Nabokov’s Last Novel Almost Burned and Thoughts on Lost Books

It was one of those literary scandals that would seem trivial to many, but was a matter of earthshaking importance to the World of Letters. Dmitri Nabokov, son of Vladmir Nabokov (writer famous for the controversial novel Lolita), had been tasked with the decision whether or not to burn the manuscript of his father’s last unfinished novel, titled The Original of Laura.

As part of his last will and testament, the older Nabokov wanted his notes burned after his death. According to Dmitri, his father couldn’t take the idea that his most cherished work, “the most concentrated distillation of [his] creativity,” to see the light of day in its unfinished form.

The death sentence on those index cards has been hanging for a long time, kept in a vault of an undisclosed Swiss bank, since the writer’s death in 1977. Now in his seventies, Dmitri had recently hinted to the public that he wanted to honor his father’s request of actually burning the manuscript.

Cue drama here. Newspaper articles and blog posts erupted, eloquent pleas for him to cease and desist, along the lines of, “Oh no, this manuscript is an important piece of literature. Don’t burn it! Who cares about your dead father’s wishes? He’s dead, isn’t he? Think of Virgil (his Aeneid was reportedly meant to be burned as well)!”

There were, of course, people who disagreed and said, “Just burn the blasted thing! A writer is still a human being, famous or not, and his wishes should be respected. Shame on you, literary public. You people are no different from those vultures who scrounge tabloids for celebrity paparazzi shots.”

Writers as notable as Booker Prize-winner John Banville (don’t burn it!) and famous playwright Tom Stoppard (burn it!) weighed in on the issue. Of course, it would not be a good drama without a satisfying climax and recently, Dmitri mentioned that he wouldn’t be destroying Laura in the near future. Sighs of relief and ill-tempered grumblings circulated in the blogosphere. The question however, still remains: who truly owns a work of art?

When it comes to law, the answer is clear-cut. From the moment the pen is put on paper (or fingers on the keyboard as the case may be, in the digital age), copyright law protects the creators from any form of plagiarism, as well as giving author the right to demand payment if his characters, plot and concept is used by another party. In the Philippines, copyright lasts up to 50 years after the death or author, 70 years in the US and UK.

In the world of literary scholarship, however, the distinction is a little murky. William Shakespeare, for example, has long ceased to be only just the man who lived in Statford-upon-Avon in the 16th Century. With more than 600 years of theatrical interpretations, publications, research and discussion, he has evolved into a concept, a historical artifact– so valuable that even census documents and baptismal certificates of him and his family are considered priceless.

Vladimir Nabokov is arguably one of the most revolutionary writers that emerged in the 20th century. He is certainly one of the most controversial, as to the topics his novels continue to intrigue and enrage his readers. The mere mention of “Lolita” can send conservatives in throes of censorships and book burnings. His literary style is also one of the most unique. Understandable then, how his fans felt horror at the idea of destroying one of his works. Even if he himself wanted them burned.

This dilemma is nothing new. Franz Kafka, before his death, asked his friend to burn all of his notes. The friend’s disobedience allowed the world to see masterpieces like Metamorphosis and The Trial, works which are considered to be definitive of 20th Century European literature. If it wasn’t for Emily Dickinson’s family members who scoured through her belongings, one of America’s most famous female poets would have never garnered so much fame after her death.

The real conflict lies in the line between the author as person and his work. People who have argued for the execution of Vladimir Nabokov’s wishes assert that the writer is still a human being and should not be peddled as a commodity. His wishes should be held sacred, most of all by his family, on whom he has entrusted this task. Whatever the fate of the manuscript, it should be decided by them, and not by the public.

However it is the concept of the “perfect work” that is highly problematic. Nabokov wanted his notes burned because it has not attained its ideal form. But does it matter? This kind of thinking for me is, in all honesty, a little snobbish. If some of the writer’s work is “not perfect,” does it taint the other works? Does it lower a writer’s batting average, like some kind of baseball statistic?

If The Original of Laura ends up to be disappointing, it doesn’t mean that Nabokov’s other works are any less remarkable. I guess the digital age has spoiled me of this idea that publishing makes a work permanent. I no longer have any delusions of literary perfection. The worth of a writer’s body of work lies in the sum of his efforts, not merely in the most obvious products of his genius.

Writers have private lives, yes, but what they should realize is that in the books that they write, they inevitably reveal themselves, even if it’s but a glimpse. It may be a bit prying and vulture-like for people like me to want to take a peek, but it is one of the impossible quests of a reader to find out a little bit more, peer a little deeper. It satisfies a yearning that any human being who wants knowledge feels.

E.M. Forster, one of the most celebrated British writers of the 20th Century knew a thing or two about keeping his deepest thoughts private. Famous for works like A Passage to India and Howard’s End, he had also written, unknown to most of his contemporaries, Maurice a story about an Oxford student battling societal pressures because of his homosexuality. The moral dilemma of publishing the novel in his lifetime plagued him. It would have caused a massive scandal and would have undoubtedly “tainted” his other works. On the manuscript discovered after Forster’s death, his descendants found a handwritten note by him, “Publishable, but worth it?”

There are countless other factors in the world that can destroy or suppress a literary work. History has already done a pretty good job of destroying books, thanks to war, censorship and simple neglect, so why try to help out by deliberately incinerating one more?

(Written in June 2008)


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