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Should Dmitri burn Laura?
January 17, 2008 11:42 PM   Subscribe

"Here is your chance to weigh in on one of the most troubling dilemmas in contemporary literary culture." "It's the question of whether the last unpublished work of Vladimir Nabokov, which is now reposing unread in a Swiss bank vault, should be destroyed—as Nabokov explicitly requested before he died." The Original of Laura was inherited by his son Dmitri Nabokov nearly 21 years ago. Now Dmitri is 73 and will soon publish the manuscript, or following his father's dying request, burn it. Which is greater, the obligation to V.N., or the obligation to art?
posted by dawson (110 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite

 
Hm. I say ask Nabokov again, and, if he objects, don't publish it.
posted by Astro Zombie at 11:52 PM on January 17, 2008 [10 favorites]


the obligation to art is greater. who cares what nabokov thinks now? even if it's a lousy book by his standards, it will still likely be special, and i want to read it.
posted by bruce at 11:56 PM on January 17, 2008


Very interesting. Did Nabokov make his "explicit request" in a way that legally binds his son to abide by his wishes? If so, who would (or could) enforce it?
posted by amyms at 12:01 AM on January 18, 2008


If the text reads "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy" over and over again, I'd go ahead and burn it.
posted by Tube at 12:01 AM on January 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


who cares what nabokov thinks now?
The guy who has access to both it and a book of matches.
posted by Flunkie at 12:02 AM on January 18, 2008


The answer seems obvious to me.

He's worried about his father's reputation which is still being developed.
So, seal it for another 100 years. By then it will be a mere piece of historical scholarship.
posted by vacapinta at 12:03 AM on January 18, 2008


Virgil wanted the incomplete Aeneid burned. Kafka wanted his works destroyed. Haven't we learned that following through on such actions would generally be a loss for literature?
posted by Bromius at 12:07 AM on January 18, 2008 [5 favorites]


He's worried about his father's reputation
Yes, that seemed silly to me.

The article suggests that VN wanted it burned because he had not perfected it. But DN wants it burned not because of that, but because he's afraid of "Lolitologists" misinterpreting it and concluding things about his father like they did for Lolita, such as "VN was molested as a child".

His father's reputation as one of the truly great modern writers is perfectly secure. Why should DN concern himself with the opinions of some fringe nutcases? Opinions that VN would probably consider, in his words, "psychoasinine"?

Either burn it because that's what your father wanted, or publish it because the world would benefit. There shouldn't be any other reasoning involved, one way or the other.
posted by Flunkie at 12:15 AM on January 18, 2008 [2 favorites]


I like these sorts of questions. They come up every so often with regards to one author or another. Should we publish the letters about dirty panties that Joyce wrote to Nora Barnacle? Etc.

Personally, I'd much rather that the work not be burned. But that's because I like Nabokov and have a quidnunc interest in seeing what he wrote. But if I were his son, or if I were advising his son, I'd have the stories be burned. It seems like a weird fetishization of "the world of literature" to think that once an author becomes good enough he loses ownership of his work. The rest of us would be the worse for it, but it's not our decision to make.
posted by painquale at 12:30 AM on January 18, 2008 [10 favorites]


What definition of "incomplete" are we talking about? If it's a complete story in need of editting and rewrites, then publish it.

If it's missing a major chunk, burn it.

This reminds me of the excerpts of The Salmon of Doubt published after Douglas Adams died. It was almost worse to read it, knowing it was nowhere near a complete story. I'd hate for the same thing with Nabokov.
posted by SansPoint at 12:49 AM on January 18, 2008


The obligation to the world far outweighs the obligation to one dead man.

Burn the thing, for the sake of the world. And Lolita, too. Man, that guy's writing sucked.
posted by darksasami at 12:56 AM on January 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


SansPoint asked: What definition of "incomplete" are we talking about?

The article says that it's only about halfway "complete" (and it's all on index cards, I think it said).
posted by amyms at 1:04 AM on January 18, 2008


I just came online to post this (!); I never much liked reading Nabokov, but I think it's an interesting question. Before I got here, though, I got distracted reading more about Max Brod, who famously disobeyed Kafka's last request to burn his stuff, and edited and published it instead. There's even a play about all this, written in 1986 by Alan Bennett of Beyond the Fringe fame, with the odd title Kafka's Dick. (Excerpt)

It turns out that Kafka also told Doris Diamant, the only woman he ever lived with, to burn more of his writings. She burned some, then saved others that were later confiscated by the Gestapo. The Kafka Project is going over to Eastern Europe this summer to try and find them.
posted by LeLiLo at 1:11 AM on January 18, 2008



Burn the thing, for the sake of the world. And Lolita, too. Man, that guy's writing sucked.


Hooo-Hoooo-Hoooo! Boy! That was funny!

Hilarity aside. It should be archived, not printed, as there's nothing to print. Or, as vacapinta suggests, just bury it for another 100 years. But don't burn, though don't print, either.
posted by From Bklyn at 1:16 AM on January 18, 2008


If Nabokov was of sound mind when he made this request, I don't see how this is even a question. If his surviving family were destitute or something, you could make an argument that he would have wanted them to be comfortable, but that seems to be nothing to do with this situation.

