Skip

Nabokov's unfinished final novel to be published
April 29, 2009 5:16 PM   Subscribe

The wait is over! Random House will publish Vladimir Nabokov's unfinished novel, The Original of Laura: (Dying Is Fun), on November 3, 2009, with "removable facsimiles of the index cards" on which the novel was written. As previously discussed on MetaFilter, Dmitri Nabokov's decision to publish the unfinished novel against his father's wishes has been controversial, but the BBC has already called it the "literary event of 2009".
posted by Houyhnhnm (58 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite

 
No good can come of it.

The decades of intense speculation will lead to whatever is in that book being a disappointment. Dmitri Nabokov will then be left to rue tarnishing his father's reputation and going directly against his personal wishes.

Having said that he may not care given that bitches will be all up on him and he'll be straight ballin swillin Cristal for breakfast on the proceeds.
posted by fire&wings at 5:35 PM on April 29, 2009 [2 favorites]


Ugh, I know it's not exactly the same circumstances, but I was mad about the publication of the fragments/unfinished poems of Elizabeth Bishop, and this decision gave me the same feeling of disgust. I guess it just makes me think of how depressing it is when public demand overrides the wishes of the artist.
posted by hellogoodbye at 5:35 PM on April 29, 2009


Dolla dolla bill, y'all.
posted by Joe Beese at 5:39 PM on April 29, 2009 [1 favorite]


...and yours is also not bad Mr. Rushdie.
posted by jimmythefish at 5:40 PM on April 29, 2009


Nabokov at his best was better than anyone. But he was *really* hit or miss, at least for me. And I can't imagine that, given his wishes, this book will be one of his better pieces of work. I'll probably pick this up if the reviews aren't scathing, but I reckon it's an unfortunate decision.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 5:40 PM on April 29, 2009


I understand those who'd prefer to see this remain unpublished, but at this point, Nabokov's status as an Important Author has risen to such a point that regardless of the quality of the work, it would probably be worth publishing for historical and scholarly value alone.
posted by mr_roboto at 5:42 PM on April 29, 2009 [4 favorites]


Nabokov was one of the great writers of the past century, so it will at the very least be interesting. I seriously doubt it will be anything more than a footnote to his career.
posted by languagehat at 5:44 PM on April 29, 2009


Franz Kafka died in 1924 with express wishes that his unpublished manuscripts be destroyed. That wish was not honored but now we have The Trial (1925) and The Castle (1926).
posted by stbalbach at 5:47 PM on April 29, 2009 [5 favorites]


I couldn't believe I was the only one who favorited this comment.

In reviewing the collection of Hemingway's letters that he had specifically ordered his executors not to publish, John Updike spoke of the "connivance" between Hemingway's widow and publisher that had resulted in it.

I like that word... "connivance".
posted by Joe Beese at 5:48 PM on April 29, 2009 [2 favorites]


Doing this (publishing a work against the wishes of a deceased author) isn't automatically wrong. When Kafka died, his will stated that he wanted all his unpublished works burned. His executor, Max Brod, published them instead.

Had Kafka's wishes been honored, we would have been deprived of "The Castle" and "The Trial". I personally believe that Brod did the right thing.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 5:48 PM on April 29, 2009 [2 favorites]


Nabokov was one of the great writers of the past century, so it will at the very least be interesting.

Publishing a collection of his shopping lists would be interesting. I wouldn't advocate it though.
posted by fire&wings at 5:50 PM on April 29, 2009


I'll definitely read it, even though I'm not expecting it to be mind-blowing, but you never know. I requested that a story I wrote in the third grade - "Han Solo and Duran Duran Fight the Skeksis" - be burned. My parents didn't honor my request. If they had, the movie Juno would have never been made.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 5:56 PM on April 29, 2009 [8 favorites]


I'm not sure how this is going to tarnish anyone's reputation. I mean, reading a bad book doesn't erase your appreciation for the good ones. (A good thing, too, or they'd have to put a goddamn warning label on Ada — what a train wreck!)

The completists will get a kick out of it, and everyone else will shrug and go on liking (Pale Fire|Lolita|Pnin|your favorite here) just as much.
posted by nebulawindphone at 5:59 PM on April 29, 2009 [1 favorite]


If you don't want people to see X after you die, then destroy X yourself. Otherwise, all bets are off because, oddly enough, you stop getting to have wishes when you're dead.

