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.

Too fragile and too long in this case. Nabokov had the idea for The Original of Laura as early as December 1974. The letter to the New York Times is dated October 1976. He died in July 1977. In February 1976, he noted in his diary: ‘New novel more or less completed and copied 54 cards. In 4 batches from different parts of the novel. Plus notes and drafts.’ ‘More or less’ is like the ‘not quite’ I quoted earlier, and I think we have to take ‘completed’ and ‘copied’ as meaning what the rest of us might call ‘thoroughly planned’ and ‘written’. Nabokov was not deceiving himself or his publisher but his notes suggest he did desperately want to overtake the time that was running away from him so fast, and to provide those tough listeners in the garden with something that would make them happier. In April 1976 (I’m taking all these details from Brian Boyd’s admirable biography), he informed his diary that he had ‘transcribed in final form 50 cards = 5000 words’. By this accounting, a novel of say 60,000 words would require 600 cards. The set published in the edition under review, which includes quite a bit of material manifestly not ‘in final form’, has 138 cards. Not a novel in fragments, as the subtitle ingeniously has it, and not even fragments of a novel, because we can’t see what the novel is: just fragments, treasurable, tantalising and sad.

The 50 or 54 cards, or some number thereabouts, are relatively easy to identify in the text we are given. There is a clean copy of Chapters 1 and 2 (38 cards), and there are beginnings of Chapters 3, 4 and 5 (seven, four and five cards respectively). There is the beginning of another Chapter 5 with the ‘five’ crossed out, so presumably this one was to be renumbered. The rest of the cards show material grouped together under letters or names or themes (Ex, D, Wild, Legs). There are two intelligible stories here, or at least the starts of two such stories, and there are hints of several more. The first intelligible story, that of the opening five chapters, concerns a 24-year-old woman called Flora, her charm, her physical attraction, her scatterbrained promiscuity and her early life. The other story is about a neurologist called Philip Wild, a man of a certain age and an even more certain obesity. He writes in the first person of what he calls ‘the art of self-slaughter’, not suicide but a form of mental magic, in which he makes his unloved body disappear bit by bit, only to resurrect it at the end of the session, ready for another vanishing tomorrow, or when he feels like it.

Flora and Philip are married, and clearly a deep disappointment to each other. He has some of the fame and fortune she wished to wed, but not enough; and he is used to her infidelities without ceasing to be pained by them. Here’s how they see things when they are not at home: ‘She saw their travels in terms of adverts and a long talcum-white beach with the tropical breeze tossing the palms and her hair; he saw it [sic] in terms of forbidden foods, frittered away time, and ghastly expenses.’ They’re made for each other in a way: locked in their own cheap myths and clichés. Philip does have a villa on the Riviera, but it has no swimming-pool and only one bathroom. If Flora started to make improvements, ‘he would emit a kind of mild creak or squeak, and his brown eyes brimmed with sudden tears.’ The creak or squeak is very fine, and now we feel sorry for him, repellent as he is. When he talks to her ‘between trains, between planes, between lovers’, she says things like ‘You really ought to lose some weight’ or ‘I hope you transferred that money as I indicated.’ And then, as Wild himself writes, ‘all doors closed again.’ Nabokov has a great gift for making us care about the unloved characters in his novels – but only briefly. We’d rather hang out with the abandoners than the abandoned, and we can enjoy Flora’s company because we’re not married to her and because, as Woody Allen would say, she’s only fictional.