I like Nabokov too, but the idea of publishing Laura against his wishes seems to me to be driven by a kind of unhealthy idolatry. I think painquale is right when he identifies something fetishistic about it. Burn the thing, move on, make way for someone who actually wants to be published.
posted by teleskiving at 2:43 AM on January 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


If Nabokov had 100% wanted it burned, he would have a made a bonfire himself.

However, I'm with darksasami.
posted by Mocata at 2:59 AM on January 18, 2008


Obligation to art. Sorry, Nabokov.
posted by nonmerci at 4:42 AM on January 18, 2008


Mocata's right. Nabokov could have burned it himself if he felt it was so crucial. To leave that burden to someone else just seems cruel. I know if it was me, the stress of the situation would make me start to shake and cough.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 5:14 AM on January 18, 2008 [4 favorites]


You quoting the Police quoting Nabakov or Nabakov.
If the Police then don't stand so close to me.
posted by dprs75 at 5:35 AM on January 18, 2008


Requests, even dying ones, need not always be binding obligations, and Nabokov jr. is hedging his bets, or there would have been a fire already. But neither does he have any binding obligation to Art, so it's pretty much just between him and his conscience. Dmitri's best option is to summon his own son to his death-bed, and, in turn, implore him to destroy the manuscript.
posted by misteraitch at 5:45 AM on January 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


I'm with Astro Zombie: who cares what the dead want?
posted by anotherpanacea at 5:47 AM on January 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


I like Nabokov too, but the idea of publishing Laura against his wishes seems to me to be driven by a kind of unhealthy idolatry.

The idea of hurting yourself or doing without things in order to satisfy dead people seems even more an unhealthy idolatry.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 5:50 AM on January 18, 2008 [2 favorites]


Death of the author, indeed.

[NOT BARTHESIST]
posted by shakespeherian at 5:53 AM on January 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


Dmitri is like some kind of Orestes
posted by MNDZ at 6:15 AM on January 18, 2008


Art
posted by caddis at 6:15 AM on January 18, 2008


I don't think his son has an obligation either to him or art.
posted by "Tex" Connor and the Wily Roundup Boys at 6:17 AM on January 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


this is a very easy decision.

in fact a similar decision was made once that gave the world the works of franz kafka.
posted by armitage at 6:19 AM on January 18, 2008


People have a pretty lousy track record for obeying this sort of request. I wonder what odds Nabokov would have placed on his son actually burning the damn thing?
posted by nebulawindphone at 6:24 AM on January 18, 2008


Dmitri's best option is to summon his own son to his death-bed, and, in turn, implore him to destroy the manuscript.

There's the core of a short story there...
posted by Leon at 6:32 AM on January 18, 2008


If Nabokov was of sound mind when he made this request, I don't see how this is even a question.... I like Nabokov too, but the idea of publishing Laura against his wishes seems to me to be driven by a kind of unhealthy idolatry.

I take it, then, you wish the Aeneid and all Kafka's works had been burned.

I think it should be kept around and shown to researchers; whether it should be published should depend on whether it's "publishable" by normal standards, which it doesn't sound like it is ("approximately 50 index cards" amounting to "some 30 conventional manuscript pages"). I'd love to see a new Nabokov novel, but not some halfassed simulacrum cobbled together from scraps. But it's not our decision, it's his son's, and I agree with Flunkie:

Either burn it because that's what your father wanted, or publish it because the world would benefit. There shouldn't be any other reasoning involved, one way or the other.


Dead men don't wear plaid have rights.
posted by languagehat at 6:35 AM on January 18, 2008


Keep it, as long as it doesn't turn out that Humbert Humbert built C-3PO as a child.
posted by condour75 at 6:50 AM on January 18, 2008 [3 favorites]


I would love to see it. But not as a new Nabokov novel or even short story - as archival, historical material to illuminate what we already have.

Publish. Don't Perish.
posted by RandlePatrickMcMurphy at 6:51 AM on January 18, 2008


I think that if Nabokov really wanted the manuscript destroyed he might have taken care of the matter himself -- the man was in his seventies and in poor health for several years before he died. There was plenty of time to execute the order himself.

That said, the work is likely subpar Nabokov and we might all wish to be spared the reams of critical exegesis likely to pour out of the academy concluding over and over again that the work is incomplete and not his best. I guess we'll soon find out.
posted by inoculatedcities at 6:52 AM on January 18, 2008


I believe a son should honor a father's request. But there is also something due to art. Why not destroy half the manuscript and publish the other half? Compromise is the art of not being able to make up one's mind.
posted by Postroad at 7:04 AM on January 18, 2008


From the wikipiedia link... The manuscript consists of about fifty hand-written index cards, equivalent to about thirty conventional paper manuscript pages.

30 pages... that's not much of a novel or a bonfire.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 7:06 AM on January 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


False dichotomies abound. There are many other options. He could read it himself, and if he likes it, publish it, and if not, let it continue to rot in the vault. Just because he doesn't publish it doesn't require him to destroy it.

If he doesn't like it, he could find someone to revise what it is he doesn't like (or do it himself), and publish it that way.

He could publish it secretly under a pseudonym and see what critical attention it receives that way, and if its favorable, reveal publicly that it was Nabokov's, and if it sucks monster ass, he could let it fade into obscurity.

