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Page last updated at 16:38 GMT, Tuesday, 18 November 2008

Nabokov's final literary striptease

By Stephen Smith
Newsnight Culture Correspondent

In an exclusive interview, the son of novelist Vladimir Nabokov tells Newsnight why he is defying his father's wishes to posthumously publish the controversial writer's final novel.

Stephen Smith goes in search of Nabokov's lost novel

After the death of the notorious libertine Lord Byron, who was mad, bad and dangerous to know, his memoirs were thrown into the fire at the offices of his publishers John Murray in Edinburgh, in 1824.

The poet's literary executors decided to destroy Byron's journals in order to protect his reputation.

Byron's short but eventful life had taken him to Switzerland, among other places, and his Prisoner of Chillon was inspired by the brooding medieval castle of the same name on Lake Geneva.

A hundred and fifty years or so after Byron's death, another writer associated with sexual controversy passed away on the banks of the lake, posing a conundrum to his own executors.

He was Vladimir Nabokov, author of the brilliant but scandalous Lolita (1955), a blackly comic account of middle-aged Humbert Humbert's infatuation with a 12-year-old girl.

At the time of his death in 1977, Nabokov was working on another novel, said to deal with some of the same challenging if uncomfortable themes.

Last wish

The novelist Kingsley Amis, reviewing Lolita, had written mischievously, "Where's all the sex, then?"

My father told me what his most important books were. He named Laura as one of them. One doesn't name a book one intends to destroy.
Dmitri Nabokov

It was rumoured that "all the sex" was in this last book.

Nabokov made his wife Vera promise him on his deathbed that the manuscript would go the same way as Byron's diaries.

The book never appeared, and the world was entitled to think that it had read the entire corpus of the dazzling stylist.

But Vera Nabokov never fulfilled her husband's last wish. She agonised about what to do with the incomplete novel, while it gathered dust in the vaults of a Swiss bank.

She could not bring herself to commit the manuscript to the flames. On her own death, the burden passed to the Nabokovs' only child, Dmitri.

A man who has combined the careers of opera singer and racing driver, Dmitri was also a respected and assiduous translator and editor of his father's works.

But it seems he could no more resolve the dilemma of Nabokov's last book than could his mother.

Subject of speculation

Over the years, and particularly since the advent of the internet, the fate of the novel has been much debated by Nabokov readers and academics.

With something of his father's talent for creating a stir, Dmitri has given the impression that he was prepared to see the book disappear for good, only to leave others with a strong sense that publication was in the offing.

Vladimir Nabokov
Vladimir Nabokov's final, incomplete novel is to be published in 2009.

The affair of Nabokov's last book has become a kind of literary striptease, with tantalising glimpses of this sensation flitting into public view. Its title was said to be The Original of Laura.

A scholarly journal devoted to Nabokov studies ran a competition inviting readers to submit prose in the style of the author.

Of the five entries published by the magazine, two were said to be by Nabokov himself, unpublished fragments of Laura.

Its plot apparently concerns a portly academic called Philip Wild, and Flora, his much slimmer, "wildly promiscuous" wife.

Flora catches Wild's eye because of her resemblance to a young woman he had once been in love with. Wild is preoccupied by his own mortality, and resolves to obliterate himself from the toes upward, through the power of meditation.

Death, be it ever so unlikely, is a theme of the book, as it is in so much of Nabokov.

All the principal characters in Lolita are dead by the time Humbert tells his tale, Humbert included.

Some biographers have traced this fascination to the hapless end of Nabokov's own father, a Russian noblemen and politician, killed by a bullet meant for someone else with whom he happened to be sharing a platform at the time.

Finally, at the age of 73, Dmitri Nabokov has said that his father's last book will be spared the bonfire. Indeed, it will be published next year in what is likely to be the literary event of 2009.

Dmitri and Vladimir Nabokov
Dmitri Nabokov pictured with his father, Vladimir, in 1961.

Newsnight went to meet Dmitri at his house in Montreux, where he talked for the first time in a television interview about what led him at last to his decision.

"My father told me what his most important books were. He named Laura as one of them. One doesn't name a book one intends to destroy."

Of his father's last wish, Dmitri said: "He would have reacted in a sober and less dramatic way if he didn't see death staring him in the face. He certainly would not have wanted it destroyed. He would have finished it."

Dividing opinions

It's perfectly straightforward. Nabokov wanted it burnt, so burn it.
Tom Stoppard

With all due ceremony, a white-gloved attendant shimmered into Dmitri's sitting room, bearing the book from the vaults. It consisted of a grey wallet containing dozens of hand-written index cards.

It was Nabokov's practice, having conceived of a novel in his head, to plot it out on cards in longhand, before producing finished pages.

Because of Dmitri's unsleeping filial protectiveness, not to mention the terms of his publishing deal, we were not allowed to read the masterpiece through, let alone film it to anything like its full extent.

The book will be published unfinished, just as the master left it.

The literary world is in two minds about it.

John Banville, winner of the Booker prize, worries that it might compare unfavourably to Nabokov's greatest achievements. But he told us it is as fascinating and compelling as unpublished work by Joyce or Beckett would be.

Tom Stoppard says: "It's perfectly straightforward. Nabokov wanted it burnt, so burn it."

Scholars note that Nabokov had form in this area, once wishing to see a match applied to a novella of his called The Enchanter, ironically a kind of prequel to Lolita.

Perhaps it is true that his final work is even more scandalising than the earlier book, that it has "all the sex" in it.

The last of the veils hasn't quite slipped from Laura yet.


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