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An Earnest Proposal to Dmitri Nabokov

By (May 1, 2008) 2 Comments
The damage, I fear, has been done. Dmitri Nabokov, after years of teasing his father’s readers, has announced the imminent publication of Vladimir Nabokov’s unfinished last manuscript, The Original of Laura, which has been sitting, we are told, in a Swiss safety deposit box, hostage to filial indecision. Early this year it seemed that Dmitri was close to carrying out Vladimir Nabokov’s deathbed wishes, thus spiting the maxim uttered by Mikhail Bulgakov’s devilish Woland in Master and Margarita that “manuscripts don’t burn.” The suspense story, as it has been narrated by bloggers, scholars and journalists for the past couple of months, continued to shift the devil from the shoulder inclined to burn the text to the shoulder inclined to capitalize on it.

Those who have weighed in on Laura have gleefully changed their minds time and again. Vladimir Nabokov’s biographer Brian Boyd, who has seen the novel and initially advised burning, publicly changed his mind. He recently told The Times reporter Stephanie Marsh, “It is very fragmentary, people shouldn’t expect to be swept away. He is doing some very brilliant things with the prose, the story just flashes by, the characters are rather unappealing. It seems a technical tour de force, just as Shakespeare’s later works where he is extending his own technique in very, very concentrated ways.” A more skeptical Vladimir Meskin, docent at the Moscow State Pedagogical University told Viktor Borzenko of Novye Izvestiia on April 28: “Once the author made his request, that meant that the publication of the text would ruin the overall system of his life’s work.” The Swiss safe, Meskin concludes, is the best possible place for the unfinished work.

Ron Rosenbaum, writing for The New York Observer and Slate, has provided periodic updates on the fate of Laura. Rosenbaum, who once congratulated himself for convincing Dmitri to save the novel, more recently pleaded with him to make a decision, even if that meant “tell[ing] us that you intend to preserve the mystery forever by destroying Laura.” In a recent installment in Slate, he wrote,

Shouldn’t the father have the right to expect that his son would carry out his wishes? And yet Dmitri has himself fueled our desire to possess Laura with some of his comments, as when he called it the “most concentrated distillation of [my father’s] creativity” and a “totally radical book.”

Making Laura widely available will mean subjecting Nabokov to a new wave of imperfect criticism. Dmitri hinted at a certain apprehension about Nabokov critics in an interview with Suellen Stringer-Hye for the Nabokov Online Journal, “Of course, one of the most offensive critical cracks was that of certain dour post-Soviet pundits affirming that Lolita and other writings of Nabokov’s suggest a malignant contempt for America and all things American. Nothing could be further from the truth.”

One is apt to be reminded of the final scene in Pale Fire, in which the critic and madman Kinbote snatches John Shade’s manuscript, and the latter is shot down, leaving the fate of his last masterpiece in imperfect hands. “My commentary to this poem,” Kinbote writes, “now in the hands of my readers, represents an attempt to sort out those echoes and wavelets of fire, and pale phosphorescent hints, and all the many subliminal debts to me.” The text that remains might be the work of a maniac, a genius, or some collaboration between the two, John Shades’ ghost (or the ghost of his child) reappearing to dictate changes to the text. Nabokov’s ghost, or the shadow of it, has also conversed with Dmitri. Both Rosenbaum and Boyd took part in a February 15 installment of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s “Book Talk,” during which the host, Ramona Koval, cited an apparent change of heart:

To wit, and quite independently of any words anyone might have wanted to put in my mouth or thoughts into my brain, I have decided that my father, with a wry and fond smile, might well have contradicted himself upon seeing me in my present situation and said, “Well, why don’t you mix the useful with the pleasurable? That is, say or do what you like but why not make some money on the damn thing?”

