The Original Of Laura (Dying Is Fun): A Novel In Fragments, by Vladimir Nabokov
Apparently the author of this book wanted the fragment destroyed but his wife and then his son were unwilling to destroy even a fragmentary masterpiece from the late and great Russian novelist, and so we have before us today a book that looks a lot larger than it is, which contains the index cards on which this novel fragment was written with certainly a great deal of editing to go, and with a fragmentary design that hints at the sort of novel it would have become under the hands of one of the most unusual and striking novelists of the 20th century. I think it is safe to say that it is definitely for the best that this fragment remains. While it is unlikely that anyone would feel confident enough to know where the author was going with this story, it is remarkable that as he was dying, Nabokov was still working his way through some of the characteristic concerns of his writing in looking at the complexity and multilayered nature of stories, unreliable narrators, concerns about the exploitation of children, as well as the life of generations of exiles in the midst of a decadent European culture. Even in fragmentary form there is much to enjoy here.
For the most part, this particular book consists of the reproductions of about 140 notecards upon which Nabokov had written the beginnings of what was likely to be a novel of the sort of complexity of Pale Fire or something like that. What we have are a variety of interrelated fragments that appear to be notes on the testing of the reader’s ability to work through interrelated perspectives on a couple of matters. For one, most of the notecards relate to the story of a young woman growing up in European exile, Flora, whose mother was less than morally excellent and who fended off an attempt at molestation from a much older man when she was thirteen that her mother encouraged her to submit herself to out of pity or something like that, and then discusses her various amours as well as friendships and a bad novel called “Laura” that was apparently written about her by one of her lovers. In addition to that there are other fragments that look at someone’s efforts at deliberate and very gradual self-destruction that the narrator finds rather satisfactory and enjoyable. The end result is a complex mixture of fragmentary notes as well as some research comments and efforts at constructing a novel that delves deeply into the life of footloose Europeans in exile.
It is perhaps besides the point to comment that Nabokov did not end up finding dying to be very much fun. Still, it is striking that like a few other great European writers (Jane Austen and Henrik Ibsen come to mind here) that the approach of death led him to write a novel that reflects upon death and dying in unexpected ways, calling forth the best of his remaining creative powers. While he likely did not want to keep around any fragments that he had been unable to complete and polish, this work stands as a fitting last example of Nabokov’s ability to create compelling and complex plots where the reader’s own moral worldview is demonstrated through the way that they react to certain characters. For example, it would take a bully to think poorly of the kind-hearted and rather tragic Pnin, but all too many people are bullies, sadly. While it is unclear what exactly Nabokov was going to get to, his reflections on exile, sexual exploitation and the youth, the problems of literary criticism, and death and dying made for rather heady materials that would have certainly borne fruit, and even as fragments they have a distinct and worthwhile charm about them.