It doesn't much matter if this is a masterpiece or phlegmy backwash; great authors' papers are routinely at least made available to scholars through library collections if not published outright.
posted by FelliniBlank at 6:01 PM on April 29, 2009 [1 favorite]


Anyhow, as an heir, you're screwed either way -- look at how people wanted to burn Ted Hughes at the stake for destroying Sylvia Plath's last journals . . . although that was a whole 'nother can of worms altogether.
posted by FelliniBlank at 6:06 PM on April 29, 2009


I couldn't believe I was the only one who favorited this comment.
...

posted by Joe Beese at 5:48 PM on April 29 [+] [!]


You have company now. Excellent comment... except Ada could never be blonde.
posted by nímwunnan at 6:10 PM on April 29, 2009 [3 favorites]


I'm not sure how this is going to tarnish anyone's reputation. I mean, reading a bad book doesn't erase your appreciation for the good ones.

It's not about reputation in the eyes of readers, most of them will devour it blind. It's about critical reception and any re-evaluation thereafter - Lolita is only fifty-odd years old. That said I doubt Dmitri would be ploughing ahead with publication if there were any significant chance of it backfiring.

It doesn't much matter if this is a masterpiece or phlegmy backwash; great authors' papers are routinely at least made available to scholars through library collections if not published outright.

Not in this case though.

Anyhow, as an heir, you're screwed either way -- look at how people wanted to burn Ted Hughes at the stake for destroying Sylvia Plath's last journals . . . although that was a whole 'nother can of worms altogether.


That was specifically done to protect his children. Sadly the media and A.A. Alvarez got to the Plath story before he could put the plug in. His son hung himself last month.
posted by fire&wings at 6:13 PM on April 29, 2009


Wishes for what happens to your work is like wishes and statements about what to do with your body. What gets done becomes none of your business and, don't like it, do something about it.

As for the greatness of the book: we will know, read, judge it...till the time when the book is in our hands to read, it is something that is forthcoming.
posted by Postroad at 6:13 PM on April 29, 2009


In the future, some smart authors will have solved this by encrypting those troublesome manuscripts which they can neither bear to release nor destroy.

*scurries off to write a geeky Da Vinci Code-style sci-fi novel set two centuries in the future where a critical plot point revolves around decrypting an unpublished Charles Stross novel with an eerie, prescient redacted first chapter which hints at the manuscript's roman a clef nature and a chilling conspiracy between science fiction authors of that day and some big-eyed aliens*

"One day, I will find the key that will open They Came For Doctorow First."
posted by adipocere at 6:17 PM on April 29, 2009 [1 favorite]


From a link provided in the previous thread (linked above), Dmitri is quoted as saying:

"You know, my father left an unfinished novel at the time of his death, called 'The Original of Laura.' According to a note of his, he had written half before he died. He saw his own writing more or less as undeveloped film: images that still required to be recorded -- on paper, in this case. There was only one such project left at the time of his death, and he ordered it destroyed. Burned, incinerated, whatever. He didn't like unfinished things."

Now, I'm not a Nabokov scholar by any stretch, but this is like something from one of his novels playing out. An unreliable speaker describes an unreliable note from the very reliably unreliable author, ordering the half-completed project destroyed. Anybody see how this could be the author playing one last joke on his readers?
posted by Bixby23 at 6:23 PM on April 29, 2009 [2 favorites]


I don't see what the problem is. It's unfinished work, being advertised as such. In that context, it's fine. Probably excellent material for other writers to look at to see how ideas develop.
posted by empath at 6:30 PM on April 29, 2009


While I am excited to hear this, I can't necessarily say that I was waiting around for it either.
posted by mrmojoflying at 6:45 PM on April 29, 2009


"One day, I will find the key that will open They Came For Doctorow First."

However you ard doing it, stop reading my rough drafts for The Transmigration of Prime Intellect.
posted by localroger at 6:46 PM on April 29, 2009 [1 favorite]


Note to writers with strange complexes and who wish to demand postmortem manuscript destruction: invest in a shredder. It will work better than your buddy or your uncle or your son who promises he will destroy your soon-to-be-highly-lucrative documents.

