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Posthumous fragments: Vladimir Nabokov wanted his unfinished novel burned 

In Vladimir Nabokov's novel Pale Fire, an unfinished 999-line lyric by the American poet John Shade is published soon after his death by Charles Kinbote, Shade's fellow academic at Wordsmith College. Kinbote claims in his foreword that he, of all Shadeans, has the best interests of his hero at heart. Of course, he turns out to be the quintessential Nabokovian nut-job.

Nabokov was working on The Original of Laura when he died in a Swiss hotel in 1977. It was apparently complete in his head. His son, Dmitri, decided to publish it despite his father's wish to see it burned were he unable to put it all on paper. The parallels with Shade's poem are obvious, almost suspiciously so. Both "works" were written in pencil on a series of index cards, both fished from oblivion and both not ready for publication: Shade's Pale Fire is one line short of the intended 1,000, Laura really only just begun.

Playboy held exclusive rights to these posthumous fragments and wresting an early review copy from the publishers was tricky. Perhaps they imagined I would leak it to Razzle. Once I had laid hands on the book, however, it was tempting to see even the improbable involvement of the pornographic press as part of a Pale Fire-style meta-literary game. Dmitri's foreword justifying his decision to publish is part of the novel itself. This is, after all, how Nabokov senior taught us to read — and, to some extent, to view life — as "a game of intricate enchantment and deception".

Dmitri (opera singer, racing driver, mountaineer, translator) plays his role with a touch of Kinbote (dashing, pompous, sentimental). He notes the "theme of book-burning" that pursued his father — Lolita was saved from the flames only by Nabokov's wife, Vera — drops intriguing references to Vladimir's latter-day troubles with his toenails, finally saying he published the sketches of an author who famously only wanted his completed works as he was "a nice guy" and enough time had passed. You wonder why his father didn't write Dmitri into existence.

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