The Reading Room: A Master’s Last Words
By Florian Gargaillo (LA), Staff Writer
If you were to try and make a list of literary geniuses of the 20th century, where would you start? Chances are you would begin with Joyce, the century’s most inventive tinsmith of language, and then make your way to Proust, Kafka and maybe Faulkner, among others. Edith Wharton and Arthur Miller, despite their talent and brilliance, perhaps come just short of genius. Vladimir Nabokov, however, undoubtedly deserves the company of Joyce and Kafka. The author of “Lolita” and “Pale Fire” — his strongest works along with his underrated short stories — was one of the few who could write with true poetic skill in more than one language (in his case, Russian and English). Even Beckett comes nowhere close to Nabokov’s verbal virtuosity in multiple languages, not to mention that Nabokov also had a hallmark of genius that Beckett lacked — spontaneity, rather than method, to his madness.

Nabokov died working on a novel, “The Original of Laura,” which he asked his wife to destroy. His family could not bring itself to follow his wishes and instead kept the work under wraps, until now. The result is a hefty volume of what are essentially fragments, notes (even notes to himself, at times), ideas and scraps of story that Nabokov set down on index cards as his health spiraled madly downwards over the last three years of his life. In other words, what we have here is a slim, scattered draft rather than an intelligible novella, and for the most part “Laura” does indeed read as several novels strung together by a posthumous editor or rather, a series of false starts and propositions that show Nabokov trying, “failing” and then trying again to write his final novel.

Setting aside the unfinished nature of the work, reading “Laura” as an “actual” novel can prove to be a horrifying matter. There is a sense of lurid confusion in the style and texture of the lines, a sense of obscure malice that would not be out of place in a David Lynch film. If anything, “Laura” is the nightmare of Nabokov’s twilight years — a brutal goodbye to life and literature that takes all of Nabokov’s classic themes (the role of the artist, desire and sexual hang-ups, depression) and pushes them two or three notches into the dark side. Characters appear and then disappear abruptly from the story, usually because they die in a variety of nasty ways. Nabokov has a grand time with his characters’ deaths in “Laura” — my personal favorite being, “He lodged for another happy year in that cosy house and died of a stroke in a hotel lift after a business dinner. Going up, one would like to surmise.”

It is hard to judge Nabokov’s style here considering that most of the manuscript is clearly an outline of what he wanted to do. Yet it seems unlikely that, had he lived longer, he would have written in the same florid, magical style of “Lolita.” Had he completed “Laura,” it probably would have been another “Ada or Ardor” — loose, stately lines with an occasional sweep of language or poetic spark — only with a touch of vulgarity. The overall tone of the notes is, by and large, darkly humorous and even sadistic. Here’s another good death scene: “Three years later after [the child’s] birth Adam discovered that the boy he loved had strangled another, unattainable, boy, whom he loved even more. Adam Lind had always had an inclination for trick photography and this time, before shooting himself in a Montecarlo hotel (on the night, sad to relate, of his wife’s very real success in Piker’s “Narcisse et Narcette”), he geared and focused his camera in a corner of the drawing room so as to record the event from different angles.” You want to laugh, of course, and you probably do, but it is with a certain unease as to Nabokov’s ambiguous intentions.

Enough, you are probably thinking. What is his final novel about? As often with Nabokov, the plot is far more of an accessory or framework in which Nabokov can play around with words with the same joyful abandonment of a small child lost in a giant toy box. Emotions and “themes” are there but no real story, especially considering “Laura”’s fragmentary state. The novel is vaguely about a whole series of characters (Wild, Flora, Laura herself, of course), who are for the most part related, but the relationships among them are vague enough not to really warrant the reader’s attention. The novel is loosely about writing, of course — Nabokov repeatedly refers to the act of writing itself; he resurrects a vicious, lascivious version of “Lolita”’s Humbert Humbert (here called Hubert Hubert) to molest yet another young girl (poor Hu(m)bert, talk about a track record); and there are dark hints of Laura being a character, a book and, perhaps, something else entirely. But those self-references for the most part feel like a concession to the reader, a rehash of “Pale Fire” in which Nabokov plays Nabokov rather than saying what he actually wants to say.

Ultimately, “The Original of Laura” is Nabokov’s way of preparing himself for death. He speaks of his body and its decay with the obsessive self-awareness of a Narcissus long past his prime. Ingrown toenails, grumpy digestion, blooming tumors — Nabokov goes into great detail describing the failing clockwork of his own body as all the characters slowly, by the novel’s second half, become variations of Nabokov’s “I.” This comes to a head in one of the book’s final, great images—the account of his gradual suicide, which he lushly terms “the art of self-slaughter.”

This is perhaps the most disconcerting aspect of “Laura.” The true purpose of the book seems not to be to escape death but to embrace it wholeheartedly. Yet Nabokov is also too clever and self-assured to die just like any stuffy old mortal. Instead he turns his literary suicide into a game — quite literally describing an image of himself projected onto an imaginary blackboard and then slowly erasing himself over the course of a dozen index cards, starting with his toes and then working his way up. The process of self-destruction is described as a vital “ecstasy,” the very climax of existence. It is a release from a world of placid indifference and meaningless sexual encounters, of which there are many in the novel.

Yet “Laura” is not entirely awash in gloom. There are brief glimpses of life here and there, if you look hard enough. As might have been expected, the narrator finds a renewed passion for life through a sudden resurgence of desire — the brilliant account of his dream in which he makes love to a woman on a terrace. Here the prose returns to the style and spirit of “Lolita,” with all the vibrancy and verbal magic of his best work. It is here, and in the narrator’s impassioned fantasies of self-destruction, that the importance of “Laura” comes to the fore. Despite its lack of polish and clarity, it is the last stand of one of the 20th century’s last geniuses. He obviously did not want to go gently into that good night.

Issue 18, Submitted 2010-03-09 21:44:49