I have a hard time believing that any intelligent writer doesn't already know this.
posted by koeselitz at 6:46 PM on April 29, 2009


Maybe Nabakov planned all this fuss about index cards and fathers and sons and authorship as his last novel.

Yeah. Think about it.
posted by No-sword at 6:49 PM on April 29, 2009


Damn you, Bixby. Epic non-preview fail.
posted by No-sword at 6:49 PM on April 29, 2009


This reminds me of my freelancing days when I worked at a rather mediocre Rodeo Drive art gallery (long closed) featuring the works of A. Renoir, who was blatantly ripping off the family name. When I asked my boss "How am I supposed to sell this shit!?" she answered quietly, "People know what they're getting."

So, people know what they're getting.
posted by aquafortis at 7:36 PM on April 29, 2009 [1 favorite]


If I die and people care I sm willing in the vacuum bask dumb in the shame of things better left unsaid. If people are curious, my memory is nothing next to that. Also if anyone wants to fuck my corpse. And my family doesn't mind or isn't there go to it. Grab a shovel. No one dead has a preference. People had preferences. Which might have been right or might have been wrong but stopped mattering when thoughts stopped happening. In my absence go bananas me no longer having a vote against it.
posted by I Foody at 8:51 PM on April 29, 2009


> I understand those who'd prefer to see this remain unpublished, but at this point,
> Nabokov's status as an Important Author has risen to such a point that regardless
> of the quality of the work, it would probably be worth publishing for historical and
> scholarly value alone.

Yeah, screw his dying wishes and all...
posted by Mephisto at 9:10 PM on April 29, 2009


Maybe Nabakov planned all this fuss about index cards and fathers and sons and authorship as his last novel.

I feel like if he had planned for this to be his last novel he wouldn't have written Pale Fire. The overlaps between the two plots are a bit too plentiful. It remains to be seen whether old Dmitri will footnote the heck out of this particular set of index cards.
posted by crinklebat at 9:11 PM on April 29, 2009


Oh man, fire&wings, hadn't seen that.
Still, it's "hanged". [Christ, I'm an asshole.]
Postroad, surely you've been looking next door....
posted by zoinks at 9:15 PM on April 29, 2009


This reminds me, I need to decide which of my friends is most trustworthy and likely to outlive me, and make him or her promise to come to my apartment and destroy my computer and certain other items in the event of my untimely demise.
posted by little e at 12:16 AM on April 30, 2009


Didn't we kind of know this was coming, what with Dmitri's publication of The Enchanter?
posted by trip and a half at 4:38 AM on April 30, 2009


Publishing a collection of his shopping lists would be interesting. I wouldn't advocate it though.

As I said in the previous thread, I thought it should be saved for scholarly research but not necessarily published.

Still, it's "hanged". [Christ, I'm an asshole.]

No, just ignorant. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage says:
Our evidence shows that hung for hanged is certainly not an error. ... The distinction between hanged and hung is not an especially useful one... It is, however, a simple one and certainly easy to remember. Therein lies its popularity. If you make a point of observing the distinction in your writing, you will not thereby become a better writer, but you will spare yourself the annoyance of being corrected for having done something that is not wrong.
Now, that's how you do classy snark, kiddies. Christ, I love the MWDEU.
posted by languagehat at 5:16 AM on April 30, 2009 [3 favorites]


Note to writers with strange complexes and who wish to demand postmortem manuscript destruction: invest in a shredder.

koeselitz,
I agree.
But the question becomes - why didn't you?
You - Famous Author - know full well postmortem publication has come to pass for others, so what is staying your trembling hand at the 11th hour?
posted by Jody Tresidder at 6:06 AM on April 30, 2009


Our evidence shows that hung for hanged is certainly not an error.

"Our evidence"? Snark, indeed!

(Broadway Trivia - Alan Jay Lerner kowtowed when taken to task for Why Can't the English?, his defense being the "taken out and hanged" did not scan.)