Lots of choices here, not simply, either publish it now or burn it now.
posted by Pastabagel at 7:06 AM on January 18, 2008


I'd hate to vex even the shade of sublime Nabokov, but I doubt Miles Davis would have wanted me to listen to the "Kind of Blue" master tape either, and it's full of little revelations and corrections to widespread misconceptions, like that every track was a first take. (For the off-topic record, while "All Blues" and a couple of other tracks were indeed miraculous first takes, you can hear Miles abort several takes of "Blue In Green" with a whistle, and his artistic choices are illuminating.)

The hard truth is that artists are often not the best judges of their own work. That's not a happy truth, but I think the primary obligation is to the living. Even the "mistakes" of an artist on the scale of Nabokov can be instructive to practicing writers.

And "subpar Nabokov" is superpar compared to most other writers.
posted by digaman at 7:08 AM on January 18, 2008


If Dimitri had any children, I would say that the obvious thing to do would be to romance the spinsterish one in order to get close to the manuscript, and not to stick at marrying her.

As it stands, though, I've got nothing.
posted by felix grundy at 7:20 AM on January 18, 2008


I'm sure the ancient Eqyptians didn't want to be dug up and displayed in museums, either. Publish that baby.
posted by notmydesk at 7:20 AM on January 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


Er, Egyptians.
posted by notmydesk at 7:21 AM on January 18, 2008


If Dmitri could ensure that it burned with a wan light then I'd approve of that.

Seriously though, if I had to trust any author's take on destroying their work it'd be Nabokov's. While I'd be interested in seeing it from curiousity it'd be with a slight sense of shame that I'd view this last not-even-first draft of an author who was so careful in the creation and release of his masterpieces. I don't want to feel like Humbert Humbert.
posted by Gratishades at 7:32 AM on January 18, 2008


I'd love to read it, but as someone who's had others read my unfinished stuff against my wishes... burn it. I think Nabokov once compared showing or workshopping your first draft to 'passing around a cup of your spittle.' The man was a perfectionist of the most ridiculous order, but I think we do have an obligation to the dead.
posted by Football Bat at 7:33 AM on January 18, 2008


Artists rightly have control of their own work. To deny Nabokov the right to have unfinished work deleted is ultimately the same as re-editing his published work to suit yourself, reinserting stuff from early drafts, correcting his choice of words, and generally interfering. The right to create includes, indeed requires, the right to delete.

Incidentally, I think the Aeneid is pompous rubbish, and I heartily wish it had been burnt.
posted by Phanx at 7:37 AM on January 18, 2008


I'm thinking of asking my heirs to demolish my house when I die: also, to sink my car in a lake, and to burn all the money I leave them.
posted by anotherpanacea at 7:53 AM on January 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


To deny Nabokov the right to have unfinished work deleted is ultimately the same as re-editing his published work to suit yourself

That's reductio ad absurdum.

Should Melville's Billy Budd have been published, though surely the author had no idea it would be dragged out of a trunk after his death, and surely would have been maddened by the various editorial outrages that have been committed upon it?

I say yes. I have no defense other than beauty, really. It's a beautiful book that illuminates Melville's other books, and stands as one of his finest and most provocative works, even in its disputed form.
posted by digaman at 7:55 AM on January 18, 2008


I don't see the point in burning it. Worst case, it's a bad novel or a bad sketch of what might with a lot of rewriting would have been a good novel. It's not going to affect Nabokov's reputation one bit. On the other hand, if he was starting something innovative, then a lot more people might be enriched by it.

Also, Virgil, Kafka, etc. as above.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 7:57 AM on January 18, 2008


Burn it. How often do you get to do a favor for Nabokov? And how, exactly, do you justify ignoring the man's request? If there is some overriding obligation to art or to scholars or the literate public, let's go ahead and break into the writing studios of every living artist to be sure they're not holding anything back from us. We've certainly earned it.
posted by Nahum Tate at 7:59 AM on January 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


Publish and be damned, I say.*

It's like Fitzgerald's "Last Tycoon"... you won't read it for the story, but for the insight into the writer. Fitzgerald's my favourite author, and I'm glad Tycoon is available to be read. I've only read Lolita so I don't have the same interest in Nabokov but I suspect for those who do enjoy him this would be a wonderful experience.

The wishes of dead people don't hold much value with me. If it's not a legally-binding thing, the son gets to do whatever he wants. Hopefully he lets it be published, if only for the scholarly interest.

*me and the Duke of Wellington, I guess...
posted by GhostintheMachine at 8:02 AM on January 18, 2008


I take it, then, you wish the Aeneid and all Kafka's works had been burned.

According to Wikipedia, Brod at least had the excuse that he'd told Kafka he wouldn't carry out his wish to burn his manuscripts, and despite this he had not taken this opportunity to appoint another executor.

What is not clear from the article is whether Nabokov's wife or son actually promised to destroy these index cards, explicitly said they wouldn't, or didn't commit either way. If the case is one of the latter two, I would be a bit more sympathetic to keeping it around because that would support the argument that he would have done it himself if he'd been really serious.

The idea of hurting yourself or doing without things in order to satisfy dead people seems even more an unhealthy idolatry.

I'm not arguing that every possible sacrifice should be made to satisfy the wishes of the dying, but I consider Nabokov's request to be reasonable, and I think a really good argument would be needed to not fulfil it.
posted by teleskiving at 8:06 AM on January 18, 2008


That's reductio ad absurdum.

