Speak, Nabokov

German literary critic Michael Maar received international attention a few years back for his book The Two Lolitas, which presented his discovery of a 1917 German story titled “Lolita” that had striking parallels to its successor. In Maar’s latest book, Speak, Nabokov, forthcoming from Verso, he takes a wide-ranging approach to Vladimir Nabokov’s genius, tracing hidden themes that run through the author’s oeuvre so as to illuminate his life. Maar describes Nabokov’s work as “a forest in which it is easy to lose oneself and see nothing but the trees.” He vows at the outset that his study will not share other scholars’ reluctance “to take into account the person whose soul and imagination are crystallized in the art. The trees, their bark, and the bugs crawling beneath them shall not escape its attention—but above all it will not lose sight of the whole dark forest.” By navigating the tricks, booby traps, clues, riddles and red herrings with which Nabokov rigged his writing, Maar seeks to get behind the mask of Nabokov’s magisterial public persona and reveal the “true Nabokov.” Paradoxically, the study is more philological than biographical, because the true Nabokov, Maar asserts, “is to be found in his work, in which his inner self radiates in all directions.” The “inner Nabokov” is prismatic, refracted into a thousand fictions. The portrait that emerges from Maar’s exploration of Nabokov’s themes and preoccupations and their indissoluble links to pivotal experiences of his life shows us a darker, more metaphysical, and even mystical, more vulnerable, haunted, and ambivalent man than “the shaman who holds his contemporary world and posterity under his spell.”

The English version of Speak, Nabokov includes a new chapter on Nabokov’s last, unfinished manuscript, The Original of Laura. On the eve of Laura’scontroversial posthumous publication, the chapter is reprinted here in somewhat modified form.

Playboy supposedly paid the highest advance in its history for the right to serialize the work. The offer was made sight unseen. One would rather not imagine the long faces when Laura finally lays bare her scant charms.

For thirty years there were whispers about Laura. The manuscript that the dying author in 1977 told his family to destroy was not the Holy Grail, but the final king’s chamber in the pyramid of an oeuvre that rises stunningly from the literature of the twentieth century. After decades of hesitation, Nabokov’s son Dmitri is about to present the opus posthumum to the public: not a novel, but 138 hand-written, often fragmentary index cards, which form perhaps a third of what can be described at most as the adumbration of a novel.

The son’s hesitation was only too understandable: Nabokov’s last will actually left no room for interpretation. The writer was prudish in matters of unfinished manuscripts and didn’t want to give people a peek into his workshop. On the other hand: What about his famous predecessors from Virgil to Kafka, whose testamentary instructions were likewise disobeyed, to the benefit of posterity? And hadn’t Nabokov once attempted to incinerate Lolita itself, only to be thwarted by his wife? Perhaps in the case of Laura, too, Nabokov would have reconsidered his decision, which might have been made in a similar moment of weakness? And yet: Could one disregard his express wish, in a sense wresting from his hands something unfinished to which he clung?

Difficult questions. Ultimately, Nabokov’s wife Véra, who died in 1991, and his only son and heir could not bring themselves to comply with Vladimir’s demand and consign TOOL (his acronym for his last work) to the flames—though Dmitri threatened to do so for a while and seemed already to have wielded the match. The reasons he has invoked since for his unexpected change of heart are legion and somewhat conflicting. If nothing else, the argument that, by Dmitri’s own account, his smiling father made in an imaginary spectral conversation probably convinced him: “Well, why don’t you mix the useful with the pleasurable? That is, say or do what you like but why not make some money on the damn thing?”

Though it has presumably met expectations in that regard, from an artistic perspective The Original of Laura is disappointing—all the more so as the hints Dmitri dropped about the new aesthetic summit his father had supposedly reached were so rhapsodic as to make the mouths of Nabokovians water.

What is it about? The sexual life of the protagonist, Dr. Philip Wild, is “virtually over,” and now only death awaits the sick old man. Thanatos has defeated Eros, and the loser has one last, desperate chance: to beguile the victor. The book’s subtitle is Dying is Fun, and half of the manuscript is devoted to Wild’s attempt to wangle one last pleasure from death. This half—or, to be precise, one of the two existing sixths—deals with the strange suicide technique of the unhappily married neurologist. The excessively corpulent, sensitive man attempts to think himself into nonexistence from the toes upward through meditation. “Suicide made a pleasure”—that’s the plan. In the trance that Wild strives to attain, sheer force of will is to triumph over the infirm body: “The process of dying by auto-dissolution afforded the greatest ecstasy known to man.”