As to Nabokov, the worst thing about him is the many people he inspired to write. The cruel in me would love to have seen this thing published as "by Joe Wannabee" and then read the reviews.
posted by IndigoJones at 6:32 AM on April 30, 2009


being that...
posted by IndigoJones at 6:32 AM on April 30, 2009


Promises to the dead fascinate me, because I don't believe in any sort of life after death. To me, a dead person simply doesn't exist. The the promise is to no one. It's like promising Fred Flinstone that you'll never lie or cheat. Do you really have to keep a promise to an imaginary person? What's the point?

Yet I'd feel I was doing something wrong if I broke a promise to a dead friend. I suspect this is for four reasons:

1. Because he's not totally dead to me. The "person" structure was created in my brain when he was alive is still there, so it FEELS like I'm breaking a promise to a living person.

2. Because if I think of promises to dead people as having value, it means I'm thinking of dead people as people -- and so I'm fabricating a belief in the afterlife, which is comforting.

3. Because it's difficult to hold complex ethics in my head. It's simply easier to think "don't ever break a promise" than it is to think "in general don't break promises, but it's okay to break them if the person is dead."

4. Because it's "not done" to break promises, and I'd worry people would judge me for doing so.

Strangely, I feel better about breaking promises to long-dead people than to recently-deceased people. For instance, if I discovered an unknown book by Plato and knew he didn't want it published, it wouldn't bother me much to publish it. Maybe this is because a long-dead person is less of a person to me than someone who has just died (see point one, above). From a rational perspective, dead is dead, so this distinction is silly.

Though I'd feel a bit (irrationally) icky breaking a promise to a dead friend, I don't feel any anger or hurt about people breaking promises to me after I die. I've spent a lot longer thinking about my own mortality than anyone else's. I really believe -- gut believe -- that I will cease to exist after I die. Whereas I only intellectually believe that about other people.

In fact, I would never think to exact a promise from someone about anything after I'm dead. It seems pointless. It's too late after I'm dead.

I also suspect there's a stronger feeling about promises to dead artists than other sorts of dead people. We're used to relating to dead artists through their work, so it seems more like they're alive than it does with non-artists. If you think of someone as alive at all, it's going to feel wrong to break a promise to him, however irrational.
posted by grumblebee at 7:10 AM on April 30, 2009


"Our evidence"? Snark, indeed!

Yes, "Our evidence." Perhaps you're not aware that Merriam-Webster has been in the lexicography business for over a century and a half and has amassed an immense body of citations, on which they base their judgments of usage. Or perhaps you prefer the approach of so many "usage" guides, which is to pull judgments straight from the asses of the alleged experts.
posted by languagehat at 7:19 AM on April 30, 2009


I guess it just makes me think of how depressing it is when public demand overrides the wishes of the artist.

The artist is dead. No one can or should care about a corpse's feelings or desires, because there is nothing there to have feelings or desires. If a novelist or poet or essayist kicks the bucket, their estate/heirs/whatever should publish whatever they want, regardless of the artist's previous feelings on the matter. The destruction or concealment of a dead artist's work is of no good to anyone, least of all a decomposing corpse.
posted by Optimus Chyme at 7:33 AM on April 30, 2009


Rationally, I agree with you, OC, but I'm curious: if a close friend of yours was dying and he said, "Promise me that after I'm dead, you'll do X," how would you respond?

Would you say, "Sure, I'll do X," knowing full well that you'll break the promise if you feel like it? Wouldn't that make you feel weird? After all, at the time of the promise, you'd be lying to a living person.

Or would you be totally honest and tell your friend, "Look, I can promise you anything, but after you're dead, the promise will be meaningless, so I'll break it if I feel like it"?
posted by grumblebee at 7:41 AM on April 30, 2009


If a close friend of yours was dying and he said, "Promise me that after I'm dead, you'll do X," how would you respond?

Anyone who is my friend knows that I would like my funeral to be a certain way (open bar, no Jesus), but they also know that I know that I'll be dead and won't/can't care. Similarly, I know that they know that I don't really care for the wishes of the dead and that I'll make my best judgment based on what your variable X is. But then, I don't know any great artists who are about to die; if I did, I'd recommend to them that they have have someone else execute their will.
posted by Optimus Chyme at 8:01 AM on April 30, 2009


if a close friend of yours was dying and he said, "Promise me that after I'm dead, you'll do X," how would you respond?