Not to be tetchy, but I don't think it is. Reductio ad absurdum consists of assuming the opposite of what you want to prove, and showing that your assumption leads to an absurdity, a contradiction. It is a perfectly valid, if not essential, logical method.

I think you mean I'm making a thin-end-of the-wedge type argument, which I probably am, and I concede it has purely persuasive rather than logical force.
posted by Phanx at 8:11 AM on January 18, 2008


Which is greater, the obligation to V.N. his father, or the obligation to art?

Dad trumps art. Burn it.
posted by mrgrimm at 8:12 AM on January 18, 2008


If it's as bad as Ada, burn it. If it's as good as one page in The Gift, for the love of holy things, please don't burn it.
posted by milarepa at 8:17 AM on January 18, 2008


Artists rightly have control of their own work.

While they're alive.

Incidentally, I think the Aeneid is pompous rubbish, and I heartily wish it had been burnt.

OK, I don't have to take your esthetic judgments seriously. One sunt lacrymae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt is worth six of your favorite poet's poems.

If it's as bad as Ada, burn it.

Yours either.
posted by languagehat at 8:28 AM on January 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


History has not treated the manuscript burners kindly. Look at Richard Burton's wife, who destroyed his translations after his death. There are many other examples.

Dmitri Nabokov is not only his father's son, he has translated and edited his father's work. He is in a particularly privileged position to publish the work. My vote is for publication.
posted by tesseract420 at 8:33 AM on January 18, 2008


Don't burn it. It may not be valuable to Nabokov, but it's value to others is far greater and since he's dead, the value to Nabokov is nullified. An author writes his work of course, but it belongs to everyone.
posted by juiceCake at 8:38 AM on January 18, 2008


Only Lolita is great enough to peek up at us over the horizon of history as it is, and the distance has only magnified its monstrosity. I think Dimitri should put 'Laura' in whatever repository already contains most of his father's papers with a proviso that it never be published, in order to force all future scholars who wish to think of themselves as authoritative experts on his father's work to make a kind of pilgrimage to a shrine, and to force them to endure the frustration of having to argue over a manuscript almost no one else will have read, along with the perpetual temptation to sneak photographs and publish it themselves.

That ought to feed the bitter, hungry, restless ghost of the old man as long as any shred of his reputation lasts, since a writer has seldom seemed to hate his critics as much as Nabokov did, or to take such pleasure in making a humiliating public show of disgust and detestation especially for those most adoring and abject in their praise of him.
posted by jamjam at 8:40 AM on January 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


Phanx writes "Artists rightly have control of their own work. To deny Nabokov the right to have unfinished work deleted is ultimately the same as re-editing his published work to suit yourself, reinserting stuff from early drafts, correcting his choice of words, and generally interfering. The right to create includes, indeed requires, the right to delete."

Maybe so, but the more time passes, the less the artist's wishes seem important.
posted by krinklyfig at 8:41 AM on January 18, 2008


for the love of pants, don't burn it! i swear his writing gives me synesthesia. i wouldn't care that the work is unfinished or even disconnected. just a taste - that's all i ask.
posted by blendor at 8:43 AM on January 18, 2008


People who die in car accidents are dead. Most have not registered as organ donors. Many have explicitly requested that their organs not be donated. However, they are dead (and therefore cannot be further injured) and our obligation is to the living, who will certainly benefit if the wishes of the dead are disregarded. Take the organs.
posted by Nahum Tate at 8:46 AM on January 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


I've got the solution:

His son should do a performance piece-
Read each card aloud before throwing it into a fire.
Film the whole thing. With translations.

Case Closed.
posted by TechnoLustLuddite at 8:55 AM on January 18, 2008 [9 favorites]


If I bought 30 pages of something that was supposed to be 360, I'd be pretty pissed.

To my mind, the idea that it must either be published like a manuscript or burned is evidence of old school thinking. Nowadays it's easier and WAY COOLER to publish the index cards, scanned and laid out on even pages with transcriptions of each card on the facing odd page. Add in a neat little intro by Nabokov Jr and a PostScript by Bono and BAM!!! Coffee table book of the year.

I'm only kidding about the Bono part. I honestly think they sould publish the materials, not the words. It's not literature, it's history. Let us see it, but don't pretend it's a publishable work.
posted by shmegegge at 9:01 AM on January 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


And how, exactly, do you justify ignoring the man's request?

He's dead.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:11 AM on January 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


Dead men don't wear plaid have rights.

Neither do the living, in this case, save for Dmitri himself.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 9:19 AM on January 18, 2008


Celebrities give up certain rights to privacy by becoming famous, presumably this works retroactively including their privacy regarding things before they became famous. I think the same kind of thing could be applied here. If he hadn't become so accepted, then yeah, burn it. But now the rules have changed.
posted by StickyCarpet at 9:26 AM on January 18, 2008


like funerals, literature is for the living.
posted by bruce at 9:28 AM on January 18, 2008


I'd just photocopy it, then burn the original. Then publish the photocopy.

You're welcome.
posted by tadellin at 9:31 AM on January 18, 2008


I don't think his son has an obligation either to him or art.

