ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
And I'm Melissa Block.
It's been heralded as the most concentrated distillation of Vladimir Nabokov's creativity. Also a potentially totally radical book, very different from the rest of his oeuvre. The book is an unfinished, unpublished fragment of a novel that Nabokov was working on when he died in 1977. And both of those descriptions come from Nabokov's son Dmitri, one of only a couple of people who have ever seen the manuscript, titled "The Original of Laura."
Vladimir Nabokov wanted the incomplete manuscript destroyed after his death. And over the last 30 years Dmitri Nabokov has been deciding whether to honor his father's request, while many Nabokov readers have been salivating over the prospect that he would instead publish. Well, now Dmitri Nabokov says he has made up his mind that "Laura" will be published.
And Mr. Nabokov joins us from his home in Palm Beach, Florida to talk about his decision. And Mr. Nabokov, first of all, is this a final decision? Are you actually going to finally publish "Laura"?
Mr. DMITRI NABOKOV (Vladimir Nabokov's Son): Well, I've been vacillating not between destroying it and not. I wouldn't have wanted to go down in history as a literary arsonist. We're going to keep it alive, not destroy it, not burn it, not shred it. And my only vacillations in the long process of maturing for this novel has been for me how to preserve it, whether to salt it away in some repository where it would inevitably be eventually discovered and read, or whether to present this wonderful gift to the public now while I'm still alive and can perhaps direct operations.
BLOCK: And you've said you decided not to burn it, but in fact will it be presented to readers? Will it be published in book form?
Mr. NABOKOV: It will be published in original form. The principal section of the book already has been transformed into a transcript. And then there's a section that follows. My father wrote on index cards, as perhaps you know, and some of the cards will be transcribed and have in fact been transcribed, while others represent draft fragments, possible continuations. They will be printed exactly as my father penciled them, and included in the package.
BLOCK: Now, how many index cards did your father complete?
Mr. NABOKOV: There were 138 in all.
BLOCK: And 138 cards would come out to how many pages typed up?
Mr. NABOKOV: Well, I think that the total package will be maybe 100, give or take.
BLOCK: And when do you figure this will come out?
Mr. NABOKOV: That's what everybody wants to know.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. NABOKOV: I wish I knew. One is subject to the laws and norms of the publishing industry, and one does not like to reveal too much until the final dotted line has been definitively inked by agents and publishers. So I'm forbidden, nor can I cite a date. I hope it will be fairly soon.
BLOCK: Did your father tell you directly as he was dying, burn this book?
Mr. NABOKOV: No. He told my mother. But she was a very faithful emissary.
BLOCK: Your mother?
Mr. NABOKOV: Yes, but she didn't - she was quite old. She was quite unwell and getting worse, unfortunately. And above all, she didn't have the courage - not the courage, perhaps the desire even to destroy such a beautiful thing. And as things happened, the problem was inherited by me.
BLOCK: Well, since your father had expressly said I do not want this book published, in fact I want it destroyed, how did you finally decide to say it will be published?
Mr. NABOKOV: My father was running the last yards of a 100-yard or 100-card dash to achieve this work before he died. It has been asked by people of limited perception, why didn't he do it ahead of time? Because he wanted to finish it, he was hoping to finish it. He certainly wouldn't have destroyed it or wanted it destroyed had he finished it. But he did not want unfinished bits trailing behind him after his death.
That was his only reason, and unfortunately he did not finish it, and until the last moment practically he was writing in his hospital bed. This task would have been horrendous and - that's why I put it off.
And I came to the very clear conclusion, imagining my father with a wry smile in a calmer and happier moment saying, well, you're in a real mess here; go ahead and publish, have some fun.
BLOCK: Have some fun.
Mr. NABOKOV: In fact, the provisional title for the novel was "Dying is Fun," which he later replaced simply by "The Original of Laura."
BLOCK: Well, what can you tell us, Mr. Nabokov, about what is in this book? What does it tell us? What's the story?