Grumblebee,
One isn't mean to say this, but even literary people can be manipulative shits when they're dying. I remember this taboo subject coming up with reference to the great critic Ken Tynan and his treatment - at times - of his (now also late) wife, Kathleen. I think it was Gore Vidal who spoke candidly about several episodes he witnessed (he managed to invest these accounts with a kind of mordant wit & even affection!).
posted by Jody Tresidder at 8:17 AM on April 30, 2009


OC, you (maybe unintentionally) dodged my question. If your best friend is dying and he says, "Promise me you'll do X after I die," how do you respond? Do you say, "It doesn't make sense to make you a promise for something I'm supposed to do after you're dead."

Or do you promise and then feel free to break the promise once your friend has died?

If it's the latter, then you're lying to your friend while he's alive. Do you feel okay with that?
posted by grumblebee at 8:23 AM on April 30, 2009


I'm not sure why it's taboo to say that, Jody T. Literary people are people. Some are assholes.
posted by grumblebee at 8:23 AM on April 30, 2009


"It's like promising Fred Flinstone that you'll never lie or cheat."

He has an army ten million strong and growing.
posted by klangklangston at 8:51 AM on April 30, 2009


I think the difference arises with the quality. If any of my friends made me promise to burn their work after they died, I would ask "Why wait?"

You have company now. Excellent comment... except Ada could never be blonde.

I know, I know, but they act like the Veens.
posted by stavrogin at 8:58 AM on April 30, 2009


I'm not sure why it's taboo to say that, Jody T. Literary people are people. Some are assholes.

Too true, grumblebee!
I was just thinking how conventional death notices like to insist that 'all long illnesses are bravely borne'. (And many are, of course! -I find myself adding hastily...).
posted by Jody Tresidder at 9:04 AM on April 30, 2009


Grumblebee, your response to OC is a more eloquent version of what I would have said if I had checked this earlier. I also don't give a sh** what happens to me or my stuff after I die, but my opinion is that there are different standards for different situations.
For this situation, I did make my comment specific to artists, because, during their lifetime they choose what they want to be released to the world, and that choice is an artistic one.

Why is does unfinished work the author did not choose to have published need to be of any good to anyone? We don't force artists to produce during their lifetime (just like we don't force people to be organ donors, even though we'd really really like them to be) and though I don't believe any part of their dead corpse is a consciousness/soul/whatever looking into the living room shaking their fists at us; I think that we should accept their body of work as whatever they wanted it to be. If they were no clear instructions to destroy something, fine, let's take a look, but I'd rather leave it as a mystery if that's what they chose...
posted by hellogoodbye at 9:36 AM on April 30, 2009


I think that we should accept their body of work as whatever they wanted it to be.

Don't get me wrong, because I respect this (and share the feeling at times), but I think it raises lots of questions. For instance...

- Why?
- Why artists especially?

Focusing on the second question, I'd say that many people who don't label themselves as artists -- and aren't labeled that way by the public at large -- think of their work as communication. For instance, if I plant a vegetable garden, it may be very important to me that it only includes certain sorts of plants. It may deeply sadden me to think that, after I'm dead, someone might put "forbidden" plants in my garden. Is there any way in which I am different from an artist?

I am an "artist" by most peoples standards, but I'm deeply uncomfortable with that word. I think it puts in on a special -- but vague -- pedestal. I'm a modest guy, but I'm less uncomfortable with the specialness than with the vagueness. What is it that makes me an artist, besides the circular definition that I make art? I think I'm an artist because I make stuff that my culture deems art. If I made something else -- which would take just as much work and might be made just as lovingly -- I wouldn't be considered an artist.

For instance, I work just as hard on my computer code (day job) as I do on my art, and I care just as much that my code is beautiful. And my code IS a form of communication. Yet most people would say that my dying wishes about people not altering my code are less meaningful that my dying wishes that people not alter my "art".

Going back to your original statement, I'd assert that there are two fundamentally different ways of forming a relationship with art. Most arguments I've had over art stem from me and the other person having different ways of thinking about art (while assuming we're thinking about it in the same way).