No, he absolutely does not. We have no more right or ability to enforce any "obligation to us" than a dead man does at this point. The creator of a work chooses how to let the world in. Unfortunately for him, he overlooked actually exercising that control while he was alive.

Artists rightly have control of their own work.

Unfortunately for him, his son and us have ended up in a world where the rights of artists to control their own work are pretty much ignored all the time and some fringey nuts think that it should all be ignored and have the technical know-how to make that a possibility.

Yeah, let's turn it into a torrent.

Or: Memorize it, shred it, eat it, replicate it. See, you can have everything.
posted by twins named Lugubrious and Salubrious at 9:37 AM on January 18, 2008


I think people are overlooking one crucial detail. Nabokov was a Kafka fanatic, and there is no way he made the request to burn the manuscript without seeing the parallels. I don't think he wanted the manuscript destroyed. It is more of a keen joke/ tip of the hat to one of his literary idols.

see this post
posted by post punk at 9:59 AM on January 18, 2008


This is my favorite comment in the Slate discussion. It's kind of batshitinsane, but fans of Pale Fire should appreciate it.

"The ultimate Nabokovian joke, of course, would be to simply imply its existence, without actually having to write it, and stipulate its destruction. Of course his wife and son would have to be in on the joke, but I wouldn't put it past him. In any case, just as he toyed with the reader throughout his body of work he is toying with us now, from beyond the grave, and it's hard to imagine that he didn't know what he was doing.

"Dmitri, of course, is playing his part, translating this final 'work', in time rather than linguistically. It is the perfect execution of his father's intent...

"Ideally, the manuscript will be lost, stolen or otherwise disappeared, and Dmitri stays mum on its contents until his death. Laura, or its counterfeit, or multiple Laura's could then surface, and Nabokovians would have an extended field day sorting through the texts, looking for clues as to authenticity and speculating whether the entire drama (and possibly multiple Laura's) was the work of the master himself (and searching for clues within and without the texts and previous works)."
posted by naju at 10:08 AM on January 18, 2008


no, he should not burn it.
posted by MythMaker at 10:15 AM on January 18, 2008


I say we keep it, but use this opportunity to retroactively burn another book that never should have been released to the public.

I'm looking at you Celestine Prophecy.
posted by quin at 10:24 AM on January 18, 2008


What if someone built a hospital, and asked that on his death it be demolished? Would we honour his views? What if Michelangelo had wanted David destroyed after his death? Or if Shah Jahan had wanted the Taj Mahal destroyed after his?

What if Nick Drake had been so depressed that he'd forbidden anyone else from reproducing his music after his death? (we'd never have had Toe The Line (sic) for a start, seeing as that was only discovered thereafter).

I doubt this will ever be published in a recognisable sense. Academics will write about it. Fine.
posted by imperium at 10:25 AM on January 18, 2008


Remind me to never make any of you the executors of my will.
posted by Bookhouse at 10:40 AM on January 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


Post punk and nebulawindphone nailed it.

Nabokov was hedging his bets.

Either son publishes material, world knows it was against author's wishes, material can't be used to tarnish his reputation because it must be evaluated in light of the request, or son obeys wishes, material isn't used to tarnish reputation. That kind of checkmate would appeal to Nabokov, I bet.
posted by tiny crocodile at 10:48 AM on January 18, 2008


I do however believe that Dr. Seuss' widow should not have started selling all those sub-par manuscripts he'd abandoned in the attic.
posted by shakespeherian at 10:58 AM on January 18, 2008


Dead men don't have rights.

Dead men don't have rights, but living men have rights that extend into the future. They certainly do legally. That's why we don't tear up contracts once the signatory dies and wills aren't self-contradictory. And they do morally as well, which is why you can't desecrate dead bodies or harvest them for organs or turn them into fuel sources. If it's not OK to slander a person's reputation when they're alive, it doesn't become immediately OK to do so once he dies. Rights are guaranteed by commitments that we make to each other, and those commitments don't end at death.

I take it, then, you wish the Aeneid and all Kafka's works had been burned.

I'd rather they didn't, but there are living authors who burn their own potentially great works as well, and I'd rather they wouldn't do that. That doesn't mean that we can charge into their bedrooms and steal their papers out of the fireplace, all in the name of literature. I don't wish that the Aeneid had been burned, but that's because I wish the author hadn't decided to burn it.

This discussion is kinda moot, seeing as Nabokov's "novel" is so unfinished and probably uninteresting. But I do love the moot.
posted by painquale at 11:04 AM on January 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


It's going to be published. He wouldn't have publicized this "difficult" choice if he was going to burn it, or even debating whether to do so. (Why invite all the conflicting pressure?)

