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Thursday 14 February 2008

A Nod to Nabokov

So it has broken out again, the debate as to whether Nabokov's last book, The Original of Laura, should be destroyed in accordance with the author's dying wish, or preserved for posterity - which might make one wonder what rights this posterity has over the rights of a dying man.

But before we get into discussions of general principle, let us first be clear what we are talking about: we are talking about notes for a novel. Not a novel, but notes, notes written on fifty index cards. It seems this was his usual method, he would shuffle the notes around as part of his editing process, but a novel might take a couple of thousand cards, as indeed did Ada or Ardor. So, The Original of Laura was, to put it mildly, unfinished. Furthermore, it was his habit to write the middle of the novel last. This is taking us further and further from anything resembling a novel. The Original of Laura was complete in his head, but far from complete on the cards. It is no more complete in the document sitting in the Swiss bank vault, for that document was typed up from the cards. Posterity has no hope of getting Nabokov's last novel. It may indeed yet be given a novel spun out of Nabokov's notes by someone only too happy to climb on the current bandwagon and produce one of the novels that a deceased novelist didn't actually write, but it will not get Nabokov's last novel.

I feel strongly about this particular case, but as to the general question, might it not depend upon the state of mind of the author making his or her dying wish? (And is the case that Nabokov was hallucinating at the end? And was that when he made his dying wish? If so, that changes the argument mightily, I would have thought!)Famous precedents, on the other hand, can not make it right to ignore an author's dying wish - for example Kafka wanted his works destroyed,but his wishes were ignored, with the result that we became the beneficiaries of what I regard as a wrong act. That a thing has been done before does not make it right to do it again, but in the matter of the value to posterity of the notes,I do have one misgiving: suppose an artist left a sketch book filled with drawings for the magnum opus that was in his head to paint... would I feel differently about that? I think I might. I do believe that, unlike the notes for a novel, we would then be destroying something of inestimable value. Why are the two cases so different?I am not sure, it may have something to do with thinking that the sketches can stand alone as statements, whereas the notes cannot. Am I deceiving myself? Again, I don't know, but I shake off the misgiving with the thought that Nabokov is best known for Lolita, not his best work to my way of thinking, but better that than he be best remembered for a book he never wrote, which I suspect is beginning to happen.

One final point:- It has been claimed that a plot has been produced from the notes. If that is what posterity is to receive, I am not impressed. I am even more inclined to the belief, as I have written elsewhere, that literature is what remains when you disregard the plot.


Jim Murdoch said...

Considering how Nabokov wrote good luck to any author brave enough to try and sort his cards into a novel. You are right though, it would not be his novel just something with a Nabokovian flavour. I wouldn’t have any problems with an author attempting that because they would only be using notes and ideas and that would be a decent jumping off point for any author.

It is interesting though that we have covered the same topic again. I have a blog ready to go up which talks specifically about Kafka's dying wish and Larkin and Kipling too. I'll try and remember to post it next.

Conda Douglas said...

I've always hated the posthumous novel. IMHO, it never works. At best, such a novel is a faint reminder of what the author could have done, if he/she had lived long enough.

The only thing I despise more is the sequel or prequel to a work written long after the author is dead, the sequel to "Rebecca" for example, which title escapes me as none of the book was memorable.

Unknown said...

My parallel thread has to do with Keith Haring... a NYC graffiti artist of our generation (1958-1990) who died of aids.

These are my notes for a book that I am working on:

Kitchen structure at orphanage north of NYC that was going to be destroyed to make way for a new building and our unsuccessful attempts to get salvage rights and remove the art decorated walls intact. Plan was to lift off the walls, put them on a flatbed truck then send them off to storage until we could manage to get their value then put them up for auction… and that we would also install them. Our being told that the orphanage would get tracings installed in their new facility to replace the destroyed original work. Keith Haring Foundation more interested in control of the property than in survival of the authentic artifact. Every time a Haring disappears the value of all the others goes up. That is the reverse logic of an artist to want to spread their infamy, but it works well for the inheritors of the intellectual property rights. Irony: Keith's legacy is his work with disadvantaged children.

"The best thing I can do now for my career is die." --Ansel Adams, summer 1975

The Foundation as we saw it was primarily interested in keeping control of the work which has a lot to do with market value. We were working with someone as a team member that works with Sotheby’s & Christies and he had a fairly pragmatic view on what was happening. For us naive as to the workings of the art market it was an education.

