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
. 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 exist...it 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.