Into this mix Nabokov clearly planned to insert a novel written by the narrator of the opening pages – that is, a person who knows (and sleeps with) Flora and turns her into a thinly disguised character called Laura. Or actually called FLaura at one point, when Nabokov is beginning to mix his fictions. Laura, or My Laura as it is called at times, perhaps written by one Ivan Vaughan, a name not without a resemblance to that of Van Veen in Ada, is a bestseller, and hangs on in the charts for three months or so. Does the reader see Flora in Laura? The picture is ‘statically’ faithful, we are told, but its final story is that of ‘a neurotic and hesitant man of letters, who destroys his mistress in the act of portraying her’. But then someone, possibly the same writer, is describing Flora as she was before and outside the book. Indeed Flora herself reads the book, or almost reads the book. She’s bought it when she is, once again, between trains, this time (or maybe as always) at a place called Sex, ‘a delightful Swiss resort famed for its crimson plums’, but loses it to a friend who has read it and wants to show her the passage with her ‘wonderful death’. The work, the friend says, ‘is, of course, fictionalised and all that but you’ll come face to face with yourself at every other corner’. At every corner, one might think, but that’s fiction for you. A train takes the friend and the book away.

We have no way of knowing how the three texts – My Laura, Wild’s memoir and the narrative that surrounds them – would finally have meshed, or what they would have added up to. We are on firm ground with the opening chapters, though, which strike me as quite remarkable, a sort of experiment in the purveyance of what Ada calls, in the novel named after her, ‘rapid narrative information’, along the lines of ‘you recall Brown, don’t you, Smith?’ Here’s how the work begins.

Her husband, she answered, was a writer, too – at least, after a fashion. Fat men beat their wives, it is said, and he certainly looked fierce, when he caught her riffling through his papers. He pretended to slam down a marble paperweight and crush this weak little hand (displaying the little hand in febrile motion). Actually she was searching for a silly business letter – and not in the least trying to decipher his mysterious manuscript. Oh no, it was not a work of fiction which one dashes off, you know, to make money; it was a mad neurologist’s testament, a kind of Poisonous Opus, as in that film.

We know the conversation has already started, since our heroine is answering someone who has presumably said he is a writer. The aphorism about fat men seems to come from the narrator but turns out to be Flora’s contribution in free indirect speech and irrelevant anyway, since the event she is reporting involves a pretend threat and no sort of regular beating. It’s true that the claim that fat men occasionally pretend to crush their wives’ hands is less compelling, even if you can wave the hand in question.

We gather that Flora knows her husband is a writer because she accidentally found his work, and the whole ditzy show is either the way she goes about flirting or just the effect of her being a little drunk, as we soon learn she is. Either way she manages casually to insult her interlocutor the presumed writer (‘you know, to make money’), and slip in an allusion to a movie I feel we are supposed to recognise but can’t – or at least I can’t. We now discover, in another piece of indirect speech, that ‘she wished to be taken home or preferably to some cool quiet place with a clean bed and room service,’ and then, for the first time, the narrator gets a word in. ‘She wore a strapless gown and slippers of black velvet. Her bare insteps were as white as her young shoulders.’ But then we’re off into Flora’s perspective again: ‘The party seemed to have degenerated into a lot of sober eyes staring at her with nasty compassion from every corner, every cushion and ashtray, and even from the hills of the spring night framed in the open french window.’ ‘Nasty compassion’ makes us (or at least me) sympathetic to Flora, however irritating she might be otherwise. She is taken to the clean bed she is looking for, and sleeps with the narrator, who describes her naked body as if he were Humbert Humbert taking a creative writing class. (‘Her frail, docile frame when turned over by hand revealed new marvels.’) It seems as if we might already have moved into My Laura, or into a zone where the original and the copy have melted into language; but no, we are in some meta-place where Flora is a not a character in a book or a model for such a character but a person for whom a certain kind of book is the only metaphor: ‘Only by identifying her with an unwritten, half-written, rewritten difficult book could one hope to render at last what contemporary descriptions of intercourse so seldom convey … Readers are directed to that book – on a very high shelf, in a very bad light – but already existing, as magic exists, and death.’ Even here Flora and the book are only part of the story – the future tale of a sexual moment that can’t fully exist until it has become history and memory.

