What happened to Flora?

Michael Wood

  • The Original of Laura: (Dying is Fun) A Novel in Fragments by Vladimir Nabokov
    Penguin, 278 pp, £25.00, November 2009, ISBN 978 0 14 119115 7

One of the attractions of Nabokov’s view of literature is that although (or because) he scoffed at any idea of readerly independence he scarcely ever wanted to separate the writer’s interests from the reader’s. He was prepared to indulge in a kind of crazed fusion of the two in his commentary on Eugene Onegin, and to parody that madness in Pale Fire. When in his afterword to Lolita he defined his ideal of ‘aesthetic bliss’ in literature he was speaking as a reader and a writer – to be precise as ‘neither a reader nor a writer of didactic fiction’ but of something else – and when late in life he told the New York Times what he was currently reading he listed three books: a translation of Dante’s Inferno, a book on North American butterflies, and his own novel The Original of Laura.

Wait a minute. If he was reading it, why can’t we, why are we stranded with a small handful of fragments, however luminous (some of them)? Well, he was reading it as he wrote it, the thing was ‘completed in [his] mind’, and like many writers he was slightly exaggerating his progress in getting it down on the page, or in his case on the index card. He was working, he said, on a ‘not quite finished manuscript of a novel’. Not quite. A phrase that opens and closes as we think about it.

He was ill, though, and the stylish and playful continuation of his response revealed an unmistakeable worry. He chose to stage his fever, what he called his ‘diurnal delirium’. He was not only reading but ‘reading … 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.’ We may think, as Nabokov was pretty certainly thinking, of the scene in Pnin where our hero, about to give a lecture, briefly sees, instead of his actual audience, ‘one of his Baltic aunts’, ‘a dead sweetheart’, his dead parents, ‘both a little blurred but on the whole wonderfully recovered from their obscure dissolution’, and a crowd of old friends, eloquently described as ‘murdered, forgotten, unrevenged, incorrupt, immortal’.

Nabokov’s own late audience was neither so large nor so steeped in violent history, but it was thoroughly imagined in every detail, and he felt, curiously, that it was rather hard on him. ‘Perhaps because of my stumblings and fits of coughing the story of my poor Laura had less success with my listeners than it will have, I hope, with intelligent reviewers when properly published.’ Even allowing for the neat plug for the book to come, this sentence shows a writer who has his doubts. He can’t help the coughing but why is he stumbling as he reads? Doesn’t he have a completed book in his mind? And what about the listeners he sets before us with such care? Cypresses can be tough critics, I’m sure. Peacocks and pigeons are not going to listen properly. I can’t imagine what the ‘crouching’ nurses are doing, and the doctor, as we shall see in a moment, appears to have slipped out of the novel itself. That leaves only his parents, and perhaps they will have been shocked by the high level of sexual content. What Nabokov’s little tale suggests is that he knew – had always known, whatever performances of imperial confidence he regularly chose to put on – how fragile the bridge is that leads from thoughts to written words, and how long the journey can be from a mentally finished book to something an editor can take away and print.

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