Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Reading forbidden material

by Rachel

With the recent release of Vladimir Nabokov’s never-before-published and not-quite-finished novel, The Original of Laura, I thought it might be interesting to touch on the debate that was brought about because of its publication.

After having written the incredible Lolita, and some of my all-time favorite short stories, Nabokov was working on The Original of Laura at the time of his death, in 1977. With strict instructions for his yet-to-be-finished novel to be burned upon his death, the manuscript was not burned, but rather placed in his wife’s hands, and then, upon her death, passed on to his son, Dimitri.
A great article on the matter was written by Ron Rosenbaum for the New York Observer back in 2005, pleading for Dimitri Nabokov to allow the manuscript to either be published or gather dust, but to never let it burn. I suggest you read the article to see just how passionate some people are in the literary world--the poor guy is at the point of panic towards the end of his article. So, I’m gathering he’s pleased now that Nabokov’s unfinished, semi-unauthorized work has finally been released.

Message boards have been filled with comments regarding the publication, and the topic was touched upon in morning news shows as well as in blogs and newspaper columns. Rosenbaum stated that Nabokov’s son, Dimitri, had a "responsibility to the literary world” to publish the “last fragments of his father’s genius."

Many questions arise from this debate: Did Dimitri really have a responsibility to publish his father’s work, despite being told not to? In Leland de la Durantaye’s Boston Review article, "Last Wishes," he writes that Vladimir Nabokov’s wife had to stop her husband from burning a draft of Lolita. Lolita! Was his son, then, afraid of a possible new masterpiece being overlooked, never to be appreciated?

With all these thoughts filling my head, I tend to get a little philosophical and start to wonder about the ethics of the situation. It’s certainly sad to think that another masterpiece could have stayed locked up in a safety-deposit box forever, but was it ok to go against Nabokov’s final request?

How much say or ownership can an author really have upon their death? And, do you think it’s ok to go against an author’s wishes for the sake of art?


  1. I think it depends on how the author viewed most of his work.

    If he was one of those who never thought anything was "good enough" - then maybe it was perfectionism that led him to request it not be published ... and maybe it's a beautifully wrought piece of work - ready for the light of day.

    But what if it were a "shitty" first draft? Not perfected and polished. I'm not sure I'd want a "less than my best effort" included in the canonical record of my work.

    And God forbid someone post-passing comment on how it didn't stand up - and maybe the other works were "flukes".

  2. The problem in this case, I think, is that Nabokov was once asked in an interview if he would ever let critics / scholars have a look at his first drafts. He said never, and said it would be like offering up his sputum for examination.

    The Original of Laura is a very rough draft, and reads as such, egregious misspellings and all. I don't think Nabokov would have approved. But he's dead. And I, for one, and glad to have the chance to catch a glimpse of Nabokov's inner workings. It reveals him as human, for one thing, and not a Writing Deity as his superlative prose sometimes makes him appear to be.

  3. I'm actually not in favor of going against an author's last wishes, because I would not want someone to go against my own wishes like that. My first drafts are rough. Often, when revising, I find that some of my points didn't come through the way I intended, and I would not want the world to judge me off something that just came out wrong. I feel like my writing is mine until I choose to share it, and would resent someone else making that choice for me. It'd be even more so if a past work of mine had been considered genius. Perhaps the newest one would have been too if I'd had time to finish, but releasing it while sloppy just casts doubt on everything I've ever written.

  4. Somehow that made me think of Christopher Tolkien publishing everything and anything his father had ever scribbled down on a piece of paper.

  5. I thought of Tolkien's work too.

    I don't even let my husband read my first drafts.

  6. Well yes, I do think it's OK for someone to override a writer's instructions to destroy that writer's work after death. Apart from Nobokov, I think only one other example need be cited to illustrate the point: Franz Kafka.

    Mischa KK Bagley.

  7. I'd vote for honoring the author's wishes. As intriguing as it might be to look at unfinished works or those works the author calls "forbidden", I believe we have to follow the law on this one, if instructions are left. I know I'd want my wishes followed, so I make certain to have them written into my will!

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