This is a lot to do on a few index cards, and there is more. If much of the description of Flora’s body resembles the linguistic drooling of Humbert, this is partly because Nabokov feels drooling has its pathos, and partly because Flora is Lolita, with an altered genealogy – Russian ballerina mother, photographer father; in one of Nabokov’s finer casual extinctions this man commits suicide after discovering ‘that the boy he loved had strangled another, unattainable boy whom he loved even more’ – and a different sexual history. Here a version of Humbert, conveniently called Hubert, makes a pass at Flora at age 12 and just gets kicked in the crotch. The narrator was never going to linger there, since he says ‘there is little to add about the incidental, but not unattractive Mr Hubert H. Hubert. 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.’

So what happens to Flora, apart from her many affairs and her appearance in a novel? We shall never know, as they say. Well, there is a hint of her becoming religious. All we really know in any detail from the rest of the cards is her husband’s game of self-cancellation. A card cleverly placed at the end of the book (and copied at the beginning as a sort of announcement) lists the words ‘efface, expunge, erase, delete, rub out, wipe out, obliterate’. A poem forsooth, as Humbert might say, and a brilliant suggestion that these fragments have all been heading somewhere, even if that somewhere is nowhere. But there’s no real indication that Wild’s exercise is at the heart of the book or more important or interesting than anything else. Of course a dream of annihilation written by a dying man is a pretty powerful proposition; but Nabokov would be the first to say the biographical detail can’t rescue or alter a piece of writing. ‘The best part of a writer’s biography is not the record of his adventures but the story of his style,’ he once said; and style is a not a bid for sympathy.

This is not to say Wild’s game is without interest. Here’s how it works: ‘The student who desires to die should learn first of all to project a mental image of himself upon his inner blackboard.’ Then you knock off pieces of the image as the fancy takes you. Wild believes that ‘the process of dying by auto-dissolution [affords] the greatest ecstasy known to man,’ but of course you’d have to have a severe distaste for your own body to get such a kick out of its mental disappearance. ‘By now I have died up to my navel 50 times in less than three years and my 50 resurrections have shown that no damage is done to the organs involved when breaking in time out of the trance.’

To break the trance all you do is to restore in every chalk-bright detail the simple picture of yourself a stylised skeleton on your mental blackboard. One should remember, however, that the divine delight in destroying, say, one’s breastbone should not be indulged in. Enjoy the destruction but do not linger over your own ruins lest you develop an incurable illness, or die before you are ready to die.

Ah yes, the student who desires to die only desires to ‘die’, to watch himself killing himself off. There is an echo here of Ada, where the genealogical chart at the beginning lists no death dates for Van or Ada, while we are told on the following page that with some exceptions ‘all the persons mentioned by name in this book are dead.’ Van and Ada don’t die in the book, they die into the book (‘into the prose of the book or the poetry of its blurb’), and Wild presumably has no intention of dying outside of his mind until he is ready, if he ever is. We can guess where this line of the plot is going – towards an accidental overdose of imagined destruction, surely, and there is mention of Wild’s ‘fatal heart attack’. But the guess doesn’t tell us what will happen to the liberated Flora, and how she is to survive her ‘wonderful’ fictional death or her turn to religion.

There really isn’t much more. Well, there is a description of the only ‘position of copulation’ Wild and Flora can manage:

he reclining on cushions: she sitting in the fauteuil of his flesh with her back to him. The procedure – a few bounces over very small humps – meant nothing to her. She looked at the snow-scape on the footboard of the bed – at the curtains; and he holding her in front of him like a child being given a sleighride down a short slope by a kind stranger, he saw her back, her hip[s] between his hands.

The procedure, the fauteuil, the sleigh ride: the comically awkward act is both sterilised and sentimentally distanced. Her indifference almost calls for his rather creepy invocation of the kind stranger, and their two imaginations do vaguely meet in the pictured snow. The marriage of untrue minds. Nabokov had played out sexual despair in Lolita, and evoked untroubled or barely troubled sexual bliss in Ada. Here he seems to have been after something else: the desolation of habit, the banality of what used to be an adventure, even a taboo.