More likely this is just a way to create demand for a very fragmentary, if not crappy text.
posted by msalt at 11:07 AM on January 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


If it's unfinished and only 30 pages long chances are it isn't all that great. Take a lesson from all the "improved" director's cut DVDs floating around. Watching Apocalypse Now with the deleted scenes re-inserted makes you realize something: great artists know what they are doing, and what you leave out is as important as (maybe more important than) what you leave in.
Nabokov wrote it. Nabokov wanted it burnt. Burn it.
And throw in every copy of People magazine ever published while you're at it. And all Spielberg's films too, what the hell. And some Bibles, and a Koran, and a couple of Bhagavad Gitas. Also Mutant Message Down Under, along with any tools of writing that might still belong to the author of that hideous abortion. Throw in the 100 zillion copies of Harry Potter currently in existence, and use this sizeable fire as tinder to get all the major publishing houses well blazing, and hopefully that inferno will spread to other corporate hubs such as Monsanto and Microsoft.
Also be sure to throw in everything I've ever written and put an end to this sort of hateful screed.
When the embers have settled down into smoldering ashes, we'll open the fireproof safe that was made from xerxon titanium, so expensive that it could only be made large enough to hold one book. That book would of course be Gravity's Rainbow, and using the ashes from the literature of history, mixed with a bit of our own blood, we would read it, and start again.
"More heat! More light! You fuckers know we're right!"

posted by arcadia at 11:21 AM on January 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


Nabokov wrote it. Nabokov wanted it burnt.

Then he should have burnt it himself. He knew as well as anyone that that was the only way to make sure it got done.

I hate to say it, but msalt's suggestion makes as much sense as anything else.
posted by languagehat at 11:56 AM on January 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


How about just branding it with an asterisk? Either that, or blast it off into space. Or publish it, and brand Jeremy Irons with an asterisk and shoot him off into space.
posted by ericbop at 12:31 PM on January 18, 2008


Then he should have burnt it himself. He knew as well as anyone that that was the only way to make sure it got done.

If he knew he was about to be hospitalized and wouldn't have a chance to finish it then he probably would have destroyed it himself. He was too sick, so he delegated the responsibility to someone he trusted. It sounds like some of you guys are saying that Dmitri has *no* responsibility to respect his dad's wishes, but that can't be right. I can see someone trying to make an argument that there is reason enough (for future research, for the sake of art) to disrespect Nabokov's desire, but the "dead men have no rights" line seems like a non-starter.
posted by painquale at 12:35 PM on January 18, 2008


It sounds like some of you guys are saying that Dmitri has *no* responsibility to respect his dad's wishes, but that can't be right.

Of course it can. Your personal priorities are not universal truth. If Dmitri feels he has a responsibility to respect VV's wishes, that's his decision. I do not think he does, and my opinion is as valid as yours.
posted by languagehat at 1:09 PM on January 18, 2008


Don't publish it. Wait for it to leak.
posted by aftermarketradio at 1:15 PM on January 18, 2008


OK, I guess I see where you're coming from. Out of curiosity, are you a relativist about all moral responsibilities, or do you just not think that keeping promises falls within that category? That is, do you think that the "my opinion is as valid as yours" argument flies in all debates about responsibility?

(I don't exactly see why you're arguing with people in this thread if you think their opinion is as valid as yours....)
posted by painquale at 1:29 PM on January 18, 2008


This is MetaFilter—arguing is what we're all about!

Seriously, I just think death cancels promises. When I read about people who have spent years wrenching their lives out of shape to fulfill some deathbed promise to a parent, I think "what an insane waste." YMM, as ever, V.
posted by languagehat at 1:39 PM on January 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


I think it should be kept around and shown to researchers; whether it should be published should depend on whether it's "publishable" by normal standards, which it doesn't sound like it is

Who gets to be a reseacher? And what do they get, or not get, to do with what they have see? And what makes them so goddamn special in the first place?

As to normal standards, these days that seems to be whether it can make money, which in this case would have to be counted as pretty much a dead (sorry) cert. (Not a lot of money, perhaps, but presumably enough to make it interesting.)
posted by IndigoJones at 1:52 PM on January 18, 2008


Gotcha, LH. Thanks!
posted by painquale at 2:10 PM on January 18, 2008


Re: Lolita

the distance has only magnified its monstrosity

One imagines the same sort of voice advocating the burning of Shakespeare's sonnets for celebrating the unmentionable sin of the Greeks.

One must never write about evil, even with profound insight and scathing humor, because that creates evil works of art, and then evil readers.

Burn them all, and let God the Librararian sort them out!
posted by digaman at 2:16 PM on January 18, 2008


The problem with the whole burn it/don't burn it dichotomy is that 'it' doesn't really exist. Nabokov conceived the novel, then got sick (it didn't seem too serious at first), and never had the chance to write the novel. As Brian Boyd puts it in the second volume of his Nabokov biography, VN was only able to transfer 'a few bright patches' of his idea onto paper. The rest of it disappeared in 1977 when Nabokov died. The novel doesn't exist—there are only notes for a novel.
posted by Sonny Jim at 2:38 PM on January 18, 2008


Hell. Mail those index cards to me. I don't smoke. But for some reason I have perfectly maintained a classic Zippo from the 50's. Now I know why.
posted by notreally at 3:01 PM on January 18, 2008


It sounds like some of you guys are saying that Dmitri has *no* responsibility to respect his dad's wishes, but that can't be right. I can see someone trying to make an argument that there is reason enough (for future research, for the sake of art) to disrespect Nabokov's desire, but the "dead men have no rights" line seems like a non-starter.

