In pediatrics, we don’t encounter patient deaths very frequently, and I’m grateful for that. But they are also sometimes inevitable and learning to process them has been a new concept for me. Given the opportunity of another golden weekend, I wanted to read something I could commit to and finish before the work week started. Perhaps five or six years ago (at the peak of my Nabokov fandom), I had had my eye on his final published –but incomplete– work, The Original of Laura, which danced heavily around the topic of death. Nabokov worked on this piece while hospitalized (and before dying) in 1977, and despite my obsession with this book’s backstory, I had never actually read it cover to cover. It must have been fated for today’s gray Sunday.
Aside from its fragmented and unfinished nature, this book is special for many reasons. The book’s introduction by his son, Dmitri, (who has inherited his father’s colorful narration style, by the way…) details the events leading up to the publication of the book. Per Dmitri’s account, Nabokov was working on The Original of Laura while ill, but he feared that “in the claustrophobic microcosm of a hospital room … his inspiration and his concentration would not win the race against his failing health.” And so, before his death, Nabokov had insisted to his wife, Vera, that any of his unfinished work be burned after his death. Vera of course, could not bring herself to do so as her “failure to perform was rooted in procrastination – procrastination due to age, weakness, and immeasurable love.”
The work was stored in a bank vault for many years. However, with the death of Vera in 1991, the work was passed on to their only son. In the introduction, Dmitri recounts his inner struggles to destroy the work, his admiration for his father and his writing, but also his eventual decision to publish the work due to “an otherforce he could not resist.” Needless to say, Dmitri was fully aware of the palpable ethical dilemma he was in. Publishing the work meant posthumously disrespecting his father’s wishes, but it was also a way of honoring his work and sharing his final thoughts. (For now, I will refuse to consider the assumption of an ulterior financial motive, as I’m sure plenty of other people must have accused him of it at the time…) Surely, after the work’s publication, Dmitri did find himself criticized heavily for his decision, but he was also praised and thanked for sharing Nabokov’s final pages.
Regardless of the predicaments around its publication, the book itself is a beautiful construction. Nabokov was known to write some of his works on index cards, including this one. To preserve his originality (and I suspect, to deal with the incomplete nature of the piece), the book is a publication of each index card, as was written in the original handwriting, with a typed text of each right below. Each index card is titled with a method of categorization, whether it’s by numbers, letters, or a combination of the two. Although the first half of the book follows a somewhat straightforward grouping and plot about a girl named Flora, the cards later become more and more fragmented in terms of the story, the labeling, and sometimes even the texts. Nabokov begins to write small excerpts about different characters, in different points of view, and it is easy to imagine that he would have rearranged and shuffled them infinitely to allow the words to find their rightful places. The cards, which are perforated for the reader to remove and store in a box (as the author did), contain typos, scratch and eraser marks, arrows to insert words and phrases, etc. As a writer, seeing your favorite author’s rough draft in his own handwriting is not just heartwarming, but also humanizes him and his relatable writing process. Would Nabokov have liked that? Maybe not. He was known for his perfectionism and the care with which he wrote, and given his request for its destruction, I can only assume that he considered it a literary imperfection.
Despite the partial story and incomplete sentences, the cards still leave us with memorable imagery and prose only unique to Nabokov. One of my favorite excerpts includes a character’s recommendations for how to prepare for death: “The student who desires to die should learn first of all to project a mental image of himself upon his inner blackboard. This surface which at its virgin best has a dark plum, rather than black, depth of opacity is none other than the underside of one’s own eyelids.” Nabokov then describes how after drawing an image of himself, this character slowly erases and removes each body part as a “process of self-deletion.” This excerpt likely reflected Nabokov’s own thoughts and actions as he spent his final days in a hospital room, and I believe that this is how he must have prepared for his own creeping death.
I cannot say whether Dmitri made the right or wrong decision. But I can sympathize with the difficulty of the conundrum, and I can appreciate the work for what it is. In light of the difficult past few weeks, this book provided my inner monologue with creative, raw companionship. And it gave me a glimpse of one of my favorite authors in his most tangible and lively form yet.