Tuesday 5 May 2009

Burning Books

There has been a great deal of news recently over the forthcoming publication of Vladimir Nabokov's unfinished work The Original of Laura, due to emerge in November (see the article in The Telegraph and try to ignore poor "Dimitry Nabakov's" mangled name). It is hard to believe that Nabokov would have been terribly happy about this event: although an admirer of Kafka, whose requests to have his work burnt after his death never seemed especially plausible, he expressed regret that Gogol had not fully destroyed the second part of Dead Souls. Nabokov had always been piqued by the relentless attention he received from the shoals of academics belonging to the Venetian witchdoctor's school – to the extent that a great deal of the prefaces he wrote to his own books usually allude nastily to them in one way or another – and he saw the publication of unfinished manuscripts, authors' diaries and letters not designed for publication as something that missed the point completely about a work of art, and instead promoted a sort of literary muckraking, rummaging in the drawers (both types) of literary celebrities.

The BBC, true to its increasingly tabloid tone, jollies the prospective reader along: "Perhaps it is true that his final work is even more scandalising than the earlier book, that it has 'all the sex' in it." But I find Tom Stoppard's opinion far more agreeable: that Nabokov's dying wish (which he consistently expressed throughout his life) ought to have been respected; "since he didn't want me to read it, I won't". The book was a long way from being finished - all that remains is 138 index cards (compared to around 2,000 for Ada) in a non-linear order. It has been described by the publisher (Penguin Classics) as 'not necessarily extremely polished' but 'incredibly interesting', which is exactly the kind of thing Nabokov would have loathed. It's difficult to see why, after hinting at first that he would destroy the manuscript (see an article in the Guardian from last year), the writer's son Dmitry changed his mind so quickly, against his father's express wishes.

Nabokov always had something of the schoolmaster about him. From his mode of writing – standing at a lecturn for hours on end, pencilling his work onto index cards – to his tirelessly sententious tone and "strong opinions", it's hard not to imagine the disapproving wagging of a pedagogical finger from beyond the grave. Of course this isn't an appropriate image because Nabokov naturally chose to be cremated, which fact doesn't surprise me in the least.

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