Recently read a clipping in a magazine where a group of folks did grab onto a few Haring wall installations and sold them at auction for $4M. We could have easily got through w/ a quarter M each in the pocket. Problem was the walls were too large to simply abscond with. Somewhere I have pictures of the dozers as they turn the building into shards of scrap wood and dust.

The Lesbian & Gay Community Services Center in NYC has a bathroom that Haring did in black on white of black penises -- giant ones everywhere -- I was told it was worth more than the entire building. We did work there too. I used the facility.

Boys Club on Houston St., Manhattan, bought by new owners and torn down for low income housing, had a Haring mural that was not saved. Structural engineer firm w/ work with tried to get it saved. The building also had a chronic problem with the North wall of the swimming pool that it always leaked. So in many ways it was appropriate the building be demolished.

I do not remember the name of the company that built the building but the story that I do remember as I was told is that they quit their business, closed it down when after several decades of being in business they realized that they could no longer work in New York based solely on the strength of a hand shake. Either the contract climate had been different in the decades before the 80’s came along, or it was romantic nostalgia for a practice that never did work out very well and the company over time simply worked itself into oblivion but wanted to say something noble about their demise.

Anonymous said...

My view is that the question of the fate of such a manuscript is entirely in the hands of the person, or persons, whose fate it was charged with, in this case apparently Nabokovs's son (an previously his wife). And, secondly and MOST IMPORTANTLY, that whatever decision they make is theirs alone and must given the benefit of the doubt by the rest of us. It is a moral choice, in other words, and we don't know the factors involved. If we disagree, and think for instance that Max Brod acted immorally in saving Kafkas work, so be it. We can judge for ourselves, but to act like our opinions have anything to do with it is just another travesty.(One magazine actually offered a poll on this question.) It seems to me that for us on the outside to argue one way or the other is spurious, and in fact ghoulish.

Dave King said...

How do we do it? I was reading at breakfast that it is 10 years or so since a novel with love as its main story won a major prize. I have not checked that out, but it seems incredible. What a good subject for a post, I thought - and then remembered yours. Can't bring myself to do it, and anyway I have plenty else on. Thanks for your input. I did have Larkin and Kipling in my notes, though I didn't use them!

Conda. Yes, I actually don't mind novelists basing novels on novels - as long as they don't claim them to be some sort of extension to the former works.

Gabriel, I don't know if you are aware of it, but a wall attributed to Banksy, a cult graffiti artist over here,was recently sold for $390,000.

Lloyd, I totally agree. It is exactly that: a moral issue, and not an artistic one at all.

Unknown said...

dave: no not aware of that... I wld be the sort of person that wld be called upon to move the wall

As to Nabokov I had to think on it overnight to know quite what to say... my perspective on the Haring artwork began with one set of perceptions... that art has intrinsic value in the object... and ended with a sense of the market value of art in that the object itself can be secondary to value.

Notes for a book are just that, notes. If on my deathbed I was terribly intent on their destruction I would try not to leave it up to the temptation of others, or, in fact, though I may express that they be destroyed there is no way in which it may not have been a subliminal desire to entrust them to folks whom I would know full well may not honor my wish. In the case of Nabokov I have no clue.

When one is dead there is not much that can be said and it is up to the living to do as they will. So I don't have bad feelings towards Kafka's brother.

It would be curious to know what another writer would cook up from Nabokov's notes, but as to if it would have any substantive value beyond a curiosity it is difficult to judge. Literature occurs by often devious, twisted and underhanded routes.

As to the morality, or not, I find it difficult for me to place moral equivalence on that which has happened in the world, or may happen that I have no direct involvement with.

I am not too sure when I awaken in the morning to what degree I miss the lost library of Alexandria though I suppose it would be relatively easy to see the destruction of accumulated knowledge as an immoral act against the progress of humanity, or some such. But does it matter to my existence or is it a curiosity in a visceral consciousness of 'the world'?

As to sequels, I think the Ian Fleming progression where Kinglsey Amis wrote the next James Bond novel after Fleming originating it, and then so the book baton passed onto other authors in order to maintain a thread of the character as a brand identity is an interesting phenomena. I won't speak to if it is great literature or not, though James Bond as a character has become iconic with transition from novel to the movies.

Conda Douglas said...

I don't mind novels "inspired by" either Dave, it's the whole idea of "this book will be as good." Uh-huh.