No one knows what might have become of this somewhat Buddhistic thought experiment, but the little that is available to us is uncharacteristically dreary and colorless. Laura is a far cry from the dark metaphysical cosmos into which Nabokov’s great novels draw us. The sad truth is: dying is not fun. And to modify another of the master’s maxims: Detail is almost always welcome. All the expansive elaborations on old age in Laura—involving flatulence, constipation, diarrhea, foot odor and prostate tumors—strike a downright grim, masochistic note. Nabokov, who once described his life as “fresh bread with country butter and Alpine honey,” with Laura brings to mind Tolstoy’s comparison of life to a tartine de merde, which one is obliged to eat slowly.

Where Thanatos reigns and casts its shadow, Eros creeps into the cells of the language. Whether it’s a fountain that, “after an initial series of unevenly spaced spasms,” takes quite some time to get “correctly erected,” or a miniature chess set with little holes in the squares into which “the pin-sized pawns penetrated easily,” while the “slightly larger noblemen had to be forced in with an enervating joggle”—wherever possible, Nabokov imbues the world of objects with an erotic charge. As for the feminine world, the pre- or post-potent fantasies—as in the late work of Arno Schmidt and other old male authors—revolve around insatiable girls. That they’re girls and not women Laura makes crystal clear. On all fictional levels of this multilayered novel, the object of erotic desire has the face of a young girl: not only in Wild’s wistful memories of the time when Thanatos was not yet supreme (the other, livelier half of the manuscript), but also in the book within the book, a bestseller titled My Laura, for which Wild’s wife, Flora, is the model.

But Flora is not only the original of Laura; she’s also a direct descendant of Lolita. Flora is twelve when she’s fondled by her mother’s lover—a Mr. Hubert H. Hubert, who since Lolita has lost his m but is otherwise very much his old self. As in Lolita, Hubert Hubert abuses the mother’s trust to make advances to the daughter. As in Lolita, there is a love of his youth who dies at the age of twelve and fixates the man’s longing forever on fillettes: Hubert Hubert tells Flora about his daughter, who was the same age as she when he lost her in an accident. And Flora’s later husband himself falls in love with her only because she resembles an early, deceased love: not quite Annabel Leigh, the character in Lolita, but Aurora Lee.

It is the magic of this early age that Wild rediscovers in Flora and that binds him to her, even though she betrays him whenever she can. She may no longer be twelve, but he turns her back into a nymphet by subtraction: the cup-sized breasts of the twenty-four-year-old “seemed a dozen years younger than she.” Time and again when he praises her physical beauty he lets slip the age he truly desires. Her shoulder blades are “the mobile omoplates of a child being tubbed.” And when Wild describes the only position in which he can still sleep with Flora in his obesity, he chooses the following image: “holding her in front of him like a child being given a sleigh ride down a short slope by a kind stranger.”

There was certainly nothing like this in Lolita. Much that was only faintly hinted at becomes drastic and explicit in The Original of Laura. Even the hidden ambiguity of Lolita’s gender—Humbert’s nymphet often wears a “boy’s shirt,” he praises her boyish hips and “beautiful boy-knees” and tenderly calls her mon petit—gets treated much less subtly here in a wet dream of Wild’s: when he reaches between his beloved’s thighs from behind, a shocking surprise is waiting for him.

Sick and dying, Nabokov ruminates in his literary testament on the book that made him famous. Word has gotten around that a child-woman accompanied him as a theme all his life. From Laura we learn—he puts the sentence in a character’s mouth—that “”her exquisite bone structure immediately slipped into a novel—became in fact the secret structure of that novel.” What else could this be but the novel about the magic and melancholy of nymphets? During his long period of indecision, Dmitri gave as his main reason to burn Laura his concern about “Lolitology.” That he now scarcely has a chance of escaping it is the price for throwing his father’s last will to the winds. In The Original of Laura Nabokov writes, “There is, there was, only one girl in my life, an object of terror and tenderness . . . I say ‘girl’ and not woman, not wife or wench.” If Ada and Look at the Harlequins! already bore marks of a late work with relaxed self-censorship, in Laura the last remaining veils and inhibitions fall  away. The manuscript reveals an author who is grimly or solemnly determined to deal with his life’s themes one last time – which means retelling for the last time the story of the “one girl.”

For Nabokov’s admirers, the tomb needn’t have been opened. Laura could have slumbered for the rest of her days in the Swiss bank vault in which she had long been locked. What will remain of her once she has survived her appearance in Playboy? Much material for philologists and three or four pretty strokes with which Nabokov displays a flash of his old brilliance.

And then there’s the ending. It is a coincidence, but a poignant one, that this monumental literary oeuvre seems to negate itself with its very last word. Card no. 138 of The Original of Laura ends on an almost Beckettian note, after a string of annihilating verbs—”efface expunge erase delete rub out wipe out”—with the word “obliterate.”

Translated by Ross Benjamin

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