The Creation, and Erasure, of Laura
By Vladimir Nabokov
The dedication to The Original of Laura, or, Dying is Fun, is in Dmitri Nabokov’s hand:
To all the worldwide contributors of opinion, comment, and advice, of whatever its stripe, who imagined that their views, sometimes deftly expressed, might somehow change mine.
For the last few years Mr. Nabokov, son of the literary giant, has been on the receiving end of much eccentric, unsolicited advice. Should his father’s unfinished final novel be burned, as the author had requested before his death in 1977, or should the ailing author’s instructions, like the words of Kafka and Gogol before him, be ignored and his work spared? I too had my say, and Open Letters indulgently published it. My Solomonic two cents—publish a translation of the novel but burn the original—were intended to comment less upon the Nabokov estate than on a useful potential of translation. The semi-transparent veil of translation, I argued, might protect the deceased from ruthless misinterpretation.
Two years later I am grateful to Dmitri Vladimirovich for his decision not only to publish Laura, but to publish it in just the form in which his father had abandoned it: in note-cards, facsimiles of the author’s stained originals, perforated for easy removal, reshuffling and contemplation. These cards are deciphered in typed footnotes so that, like the reader of Pale Fire, Laura‘s reader must choose whether to begin with the upper or lower portion of each page. Reading Laura from start to finish (admittedly, the typed lower half), I was surprised at how captivated I became by the story, disjointed and confusing as it often is. And should a disgruntled Vladimir Nabokov return from the dead he could hardly rebuke his son who has been careful to discourage misinterpretation, not by obscuring Laura, but by publishing it in what could never be mistaken for a final draft. The book practically shouts, “interpret away, but you’ll never know how it ends.”
Laura braids three narratives, the first of which chronicles the life of Flora, daughter of a photographer and a dancer, desired in childhood by one “incidental, but not unattractive” Hubert H. Hubert. (Unlike her distant cousin Lolita, who wanders into Humbert’s trap, Flora kicks Hubert in the groin, putting an early end to his advances.) The grown-up Flora is somewhat fickle and annoying. Her lover, the impressively fat, eminent neurologist Dr. Philip Wild, invents a fictional version of her named Laura, who flows seamlessly from Flora:
Her exquisite bone structure immediately slipped into a novel—became in fact the secret structure of that novel, besides supporting a number of poems.
The creation of Laura, however, marks the disappearance of Flora. Wild, like his near-namesake Wilde’s foppish Dorian Gray, must choose between a portrait and its original:
The ‘I’ of the book is a neurotic and hesitant man of letters, who destroys his mistress in the act of portraying her.
The third, most poignant, strip of narrative finds an author studying self-erasure, attempting to psychologically master death by visualizing his own slow disappearance. This author is Dr. Wild, presumably, though it’s impossible not to envision Nabokov. The chapter heading “Settling for a single line” teases the reader with an allusion to the Greek artist Apelles’ famous determination to go “no day without painting a line.” But Nabokov’s narrator refers to a single vertical line, which represents the protagonist’s body:
[A] simple vertical line across my field of inner vision could be chalked in an instant, and what is more I could mark lightly by transverse marks the three divisions of my physical self: legs, torso, and head.
This imagined erasure mirrors the gradual abandonment of Wild’s lover Flora in favor of his character Laura who is fictional, ageless, and has a girlish profile that might approximate the vertical line of Wild’s own improbably thin, stick-like, self-portrait. Of Laura he writes,
I say ‘girl’ and not woman, not wife nor wench. If I were writing in my first language I would have said ‘fille’.
The novel is heavy with sexual innuendo, from Flora’s conception, childhood, and translation into Laura, to the sheer physicality in Wild’s experimental self-erasure. If he cannot control the growth and disappearance of his flesh, Dr. Wild aims to at least preserve his carnal desire, through Laura, ad aeternum. By preserving Laura, he preserves “the mouth she made automatically while using that towel to wipe her thighs after the promised withdrawal.”
If Philip Wild’s book is about sex, Nabokov’s Original is about art. It is about which gifts are preserved, and the artist’s loss of any say in the matter. Most of the characters in The Original of Laura are artists, and a great many have misplaced, miscalculated or misinterpreted their artistic gifts. Of a laundry-list of second rate writers (Malraux, Mauriac … we don’t get to the “N’s”), the author opines,
[W]hat amazes one is that they were supposed to ‘represent an era’ and that such representants [sic] could get away with the most execrable writing, provided they represent their times.
