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Nabokov's unfinished work is published

Alexander Kan
BBC Russian Service

Russian writer Vladimir Nabokov
Nabokov wanted his unfinished book to be destroyed

When the famous Russian writer Vladimir Nabokov died in 1977, he made it clear in his will that a manuscript he was working on should not be published.

In fact he instructed his wife Vera to burn the unfinished work.

Vera didn't destroy the work or publish it.

It was kept safely locked away in the vaults of a bank in Switzerland.

Nothing had changed by the time she died in 1991.

Now, more than 30 years after his death, Nabokov's son Dmitri has sparked controversy by agreeing to have his father's unfinished last novel The Original of Laura published.

In his foreword to the novel Dmitri writes that "Nabokov did not desire to burn the book".

It's an incredibly difficult choice
Dmitri Nabokov
Vladimir Nabokov's son

He makes an analogy with Franz Kafka who "had deliberately charged Max Brod with the destruction of published and unpublished pieces, knowing full well that Brod could never bring himself to carry out the task".

In an interview, Dmitri says he found the decision agonising and as late as last year he was leaning towards burning The Original of Laura.

Dmitri's dilemma

"There are moments when I think I should observe my father's will, and no matter how much of a loss it would be for the world my duty is to destroy the book," he said.

"But then I think that if it happens nobody will ever have a chance to read it. It's an incredibly difficult choice," he explains.

In the preface to the book he even coined a generic term for the predicament he was left with after his mother's death - "Dmitri's dilemma".

In his youth, Dmitri became known as a bit of a playboy with two equal passions: opera singing and racing cars.

But lately he has devoted himself almost exclusively to translating, editing and publishing his father's works.

Some extracts of the work have already been published in the Sunday Times magazine in the UK and Playboy Magazine, to which Vladimir Nabokov was a contributor.

AP
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The writer shot to fame with his book Lolita, which was published in 1955 and became an international bestseller.

But the last years of his life were marked by physical and intellectual weakness.

His biographer, Brian Boyd, describes how during his illness, Nabokov for the first time ever lost three games of Scrabble to his sister.

They had played the game since early childhood and Nabokov had always been the winner.

Nevertheless, almost to the last day he continued to write and left behind 138 index cards - his preferred method of writing - with scribbled notes for a novel The Original of Laura.

Why now?

So what was it that made Dmitri defy his father's expressed wish?

"It was prompted by the fact that he had turned 75," says Tatiana Ponomareva, the director of the Nabokov Museum in St Petersburg.

She is one of several Nabokov scholars who successfully convinced Dmitri to publish the manuscript.

"He realised that his age relentlessly forced him to make a decision - after his death there would be no-one who could legitimately do that," she explains.

Each page of the hefty Penguin edition reproduces one of the 138 cards that Nabokov scribbled on - along with the typed text underneath.

The cards can be rearranged and shuffled around in much the same away that the author did.

The story is fragmentary and centres around Dr Philip Wilde, an ageing professor used to suffering humiliation at the hands of his wife - the young, slender, and rudely promiscuous Flora.

The novelist Martin Amis, in his review of the book in the British newspaper the Guardian, described the Original of Laura as "a longish short story struggling to become a novella".

Business

Some people have welcomed Dmitri's decision. But others believe he should have respected his father's wish.

One of them is the American writer Aleksander Hemon. Writing on the influential Slate website he makes his position clear with the headline, "Hands Off Nabokov. Why The Original of Laura should have never become a book."

But that hasn't stopped Christie's in New York from announcing that all 138 cards with Nabokov's manuscript of The Original of Laura will be auctioned on December 4 at an estimated $400,000-$600,000 (£240,000-£360,000).

Next year Penguin also plan to publish a collection of poems by Nabokov which have not been seen before in the English language.

In 2011, they also intend to release further unseen works in the shape of an exchange of letters between Nabokov and his wife.



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