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The Original of Laura

Vladimir Nabokov’s last unfinished manuscript feels like a generous gift to readers.

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When Vladimir Nabokov died in Switzerland in 1977, he left explicit instructions for his heirs to destroy the penciled index cards that made up his work to date on his unfinished 18th novel, The Original of Laura (Dying is Fun). Véra, his loyal wife and amanuensis, who died in 1991, couldn’t bring herself to do it. And, fortunately, after much debate, neither could their son, Dmitri.

Of course, it’s one thing not to burn the partial draft, and another to publish it. But, although Nabokov may be squirming in his grave, Nabokov fans and scholars have reason to thank Dmitri for his brave parental defiance in publishing this invaluable glimpse into the way his brilliant father worked.

All too often, publications of half-cooked literary fragments are not just disappointing in literary terms, but seem motivated as much by greed as by the heirs’ desire to keep their famous forebear alive in print. But whatever one thinks of Nabokov’s emphatically unfinished book – and we’ll get to that – it certainly hasn’t been rushed into print in an unseemly fashion. Thirty-two years after Nabokov’s death at 78, its publication feels more like a generous gift to readers than a ploy for fame or fortune.

This is in great part due to the dazzlingly clever presentation of the material. By reproducing facsimiles of Nabokov’s 138 penciled index cards at the top of each page and printing typeset transcriptions with minimal editorial changes and notes below, Chip Kidd, associate art director at Knopf, has designed a format that reminds us forcefully, in graphic terms, that “The Original of Laura” is a work in progress and not an ordinary manuscript.
The photographed cards are perforated, to encourage us to stack and shuffle them – as Nabokov apparently did – into an order that might make more sense. Nabokov’s neat handwriting is punctuated by eraser smudges, inserted phrases, and emphatically crossed-out or scribbled-over words.

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