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.
Turning to the text of Laura is disappointing, simply because there is very little of it. Penguin has padded out the 138 cards by reproducing facsimiles of Nabokov’s pencil script in perforated oblongs above a typed-out version (a note suggests you might punch out the cards and deal yourself a new novel). Two strands of the narrative are discernible. One describes Flora Lanskaya, the fetishised wife of the “enormously fat” writer Philip Wild, whose infidelities are endured as she is fuelling his novel, Laura. Hence she is the original of Laura: “Everything about her is blurry, even her name which seems to have been made expressly to have another one modelled upon it by a fantastically lucky artist,” says Wild. Born to a ballerina mother, abused by an Englishman named Hubert H. Hubert (sounds like Humbert Humbert, huh?), she it is whose “exquisite bone structure immediately slipped into a novel — became in fact the secret structure of that novel”. The novel-within-a-novel is referred to elsewhere as a “roman à clef with the clef lost forever”.
The second strand tracks Wild’s experimental suicide by means of mentally effacing himself, starting with, yes, his detested and painful toes. The process affords “the greatest ecstasy known to man” (Dying Is Fun is the book’s subtitle.) Just as we become involved in Wild’s mental experiments, the writing trails off.
So it is far from satisfying. And yet simply to study the raw text is fascinating: the notes to editor (“No comma”, “No quotes”); the sentences obliterated with thick pencil lines; the erasures like exhaust smoke as the rejected word makes a getaway. There are many mistakes. Sunday is written, in the French/Russian style, all lower-case, stomach is spelt “stomack”, bicycle “bycycle”.
But Nabokov does not suffer too badly from having been caught with his drawers down. Cherish the details, he told his students at Cornell University. Still, he can refer to a groped-for handbag as a “blind black puppy” or note that kind Hubert died of a stroke in a hotel lift: “Going up, one would like to surmise.”
Most interesting are the glimpses of the patterns, shades and motifs already in place in the part-built novel. The “secret structure” is there in repeated tropes of squatting, fans, digits, painting and buttocks.
Already the central devices of doubling and substitution configure and reconfigure in intriguing ways. There are many echoes of Lolita, too — in Flora’s discovery of Wild’s text, à la Charlotte Haze, in Flora’s girl antecedent, Aurora Lee, even in Wild and Humbert’s favoured choice of sexual position (the technical term is “the reverse cowgirl”).
A homosexual sub-theme plays with the idea of doubling. Wild likes to climax on Flora’s thigh: “This predilection might have been due to the unforgettable impact of my romps with schoolmates of different but erotically identical sexes.” Flora’s buttocks (“nature’s beastliest bluff”) have an “ambiguous irresistible charm”. Wild alludes to a childhood dream of cupping Aurora’s nates from behind, reaching under, discovering a “long scrotum” and a “short member” between her thighs. “I wish to add that this was no homosexual manifestation but a splendid example of terminal gynandrism,” he says: that is he and his fantasy being one. Her bottom is “a replica, in fact, of her twin brother’s charms, sampled rather brutally on my last night at boarding school”.
Laura may only amount to a few sketches by an old writer past his peak. Yet that secret structure is there, if you care to look.