- Art objects are complete in-and-of themselves. They may be more (or less) enjoyable if you put them in a cultural context, and they may be more (or less) enjoyable if you interpret them through the lens of the artist's biography, but they can definitely be enjoyed by a simple encounter between you and the object. You encounter the object and sensations are sparked in your brain or body.

VS.

- Art objects are sophisticated communications between the artist and you. A disembodied "I love you" is pretty meaningless, but an "I love you" said by a mother to her child is rife with meaning. Art is like this. It's one person telling something to another person (in a beautiful way). If you take the artist out of the equation, the art is meaningless.

Most people I know lean towards the latter relationship. I lean towards the former. The acid test is whether or not you feel something not-created-by-a-human (or sentient mind) can be art. Can a sunset be art? To me it can.

This distinction is meaningful to your statement, because there's something deeply wrong with messing with the context of a mother's "I love you." If mom says, "I love you" to her son, George, it's wrong for me to tell him, "That wasn't meant for you. It was meant for another kid."

On the other hand, if art is self-contained and unlinked from its creator, it's public property. It would be absurd to suggest I can't do anything I want with a photo I take of a sunset.

My view is that -- as an "artist" -- something is mine if I keep it to myself. But if I make art and publish it, it belongs to everyone. That's the decision I make when I publish. I'm making a decision to set something free. (I'm not talking about commercial or legal issues here.)
posted by grumblebee at 10:03 AM on April 30, 2009


*Sigh*, yup, I think all of that is valid, and, now that I think about it, what is ringing through my head is Claire's photography professor in Six Feet Under talking about the success of a work depending on an artist's intentions... so obviously I'm operating on the latter assumption. I understand the desire for full access to every bit and piece of the lives of interesting people, and I can think of even more justifications for it; I just don't fully agree with it.
Aaaand I'll stop here so that I don't encourage us to further discuss the definition of art/artists/public domain/etc....
posted by hellogoodbye at 10:58 AM on April 30, 2009


Yes, "Our evidence."

You misunderstand my tone, which was amusement rather than indignation.
posted by IndigoJones at 2:56 PM on April 30, 2009


Would you say, "Sure, I'll do X," knowing full well that you'll break the promise if you feel like it? Wouldn't that make you feel weird? After all, at the time of the promise, you'd be lying to a living person.

When you plug in different variables into the same equation, you often get different answers. "Will you feed my cat when I die" is very different from "will you destroy my unpublished works"? I can't answer your hypothetical such that it is consistent for all variables of X.
posted by Optimus Chyme at 3:04 PM on April 30, 2009


You misunderstand my tone, which was amusement rather than indignation.

Ah, sorry—insert boilerplate on difficulty of reading tone over the internet. But what exactly were you expressing amusement at? The mucus in my head is inhibiting my usual omniscience.
posted by languagehat at 3:13 PM on April 30, 2009


Understood. I picked up a no doubt unintentional flavor of Royal Our in the MW's statement, which in opposition to their anti-prescriptivist philosophy struck me as mildly amusing. "Our" evidence is by implication better than "your" evidence....

(I guess you had to be there.)
posted by IndigoJones at 3:43 PM on April 30, 2009


I guess I'm not expressing myself well, Optimus Chyme. Let's say your best friend is dying and says, "Please promise me you'll burn my manuscript after I die!"

Will you...

(a) Say, "Sure, no problem," and then not burn it (assuming you want to keep it). If so, will you feel at all guilty for having lied to your friend while he was alive?

or

(b) Say, "No, man, I'm not going to make that promise. I'm going to keep it.
posted by grumblebee at 7:15 PM on April 30, 2009


I think it's going to be interesting to see what final form of the "book" actually takes. The mention of facsimiles of the notecards tells me that this may be a simple publication of what there was, not any attempt to complete something which is incomplete.

It's a step better than what I've seen done to the Tolkien estate, imo.
posted by hippybear at 10:01 PM on April 30, 2009


Grumblebee: in that specific instance I would say "No, I won't do that for you. You need to either do the deed yourself or find someone else to do it when you kick the bucket."
posted by Optimus Chyme at 7:23 AM on May 1, 2009


« Older I See Your "The Watchmen," and I Raise You...   |   Chroma Circuit Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments



Post