In point of fact, dead men do not have the right of demolition, only of distribution. He can consign it to a vault or to charity, but not to the fire. This is a longstanding tradition in property law, because ultimately "the permanent right to property, vested in the ancestor himself, was no natural right, but merely a civil right" (Blackstone) hence the Third Restatement of Trusts invalidates trusts that are "contrary to public policy." (Consider a racist's lands that are entrusted to the National Park Service: should his desire that they remain racially pure be upheld?) Since Véra was charged with the moral obligation but resisted, I see no reason why his son should feel anything but filial duty, and only he can judge the relative merits of his father's claims on him vis a vis those of the artworld. In general, destroying value is bad public policy, and these notes are undoubtedly valuable: people want them and will pay, either directly or indirectly, to read them.

"The earth belongs in usufruct to the living; the dead have neither powers nor rights over it. The portion occupied by any individual ceases to be his when he himself ceases to be, and reverts to society." (Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, September 6, 1789)
posted by anotherpanacea at 5:18 PM on January 18, 2008 [2 favorites]


He didn't burn it; publish it. Look at Pessoa, it isn't as if fragments of a work have no value. And what's with the calls to burn [book poster hates] along with Laura?

Virgil may not be your cup of tea but his influence is undeniable.
posted by ersatz at 5:25 PM on January 18, 2008


"The earth belongs in usufruct to the living; the dead have neither powers nor rights over it. The portion occupied by any individual ceases to be his when he himself ceases to be, and reverts to society." (Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, September 6, 1789)

And yet, he inherited land.
posted by Bookhouse at 5:39 PM on January 18, 2008


it is not worth publishing, except in archival form (PDF image), on the internet. (i don't much go for the postumously cobbled together work by descendants of anyone, no matter how much of a demand there might be.)

but no, he shouldn't burn it. i'm a writer, of the mostly unpublished and probably sucky sort. but if i ever actually pop out anything worthwhile, i would not want all my blatherings of insanity burned to preserve some myth about my genius or lack thereof. i think at heart i'm an archivist: i delight in finding the mundanity of postcards at the antique store, and love reading the incidental writings of the historically interesting and unbelievably boring. i have been a party to the saving of a lifetime of correspondence from the dumpster of an unimportant personage, and i *adore* reading it. historical societies and archives of all sorts of built on the preserving of the most undeserving of printed matter. it's beautiful stuff, even if it's the whine of Minnesota boy pleading for money from his mother so he can continue his insane dream of becoming an actor in NYC or Uncle Joe's barely literate writing about Aunt Ethel's tumor from rural Wisconsin to rural Iowa relatives circa 1927.

I'm always a fan of preservation. make it available. but don't try to make it something that it isn't by publishing it.

i think that a refusal to profit from a partly-done work will be honoring his father enough.
posted by RedEmma at 6:19 PM on January 18, 2008


*are* built...
posted by RedEmma at 7:17 PM on January 18, 2008


After its released can we give up on the sanctity of the 'deathbed wish?' I doubt dying suddenly makes people so lucid we must do what they say. Instead the overwhelming fear just makes them crazier than usual. Hell, every depressed artist goes through a daily struggle on whether or not to destroy all his work that day. Lucky for you Van Gogh, et al didnt. There's really something to be said about over-riding all sorts of requests because of state of mind and simply knowing better. Maybe the modern world is somewhat more relativist. That can be a good thing. I doubt being 100% strict and rigid products the best results in any human endeavour be it literature, religion, politics, bad jokes, etc.
posted by damn dirty ape at 8:46 PM on January 18, 2008


Uhh. Storm in a teapot. The "manuscript" is almost nonexistent. Consider it an unfinished symphony, publish it as is, and that's that.
posted by kurtroehl at 10:43 PM on January 18, 2008


Interesting comment, anotherpanacea.

This topic opened up a great semi-intoxicated discussion between me and a bunch of friends tonight. Thanks, Metafilter!
posted by painquale at 11:39 PM on January 18, 2008


Re: Lolita

the distance has only magnified its monstrosity

One imagines the same sort of voice advocating the burning of Shakespeare's sonnets for celebrating the unmentionable sin of the Greeks.

One must never write about evil, even with profound insight and scathing humor, because that creates evil works of art, and then evil readers.

Burn them all, and let God the Librararian sort them out!
posted by digaman


I seem to have touched a nerve, digaman, but even so, I would have expected a little more of an honest reading from you, and a lot less myopic and maudlin sentimentality about art.

I did say I thought it was his greatest work, and it is in fact one of the three great monuments of English prose produced in the 20th century to me, in addition to Gravity's Rainbow and The Waves; yet it is monstrous, and its monstrosity consists not in "profound insight and scathing humor" about evil, but in an effete, evasive and slyly titillating celebration of the aesthetic refinement of a determined child molester, and in Nabokov's profound failure of nerve and imagination in exploring the evil he himself called into being with the creation of Humbert Humbert (even the risible absurdity of the name is finely calculated to turn away outrage, don't you think?).

Two examples may suffice to make my point. When Humbert (as well as the plot of the novel) is balked in his plans to rape Lolita by the obtrusive presence of her besotted mother, for whom the reader is virtually compelled to share Humbert's condescending and scathing contempt, Nabokov is not honest enough to have him murder her or break down her will to the degree that she acquiesces in the rape of her own child, as any number of child molesters have done and mothers have been degraded to, he resorts instead to a deus ex machina in the form of an auto accident that leaves Humbert's hands clean even as it neatly forecloses any possibility he will be exposed. When Humbert finally does accomplish the rape of the child, the just-orphaned child who is neither in shock nor mourning (its been years since I cracked it, but doesn't Humbert describe her as "unbreasted and unfurred"?) he does not force himself on her, the lascivious and knowing little "nymphet" takes it upon herself to initiate him into the mysteries of sexual intercourse. Then, three vigorous encounters with an adult male who lets us know he is proud of his size as well as his virility, do not leave this small child severely injured, bleeding, and curled into a ball on the bloodied bed, but sassy, self-possessed and insolent the following morning, and for the rest of their time together.
posted by jamjam at 12:34 AM on January 19, 2008


Nabokov seems to have touched a nerve, jamjam. Which was, of course, part of his job.

