Next week, on November 7, Penguin will publish The Original of Laura by Vladimir Nabokov, and in doing so, they have ignited in me a moral conundrum the likes of which I have not seen since I found out how tasty foie gras was.
The novel remained unfinished when the author died in 1977, and its manuscript then languished in a Swiss vault for thirty years while the executor of Nabokov’s literary estate — his son, Dmitri — decided what to do with it. I can’t quite fathom how he came to the conclusion that he did. Nabokov the Elder left rather strict instructions that his uncompleted works should not only be left unpublished, but also, that they should be burnt. I guess I can imagine him maybe letting non-compliance slide with regards to this latter request — given that a Swiss vault is pretty much synonymous, in terms of the general accessibility it affords, with lighting a match — but it must really grate to not just be betrayed, but also, to be betrayed in the worst possible way for a perfectionist like Nabokov — and by his own flesh and blood, no less.
So far, the affair may seem pretty cut-and-dry. But then — in true Carrie Bradshaw style — I couldn’t help but wonder. What would I do if I were in Dmitri’s position? Follow my father’s wishes, and destroy what may have been one of the great, lasting works of 20th century literature? Or, exercise my own judgement, decide the book is too good for the bonfire and, incidentally, make a ton of money in the process? I honestly can’t say for sure. A part of me likes to think that I’d honour the memory of a great man by deferring to his artistic integrity and setting the shredder to “modernist fiction”, but then, that’s probably the same part of everybody’s conscience that convinces us we couldn’t kill our sibling if it was us or them, when really, who knows what would happen?
The tragedy of Laura is that Nabokov had actually finished it — in his head, at least. His writing process took the laborious form of a special kind of notation on hundreds of index cards, which was then painstakingly transcribed into longhand. The cards were finished upon his death; he just hadn’t got around to the second stage.
Dmitri’s actions have plenty of precedent, of course. If the materials of deceased artists weren’t released into the public domain, we would never have been privy to works by countless figures, from Mark Twain, whose unpublished essays were printed this spring, to Tupac Shakur, whose posthumous output now dramatically outweighs that which was released during his lifetime. This year alone, there will be unseen books by David Foster Wallace, Kurt Vonnegut and William Styron hitting the bookshelves.
Critical response to these efforts varies wildly, although most is predicated (quite fairly) on whether each endeavour was really worth the effort. The case of Nabokov and Laura, however is distinct for its introduction of an ethical component: he made explicit demands, which publication runs contrary to, and so the question of moral justification becomes a thorny one.
If I were really to stick to my guns, I suppose I shouldn’t read The Original of Laura, either: how could I say I would act differently from Dmitri if I still buy a copy? Curiosity, it seems, got the better of both of us: the book is already in my Amazon shopping basket. For now, then, it looks like Roland Barthes will have his wish: the author is dead, and his tyrannical influence on the text is over.