- Shades of Laura: Vladimir Nabokov’s Last Novel ed. by Yuri Leving
Vladimir Nabokov’s last, unfinished, novel, The Original of Laura, was published by Knopf in the United States and Penguin in the United Kingdom in 2009 amid huge controversy. Nabokov had been working on the novel before his death in 1977 and had given instructions to his wife to destroy its embryonic fragments, but his wish was not fulfilled. His son, Dmitri, after repeatedly staging his ethical dilemmas in the media, finally decided to publish the novel. Given the text’s fragmentary nature and the fact that Nabokov’s final directives were disregarded, The Original of Laura stands out in Nabokov’s literary production as a highly polemical book. Moreover, it is a book that has prompted a rereading of Nabokov’s whole corpus of published works from its specific vantage [End Page 496] point. Yuri Leving’s edited volume does a wonderful job of capturing both the critical and the celebratory spirit in which the book was received by Nabokov scholars, and by the writers and reviewers who discussed the published edition. The volume as a whole does not take sides and does not emit a single unified opinion on the qualities of Laura as a text, or on its publication history, but rather aims to show the diversity of readings and reactions it provoked. It should be noted, however, that the very publication of Shades of Laura functions as an explicit acknowledgement that The Original of Laura is from now on part and parcel of the Nabokov canon.
The volume includes a useful chronology by Brian Boyd and Leving; a round table discussion (in which opinions sometimes diverge) among reputed Nabokov specialists about reception, marketing strategies, Nabokov’s posthumous legacy, and unpublished materials in the Nabokov archives, Nabokov in the digital age and so on; seven scholarly articles that offer in-depth discussions of various aspects of the novel; a number of contemporary reviews, some of which were authored by major writers (Martin Amis, John Banville, and Alexander Theroux); a discussion with Laura’s translators into Russian, Japanese, French, Italian, and Dutch; and an afterword by Boyd, an expanded version of a talk he gave on the eve of the novel’s publication.
The whole volume is scrupulously researched and covers a wide range of issues (literary, theoretical, ethical, and commercial) that are crucial for understanding the strange and troubled life of Nabokov’s final manuscript. What it clearly shows is that Laura, perhaps more than any other of Nabokov’s texts, invites extraliterary factors to come into play in any discussion of its literary qualities, which are not so easy to assess given the book’s unfinished, evanescent, transient nature. The status of the author (dead, but still present in his “strong opinions” and normative impositions on interpretation), financial and commercial considerations, the relationship between writer and heirs, and marketing strategies: all of these form a constellation of concerns in which the literary question of style in Laura is necessarily embedded.
I would like to single out two points made by Michael Wood and Boyd in their contributions to the volume. Wood stresses a particularly sensitive point when he argues that the comments Nabokov made about Laura show his awareness of “how fragile the bridge is that leads from thoughts to written words.” Wood’s observation goes along the lines of the argument in his book about “the magician’s doubts,” which reveals a less assured, extremely nuanced version of Nabokov. Boyd discusses his changing opinion about the fate of the manuscript, and his gratefulness that it was ultimately published. The list of his initial “dissatisfactions” with these fragments that seemed to “remain just that” is followed [End Page 497] by a discussion of why and how these dissatisfactions gave way, under lucid scrutiny, to a more balanced, appreciative reading. These two points illustrate the huge merit of Leving’s edited volume, which highlights precisely the nuances, hesitations, oscillations, and reappraisals that The Original of Laura...