Monday, November 23, 2009

To read, or not to read

It was my second semester of graduate school, and it was Byron's autobiography. You know, the one that we've never read because it was burned. I was a student of literature, and was struck by the tragedy of it - a text, from one of the greats, that would never be read, never be studied. Somehow, the fact that the book had been written, and would never be seen, was worse than if it had never existed at all.

Fast forward to now, and the recent publication of the unfinished work by Nabokov, The Original of Laura. And somehow, this seems like almost as much of a tragedy.

The context is, as always, the clarity. I love Nabokov. I have absolutely no doubt in my mind that the quality of even his unfinished prose is better than the majority of finished prose that is published. But there is a difference between an elegant sentence, a graceful idea, and a finished novel. And whatever else the 138 handwritten index cards that make up The Original of Laura are, they are not a novel.

If I were reading them as a scholar, in the small cathedral of a rare book room, I would be wholly grateful to Nabokov's wife and son for not following his wishes and burning them. But if I were reading them as a scholar, I would not be evaluating them the way those index cards will now be evaluated, now that they have been given to the world in book form. The Original of Laura is not the story he wanted to tell us, and, as a writer, I don't know if I can read it.


  1. I feel the same way about similar unfinished or "lost" works. While I hate to hear of stories left unfinished by authors, I simply can't approve of the author's children or grandchildren "finishing" the author's work. Even if there were notecards plotting the ending, there is always room in the author's head for change or revision. That book will never and can never be what the author intended.

  2. We have large stacks of this at the bookstore. It's such a heavy and sedate, but stylish object... I agree with you about the content though. The story's not there yet. Only the empty coat hangers.

  3. If I understand correctly, no one has tried to "finish" this one, but rather the book consists of facsimiles of Nabokov's note cards.

    I think I've sort of come around to the conclusion that the most important thing is following the author's wishes. If there are a stack of notes, and she has said, "please burn them," then do. If that same stack of notes has been left with instructions that say the finishing of the story is more important than who finishes it, then find a collaborator, and publish.