Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Burn Baby, Burn

In the grand scheme of things, I am a pack rat. That is to say I hoard things, I collect what is useful and what is useless with almost no discrimination. A pair of socks with several holes in them may remain in my crammed drawers for years, simply because I'm too mournful to throw out a piece of clothing that someone once complimented (yes, people compliment my socks. You mean people don't compliment your socks?). At the bottom of each of my twenty or so defunct purses you will find beach glass, marbles, Russian alka-seltzer, sugar packets from old restaurants, torn movie stubs, and colorful push-pins.

It's safe to say that I hold with sentimentality.

But strangely enough, I do not want to save Vladimir Nabokov's last, unfinished manuscript. In the press these past few years (and most especially these past few weeks and months) there has been a flurry of debate over what to do with the pages of this manuscript, entitled The Original of Laura. Nabokov left explicit instructions for the book, if unfinished at the time of his death, to be burned.

For reasons of her own, his wife Vera did not do so before she herself passed away, leaving the manuscript in the hands of their son Dmitri. Evidently, Dmitri has been agonizing about what to do ever since, with the help of Nabokov scholars and readers worldwide (here are the first two articles that I read on the subject, by Ron Rosenbaum on I find his take on the subject interesting, if dramatic, but his tone somewhat self-righteous and irritating). My friend Keith brought this to my attention, since he knows I share his love for Nabokov's work. What would you do? he asked me. If it was your decision?

At first, I admit, I wasn't sure. Here was the opportunity for more of Nabokov's work to be released into the world - a beautiful thing, but at what cost? It troubled me that Nabokov, who presided over every detail of his writing with a dictatorial firmness, had asked for the manuscript to be destroyed. But would anything be lost by maintaining it against his wishes? Didn't Kafka ask for his work to be destroyed too?

After my moment of wavering nostalgia, however, I've decided definitively on "burn it." Because, as much as I adore Nabokov and would love another piece of his work to doesn't. One of the things I am most fond of is his obsessive control, the knowledge (or assumed knowledge) that everything in a piece by Nabokov is intended to be there. The thought of his son (a faithful translator of his father's work, by the way) not carrying out his last wishes (where the book is concerned) and destroy the manuscript cripples, to some degree, the melding of the real and the imagined, the dual reality that was Nabokov's literary domain.

Tom Stoppard (who noted the knee-jerk association of this scenario with Kafka's plea) got it right when he said that we as human beings have a "completeness complex" - people hungrily assume that they have a right to everything that has existed or could exist, that the burning of The Original of Laura is tantamount to a personal denial. It's simply not so. It was never our choice.

One last thought. If you demand completeness, consider this: the character of Nabokov's work was defined by his intentions. Whatever The Original of Laura could have been as a complete work, it will never become a finished product, it will never be able to live independent of the vision that Nabokov had in mind. Given this, I believe that the unfinished manuscript stands as a more beautiful contribution to his oeuvre as an intact mystery than it would as the empty bones of a piece, passed from hand to hand, unable to speak for itself.

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Blogger rach said...

but might scholars learn something from the work? might people be able to read the piece without viewing it as a finished product? it seems problematic to throw away something that might provide further insight into nabokov himself, as a writer and a person. i mean, i love nabokov, but i read him not just because the writing is gorgeous (which it is) or because the writing is challenging (which it also is). i'm fascinated by nabokov himself. and i'd hate to watch scholars get rid of something that might contribute something vital and interesting to a biography or other scholarship on nabokov's personal relationship with his literary works. besides aren't you curious to see what his writing looked like mid-production? perhaps this is just the historian in me speaking though. he's got an archival collection, no?

2:29 PM  
Blogger Adrienne Celt said...

well, I guess my point here is that I care much less about the scholarship that could be gleaned - what people might think they can learn - from the unfinished manuscript. in one sense (particularly the academic curiosity sense) I do think it would be interesting to see what his writing looked like mid-production. of course! but I'm sure, as you suggest, there is already an archival collection that includes works-in-process which were eventually finished. and so I don't think we need to compromise nabokov's artisic integrity (one clearly stated aspect of which was only releasing complete works which lived up to the vision he had for them) to view that process from a slightly different angle.

in essence, I care more about the artistic integrity of the works than about the historical value of them, which may just be where you and I must part ways on this argument, my little historian. to me, the works (individually and as a collection) are art: while they do have things to tell us about the period in history in which they were written, that is not their primary purpose - nor, indeed, their primary function. their function is to convey a vision of the world as seen and crafted by vladimir nabokov - as you say, a gorgeous and challenging one. I like the fact that in nabokov's work, the joke is always on the reader (and/or the characters) and never on the writer - their greatness is built on the precision, care, and integrity of their writer's work.

I think that greedily retaining an unfinished manuscript puts the joke on him, taking away the autonomy and mastery he had in his written career.

8:25 AM  
Blogger rach said...

i suppose i view all things as potential sources of knowledge. and there's just something about destroying knowledge that hits a nerve. here's the larger question though, i guess. if we're already able to look at drafts of finished novels, then what great mystery is truly preserved by burning the unfinished "laura"?

besides, i hardly think that nabokov's work, even mid-production, would compromise his "vision" of the world- he's fairly consistent when it comes to his conception of reality and human motivations.

lastly, i think that i primarily disagree with you on your final point. true, nabokov always toyed with his readers, and that's absolutely integral to why i love him so much. but my opinion stems from this truth just as much as yours does. what better joke on the literary community than to have them guess at what you were going to do with your final, unfinished piece? i simply love how well the to-burn-or-not-to-burn debate might slide easily into one of his novels. likewise, i imagine that the speculation over what "laura" means, and how it would have looked in its finished state, would be wonderful and infuriating and, thus, quite suitable to nabokov's ethos, as it were. in this sense, nabokov still has the last laugh.

i dunno- there's a sense in all these debates that if we see "laura" we'll suddenly understand nabokov. i think that's not only wrong-headed, but laughable as well. and it's funny in a sense that i think nabokov would enjoy immensely. so let people read the piece, and prove them wrong.

this does not in any way mean that my opinion is not motivated by greed. it's just a qualified greed, structured as it is by a historian's perspective, a love of irony, and a sense that anything that might add to the world ought not be destroyed, especially if it's nabokov.

6:51 PM  

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