The Origin of Laura: Many Notecards Short of a Load

Nabokov_pic  Before one can say anything about The Original of Laura (Dying Is Fun), the “latest” novel from Vladimir Nabokov, the question of whether or not the novel should have been published must be answered. So here is my position on the matter:

Either way is fine with me.

The Origin of Laura, like all of Nabokov’s novels, was written on ordinary 3×5 note cards, the kind you get at Staples. Nabokov wrote in pencil in a precisely wrought émigré’s handwriting. (That’s him above, filling out note cards in his car.) This method of writing, which has more in common with Research Paper Writing 101 than Keats’s pen that “gleaned my teaming brain,” nevertheless produced startling lines like “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul.” Nabokov shuffled a lot of note cards before he completed Lolita, among the best English-language novels of the mid-twentieth century. With Laura, however, he left only about 100 cards for his son to work with. The novel includes the note cards, which you can tear out and rearrange. It’s fun for a minute or two. Close examination of Nabokov’s cards teaches one that, in Nabokov’s previous novels, some sort of alchemy must have occurred between the note cards and the finished novel. Somehow The Origin of Laura is less than the sum of its 100 parts, even at the stylistic level.

By the way, playing with the note cards also teaches you never to write a novel on note cards. First of all, keeping track of all those cards is a pain in the ass. Second, to write in small perfect fragments is to be constantly worried that the totality will suddenly vanish.

Anyway, the thematic and formal underdevelopment of the novel can be seen in one line. A character named Nigel Dalling (also spelled “Delling” and “A.N.D.”) who is described as “a neurotic and hesitant man of letters, who destroys his mistress in the act of portraying her.” Not a bad sentence, but it lacks Nabokov’s trademark arch specificity. Even in expository sentences like this one Nabokov generally added a small stylistic flourish, like the amulet at the end of his Ws. The sentence also points to one of Nabokov’s tangled, metafictional plots–at the end of Pale Fire we’re left asking, did the poet invent the critic, or the critic invent the poet? This plot, it turns out, is a tall stack of note cards short of realization. We don’t ask questions; we just shrug. The characters, too, exist as bare outlines, little wooden soldiers Nabokov had carved and painted but had yet to deploy. 

Nabokov claimed that he could plot out an entire novel in his head before sharpening a single pencil. If that were in fact the case, perhaps The Origin of Laura might truly read like “a novel in fragments,” as the cover claims. Reading this incomplete work, however, is like listening to the novelist mutter to himself as he contemplates his butterfly collection.


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