Thumbs down for Nabokov’s final book

Vladimir Nabokov

Critics have joined Vladimir Nabokov in wishing The Original of Laura had been burned

BY Rachel Helyer-Donaldson LAST UPDATED AT 18:50 ON Tue 17 Nov 2009

One of the controversial works in recent literary history was unveiled today with the publication of Vladimir Nabokov's final work of fiction, The Original of Laura, 32 years after the legendary Russian writer's death. Given the reaction of fellow novelists and critics to the book, the decision of Nabokov's son to publish the incomplete work against the author's final wishes looks rash.

Nabokov, aged 77 and in failing health, was working on The Original of Laura at the time of his death in 1977 and explicitly requested that the unfinished work be burned in the event of his death.

But Nabokov's wife Vera and son Dmitri were hesitant to destroy a Manuscript, however incomplete, by the author of Lolita. So they sent the document to Switzerland for safekeeping. In April last year, after more than two decades of deliberation, Dmitri Nabokov announced that the work would be published.

Announcing the news at the time, BBC's Newsnight predicted that the novel's publication was "likely to be the literary event of the 2009".

But after several short excerpts were published in advance - in the Sunday Times Magazine and also Playboy, to which Nabokov was a contributor - literary critics have lambasted the posthumous publication.

The British novelist Martin Amis, writing an advance review of the book for the Guardian on Saturday, described The Original of Laura as "a longish short story struggling to become a novella".

Writing in the Los Angeles Times, reviewer James Marcus argues that the book is best treated as a curiosity for Nabokov fans. "To be blunt: as a novel - even as the sketch of a novel, with operating instructions enclosed - The Original of Laura is largely an exercise in frustration."

Dmitri, who in his youth had a reputation for being a playboy, writes in the foreword to the novel that "Nabokov did not desire to burn the book". He explains his father's request was comparable to that of Franz Kafka, who "had deliberately charged Max Brod with the destruction of published and unpublished pieces, knowing full well that Brod could never bring himself to carry out the task".

But even if Nabokov did not expect his family to burn the unfinished manuscript, did he really expect them to flog it to the highest bidder? That is exactly what will happen on December 4, when Christie's will auction the document in New York.

Up for grabs will be the 138 index cards on which Nabokov wrote, in pencil, the novel which he never finished. Nabokov manuscripts are rarely available and Christie's expects this one to go for between $400,000 and $600,000. · 

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