Flora’s paternal grandfather, a Russian painter, falls victim to cultural untranslatability in the space of two note cards:
What can be sadder than a discouraged artist dying not from his own commonplace maladies, but from the cancer of oblivion invading his once famous pictures such as ‘April in Yalta’ or ‘The Old Bridge’?
Flora’s father is a talented photographer who kills himself following the murder of the young male object of his desire. He leaves behind a handful of carefully planned, but badly executed, photographs of his banal suicide; these “did not come out to[o] well; but his widow easily sold them for the price of a flat in Paris to the local magazine Pitch”.
The photographer’s carefully staged suicide-shot is upstaged by a perfect candid picture. His widow, the second-rate ballerina who is Flora’s mother, is also photographed in her dying hour. She collapses at her daughter’s college graduation:
A remarkable picture commemorated the event in ‘File’. It showed Flora kneeling belatedly in the act of taking her mother’s non-existent pulse.
Fittingly, Philip Wild, invited graduation speaker, future lover of Flora, author of My Laura, is captured in the dancer’s death-shot along with the mourning fille in another magazine, File. With the simultaneous death of her mother and entrance of her lover, Flora begins to become Laura, at first sharing the signifier FLaura with her literary shadow, then overshadowed by her.
The most famous Nabokovian signposts appear on these cards. Devoted readers will appreciate the trademark wordplay, recognize the sophisticated pedophile, the game of chess and Pushkin’s Onegin. Annabel Lee, who haunts Humbert Humbert’s memory in Lolita, is transformed into Aurora Lee, a reminder of the Baltic Sea Cruiser, Avrora, from Nabokov’s native Petersburg, and a rhyming triplet with our doubled heroin FLaura. Annabel is, of course, on loan from Poe:
For the moon never beams without bringing me dreams
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And the stars never rise but I feel the bright eyes
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And so, all the night-tide, I lie down by the side
Of my darling- my darling- my life and my bride,
In the sepulchre there by the sea,
In her tomb by the sounding sea.
Dr. Philip Wild, too, has a moon-lit dream in which Aurora reveals her ambiguous sex—
At the height of your guarded ecstasy I thrust my cupped hand from behind between your consenting thighs and felt the sweat-stuck folds of a long scrotum and then, further in front, the droop of a short member.
The unexpected male organ (which may shock the reader into discomfort, titillation, or confusion), beyond muddying the protagonist’s sexuality, hints at his oddly masturbatory pleasure of studying his own body. Lover and self, fille and phallus, become one and the same. Nabokov and Poe scholars will no doubt observe that Dr. Wild’s doubled muse, like Poe’s Annabel, is not “wife and bride” but “life and bride”.
When confronted with Dr. Wild’s novel Flora cannot bring herself to open it. An acquaintance insists,
‘Oh, but I simply must find that passage for you. It’s not quite at the end. You’ll scream with laughter. It’s the craziest death in the world.’
Vladimir Nabokov’s death, too, comes not quite at the end. As he wrote in his autobiography, “Initially, I was unaware that time, so boundless at first blush, was a prison.” But if the walls of time closed for V. Nabokov in 1977, the gift of his note-cards to his survivors comes remarkably close to the kind of echo from the other side Nabokov’s characters strained to make heard—a deceased author narrates Transparent Things; the departed Humbert Humbert narrates Lolita through a diary; Cincinnatus C. leaves the arena following his own beheading.
When I removed the cards (surely you didn’t expect me to leave them on their pages?), I’ll admit I was unable to glean much meaning beyond what I had gotten from their more legible, typed shadows. The odd spelling patterns, the Cyrilloid handwriting and many blotted out words distracted me from the sense of the novel. (However, the cavity left by the dislodged note-cards is a delightful little casket, a hiding place for a Fabergé egg or a resting place for a butterfly.) Shuffling the cards did little for the already charmingly fragmented plot. Having reached the limits of my imagination I solicited the help of 34 smart undergraduates who had only a few days earlier signed up for 10-weeks’ worth of Nabokov (not including Laura). Passing out the cards I asked how they would read them. Their answers were lucid and, unlike the referential mania I contracted in reading this book from front to back, showed fresh insight into Nabokov’s last lines. Here are a few notes, in my students’ hands, unedited, and in their original form. (The authors have granted their permission to print, cut and rearrange.)
Amelia Glaser is an Assistant Professor of Russian Literature at the University of California, San Diego. She would like to thank the students in her Nabokov course for their insights and indulgence.