But wait, Dmitri Vladimirovich – before you dash our hopes for Laura by publishing her, consider a proposal that would both adhere to the letter of your father’s request, and give his readers a taste of the last moments of his creativity. My solution, I believe, allows for both, throwing in a bit of healthy rebellion to boot. I say, translate the text (into whatever language you please). That is, change every word of the original without burning its content. Let translation save Laura and its mystery, not so much from the furnace, as from the kind of criticism that plagued your father at the end of his life. Precisely the uncertainty of translation – its invitation to doubt accuracy and meaning – would offer a glimpse of Nabokov’s poetic narrative, and an excuse for the failings of an unfinished plot.

Dmitri Nabokov, upon graduating cum laude from Harvard, became an opera singer. His musical career did not eliminate his responsibility to a close-knit literary family, which included working with his father on a series of Russian-English translations – both his father’s works and samples from the Russian literary canon. “Nabokov naturally preferred his son to any other translator,” Boyd tells us in The American Years. “Dmitri accepted his father’s principle of literality and knew that an undulating or knobby Russian phrase should not be flattened into plain English. Where other translators often felt Nabokov’s exacting corrections and innumerable rephrasings a threat to their professional competence, Dmitri could simply welcome the improvements.” Four years ago, at an auction in Geneva, Dmitri, the last heir to Vladimir Nabokov’s estate and legacy, was forced to sell his family’s library. According to a May 4, 2004 New York Times article, among these was a copy of Despair, inscribed: “For Dmitri. From translator to translator. With love. Vladimir Nabokov. Papa. Montreux. 1966.”’

Ironically, it seems to have been translation, in part, that kept Vladimir Nabokov from finishing Laura. Boyd tells us,

Early in October, Nabokov began translating for the last volume of his Russian stories, Details of a Sunset. Dmitri had prepared draft translations of some stories, while his father tackled others on his own. But the chief task facing him for the winter was the remainder of the harrowing French Ada. He knew he had to rid himself of all his translation before settling down to the new novel “that keeps adding nightly a couple of hours to my habitual insomnias.”

The burden of translation indeed weighed heavy in Nabokov’s life, absorbing, delaying, but perhaps, at times, accounting for, the author’s genius. Walter Benjamin, who, in his 1923 “The Task of the Translator” set the tone for theories of translation that would dominate the past century, suggests that a translation adds to our understanding of the concept behind the original text, issuing out of a work’s afterlife:

For a translation comes later than the original, and since the important works of world literature never find their chosen translators at the time of their origin, their translation marks their stage of continued life.

Which returns me to my plea: If it has been so painful to give Laura life, why not go straight for an afterlife? Lose the text in translation. Or rather, let us find it there. After all, as Boyd informs us, a provisional title for the novel was The Original of Laura: Dying is Fun.

Solomonic wisdom? The Modern Hebrew poet Chaim Nachman Bialik has famously compared reading a translation to kissing a bride through her veil. Generations of readers would never know how thick the fabric is through which they are kissing Laura. But speculation would also force those critics who, driven by referential mania, have attempted to blend Nabokov’s past with his fiction, to take a step back, to consider the possibility of a translator’s faulty wording. Students of Nabokov would wonder whether Dmitri (or whoever has done the deed) has missed something, added something of his own, tricked them. Mystics would enjoy the possibility that Nabokov, appearing in dreams, dictated the translation himself. Hungry fans would read this book differently from the others, humbled by their obscured view. Granted, the translator may be left with nightmares of inadequacy, haunted by Nabokov’s compendium of criticism of his fellow translators. (Found in his posthumous Selected Letters 1940-77: “I can do nothing with Constance Garnett’s dry shit.” “Paraphrases are related to the original text as dreams are to reality, and Miss Deutsche’s version is little more than a nightmare.”)

But in compensation for a daunting translator’s task, this rendition will never be compared to an original. To relieve the burden of responsibility, why not commission two translations, or three, or seventy-two?

Once this is done, Dmitri Vladimirovich, burn Laura in good faith. Or tell us you did.

Amelia Glaser is an Assistant Professor of Russian Literature at the University of California, San Diego.