What wasn't part of his job was painting his tale in the lurid colors -- murder! vaginal blood! -- that you would have employed in designing your own lesson in morality. I can imagine people wishing that David Chase had been more "honest" in writing The Sopranos, and not made his brutal mob boss so damned appealing, human, and even oddly sexy between killings. But then, that's art. That's one reason totalitarians distrust it. Its intent is hard to pin down or map on a graph.
posted by digaman at 8:17 AM on January 19, 2008


I think the guy is just hyping the book before it gets published.
posted by delmoi at 10:20 AM on January 19, 2008


jamjam, I'm glad you like the novel, but you don't seem to understand it very well. It is Humbert who is recounting his life with Lolita, and obviously he presents his story in the romantic and self-justifying terms in which he thinks of it. Nabokov trusts his readership (the only readership he cared about, those who read carefully and repeatedly) to figure out the truth behind the unreliable narration. And give me a break about the auto accident—that's just silly.

And what digaman said about avoiding the luridly obvious presentation. It's hard to believe you can respect Nabokov so much while having so little grasp of his esthetics.
posted by languagehat at 10:24 AM on January 19, 2008


Thank you for your responses, digaman and languagehat, I had forgotten how amusing it can be to contend about Lolita with the faithful, but the position I've taken does have an unfair advantage, as one can see here, because its opponents are obligated not just to reply to whatever I say, but to try to shout down Nabokov himself-- an exercise in Sisyphean futility, though not without its comic aspects.
posted by jamjam at 11:15 AM on January 19, 2008


Could you descend from your high horse for a minute and explain how exactly we're trying to "shout down Nabokov"? If you can find a quote from him defending Humbert as a moral exemplar, I'll eat all my hats. And what quarrel do you have with my description of Humbert as unreliable narrator (which is the standard analysis)?
posted by languagehat at 12:11 PM on January 19, 2008


Of course he's an unreliable narrator, languagehat, but there's scarcely a shadow, or a hint, or a breath of anything more reliable to be found anywhere in the novel, or in Nabokov's introduction to the editions I have (somewhere), or in anything I ever read that he said about it, and as I pointed out in my previous comment, the details of the events of story are so sanitized and prettified compared to anything like them which has happened to a real person (and we now know, as perhaps Nabokov did not, how miserably often such things do happen to real little girls) that Lolita makes Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm look like something by Zola.

The received view, as you say, is that he put on a mask to write it, but I would say instead that he stripped away all his masks in order to be able to write Lolita, and that this is what makes it such a uniquely forceful expression of his great genius.
posted by jamjam at 1:31 PM on January 19, 2008


It's missing the point to say 'if he wanted it burnt he should have done it himself'. The premise is that he always hoped to complete it, but said he didn't want an unfinished version published if death intervened. I think if you respect him as an author you must respect his wishes about his own work.

OK, I don't have to take your esthetic judgments seriously.

Tu quoque, amice! I've always thought people with real literary sense, as against deference to the tradition, could always see that while Homer, say, really was a great writer, Virgil was crap. Even educated Romans knew Virgil was rubbish, but they had to pretend otherwise because he was the author of the national myth.

You must remember that Virgil himself is with me on this, and wanted his dire production destroyed.
posted by Phanx at 2:23 PM on January 19, 2008


The received view, as you say, is that he put on a mask to write it, but I would say instead that he stripped away all his masks in order to be able to write Lolita

Well, that's your story and you're sticking to it, obviously, but the thought that Nabokov was writing openly as himself, without masks, in Lolita is so laughable to me that I find it hard to take seriously. Anyway, it's been interesting discussing it with you.

Phanx, I honestly can't tell whether you're taking the piss or really believe that nonsense. Doesn't really matter, I suppose. Virgil isn't one of my favorite poets (partly because Latin isn't one of my favorite languages/literatures), but to think "Virgil was crap" is even sillier than thinking Lolita was Nabokov talking in propria persona. Well, you meet all kinds around here.
posted by languagehat at 2:38 PM on January 19, 2008


Put it down to 'de gustibus' perhaps, lh :)

I love Nabokov and rate him very highly (and I don't, of course, equate him with Humbert Humbert), so I don't easily give up the idea of another major work from him. But I think a writer has the right to determine what gets published and what goes into the waste basket. Isn't that half of the creative process?
posted by Phanx at 3:18 PM on January 19, 2008


Isn't that half of the creative process?

Oh, absolutely. But like the other half, you only get to do it while you're alive. So make use of your time on earth, creative people! Don't get lazy and leave it up to your heirs!
posted by languagehat at 5:07 PM on January 19, 2008


Kill it with fire.
posted by thatswherebatslive at 12:17 PM on January 20, 2008


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