does not necessarily mean he wanted a far less finished draft of ­ Laura to see the light.

We may never know, but is that an excuse to disregard his wish?

Petrarch, de Sade and Laura’s Original

But let’s set aside for the moment the debate over whether to destroy Laura and glance at the debate that followed the publication of my Observer piece: Who was “Laura”? What does it mean to say “the Original of Laura”? In my initial essay, I had offhandedly suggested the possibility of the 1944 Otto Preminger film Laura, about a detective who becomes obsessed with the portrait of a woman whose apparent murder he’s trying to solve—obsessed with “the original” of the Laura in the painting.

But I’m always impressed by the erudition of The Observer’s readership, and before the end of the first day the paper was out, two people had e-mailed me to suggest that Laura must bear some relation to the Laura of Petrarch, the great 14th-century poet known as a progenitor of the love-sonnet sequence tradition later taken up by Shakespeare. Petrarch’s Rime in Vita e Morta di Madonna Laura, also known as the Canzoniere, contains dozens of sonnets devoted to a mysterious married woman, “Laura,” love for whom drives the poet mad (he practically stalks her) and later leads him to seek after a higher, more spiritual love.

Almost simultaneously, several members of the Nabokov list-serve began discussing Petrarch’s Laura (as well as Otto Preminger’s) as a possible source, and inspired by their suggestions, I consulted an edition of Petrarch, the 2004 translation by David Young, and found three striking passages that may add something to the debate. And indeed, the third one suggests a solution.

First, a footnote in Mr. Young’s introduction actually refers to a controversy over what you might call “the original of Laura.” It seems that one of Petrarch’s contemporaries challenged him by saying there could be no such being as Petrarch’s “Laura,” no real human “original,” but that he invented her and his love for her out of thin air.

Petrarch’s response is fascinating. Instead of taking credit for such an imaginative achievement, he bridled at the charge: Are you saying, he asked his challenger, that “there is no Laura … and that concerning the living Laura, by whose person I seem to be captured, everything is manufactured: my poems are fictitious, my sighs pretended. Well on this head I wish it were all a joke, that it were a pretense and not a madness! But believe me, no one can simulate [madness] without great effort; to labor to appear mad, to no purpose, is the height of madness… we can in health imitate the behavior of the sick, but we cannot simulate pallor.”

Pretty amazing “distillation,” one might say, of what would, six centuries later, be preoccupations of Nabokov’s art—simulation and reality, fiction and truth, whether “the truest poetry is the most feigning,” as Shakespeare put it. It certainly suggests that if Petrarch and Laura are not themselves the literal subject of The Original of Laura, the question of “originality” may well be.

After all, many consider the Laura poems the origin of the Romantic love tradition in Western literature—and thus the origin of the way we experience love and love’s madness.

And here’s the second shocker that I came upon in Mr. Young’s introduction: the de Sade connection. He says that the Laura of the sonnets “existed, surely, and she came from the Avignon area … where Petrarch lived in his youth. She had blond hair, striking eyes, and considerable composure. She may well have been the Laura … who married into the de Sade family, a name made infamous much later by the notorious Marquis (a historical irony that would have greatly amused Petrarch and, one guesses, Laura herself).”

And, needless to say, Nabokov, had he come across it. Laura: from Petrarch to de Sade, love leading to Light and Darkness. ( Look at the Harlequins!, those creatures of light and darkness, the title of VN’s last complete novel.)

The final and most suggestive discovery I made was in Petrarch’s poem No. 141 in the Canzoniere, a sonnet to Laura.

The opening quatrain struck me as a remarkable precursor to the opening lines of “Pale Fire,” the poem in the novel Pale Fire, the famous quatrain that begins “I was the shadow of the waxwing slain / By the false azure in the windowpane.” On the most basic level, it’s a description of a bird flying blindly—and fatally—into a window because it’s deceived by the reflection of the sky, deceived into thinking it’s seeing “the original” of the sky, the real sky, when it’s only an image on glass.

Now here (in Mr. Young’s translation) is the opening quatrain of Petrarch’s poem No. 141:

The way a simple butterfly, in summer,

will sometimes fly, while looking for

the light,

right into someone’s eyes, in its desire,

whereby it kills itself and causes

pain ….

Amazing how it chimes with “I was the shadow of the waxwing slain …. ” Here, a winged creature kills itself by flying into the “azure” of Laura’s eyes. Petrarch, the butterfly blinded by the “allure” of Laura’s eyes. In “Pale Fire,” we also have a reflected image: For Nabokov, the reflected sky of art deceives unto death. Amazing not just how the Petrarch quatrain involves a winged creature, but even more amazing that it’s a butterfly, since Nabokov was famous as a lepidopterist.

I think I may have found—with the invaluable help of the Nabokovians who pointed to Petrarch—the lines that are the original of The Original of Laura! At least its conceptual, aesthetic origin. And perhaps the “original” of “Pale Fire” as well.

Prove me wrong, Dmitri, although the only way you can prove me wrong is by preserving—and letting me read—the original of The Original of Laura.