Mr. NABOKOV: Well, again, I'm not supposed to let cats out of the bag. Quite a few kittens have been running around already. It's basically the story of a brilliant neurologist who is hopelessly fat, tormented by his young wife, who is hopelessly promiscuous. This leads him on to the thought of suicide. And being a man of imagination and scientific talents, he thinks about a suicide, but a reversible suicide.
And he imagines himself progressively destroying his own body from the toes up. One must mention here that he had been having a great deal of trouble with inflammations of the toes and nails. And that I think influenced him somewhat. And this gradual destruction would - would eliminate his body part by part. But he could project this process on a hidden screen, which was the inside of his retina, and allow him in time to stop and reverse.
He wrote, in fact, if I may - this is the one little quote which I would like to bestow upon you. I'm not allowed to quote very much. He wrote: "A process of self-obliteration conducted by an effort of the will, pleasure bordering on almost unendurable ecstasy, for it was a work of pleasure and ecstasy performed in this manner."
BLOCK: Do you, when you read this manuscript, do you see elements of your father's other works in there? Do you see shades of "Lolita" or "Ada" or "Pale Fire" or anything else?
Mr. NABOKOV: Well, I have lived with "Laura" for quite a while, and she has been a capricious concubine. I'm sure she's glad, she's glad to have been permitted to live, and perhaps even to influence.
BLOCK: This concubine of yours, happy not to have been sent to the fire?
Mr. NABOKOV: Very happy, I think, and I think she will make a lot of people happy.
BLOCK: Do you think this book will change the way that we read Nabokov, or how we think of him as a writer?
Mr. NABOKOV: For me, possibly. Because, well, when I read my father, every book of his that I read, work on, translate, at that moment becomes my favorite, I might say. And they form a kind of artistic palimpsest in the mind. Each new book gives new angles, arouses new concepts and new interpretations, even in the previous ones.
BLOCK: Well, Dmitri Nabokov, thanks for sharing a glimmer of what is in "The Original of Laura" with us, and for talking to us today.
Mr. NABOKOV: My pleasure.
BLOCK: Dmitri Nabokov talking with us from Palm Beach about his decision to go ahead and publish his father's book "The Original of Laura" which he has described as both a spellbinding thing and a terrible thorn. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
Russian novelist Vladimir Nabokov was racing to finish his last novel Laura before he died. When it became clear he wouldn't finish in time, he instructed his heirs to burn the manuscript. Thirty years later, Nabokov's son Dmitri explains why he has decided to publish the unfinished work.
Nabokov Novel to Be Published, Against Dying Wish
Vladimir Nabokov Credit: Keystone/Getty Images
Russian writer Vladimir Nabokov working in Rome on the screenplay of Lolita.
Vladimir Nabokov's final work — an unfinished manuscript scholars call The Original of Laura — was meant to be destroyed 30 years ago. When Nabokov died in 1977, he left instructions for his heirs to burn the 138 handwritten index cards that made up the rough draft.
But Nabokov's wife, Vera, couldn't bear to destroy her husband's last work, and when she died, the fate of the manuscript fell to her son. Dmitri Nabokov, now 73, is the Russian novelist's only surviving heir. He says he inherited the problem of whether to honor his father's wishes or save the literary master's last written words for posterity.
Dmitri, who translated many of his father's novels and short stories, says he never planned to destroy the manuscript — "I wouldn't have wanted to go down in history as a literary arsonist," he says — the question was really how to preserve it.
Dmitri says he could have stored it away, where it would have inevitably been discovered, or he could publish it now and "present this wonderful gift to the public" while he is still alive.
"My father was running the last yards of a 100-yard — or 100-card — dash to achieve this work before he died..." Nabokov says. "Until the last moments, practically, he was writing in his hospital bed."
Dmitri says the only reason that his father did not want the manuscript published was because it was not quite complete. "He did not want unfinished bits trailing behind him after his death," Nabokov recalls.
But after 30 years of grappling with the decision, Nabokov has announced his plans to publish the novel.
"I came to the very clear conclusion," Nabokov says, "imagining my father, with a wry smile, in a calmer and happier moment, saying, 'Well you're in a real mess here — go ahead and publish. Have some fun.'"