Monday, February 18, 2008

This Author's Not for Burning

A fascinating moral debate has erupted on the book pages of newspapers and on literary websites and it boils down to this - if an author tells their executor to burn their work after their death, should their word be honoured, even if the work in question is of great importance to their readership?

At the time of his death, Lolita author Vladimir Nabokov (left) had half completed a novel called The Original of Laura. Not wanting to leave unfinished work behind, he insisted that the manuscript was to be destroyed after his death. It has lain for 31 years in a bank vault in Switzerland.

Vladimir's son, Dmitri (right), wrote to Ron Rosenbaum, a literary columnist with the New York Observer some time in 2005, and told him that he intends to honour his promise to his father before he dies. (He's now 73, and in bad health.) Rosenbaum's recent piece in Slate blew the argument out into the open.

More recently he has appeared conflicted on the matter, and feels that Lara:
... would have been Father's most brilliant novel, the most concentrated distillation of his creativity ...
The Times reveals more about the manuscript and has given space to two opposing voices on the issue.

Irish author John Banville says "Save it!":
That Nabokov, before he died, did not destroy what he had written of his final novel is surely an indication that he wanted it to live; likewise, VĂ©ra Nabokov, the most vigilant keeper of the flame of her husband’s writings, let the fragment survive, so she too must have thought it worth preserving
British playwright Tom Stoppard says equally strongly "Burn it!" as he believes that the book would in no way represent the novel that Nabokov wanted to write:
It’s perfectly straightforward: Nabokov wanted it burnt, so burn it. There is no superior imperative. The argument about saving it for the “greater good” of the literary world is null, as far as I’m concerned. There are parallel universes, might-have-been worlds, full of lost works, and no doubt some of them would have been masterpieces. But our desire to possess them all is just a neurosis, a completeness complex, as though we must have everything that’s going and it’s a tragedy if we don’t. It’s nonsense, an impossible desire for absoluteness. At best, it’s natural curiosity – personally, I’d love to read Nabokov’s last work, but since he didn’t want me to read it, I won’t – and it’s hardly modest to make one’s own desire more important than his.
One strong argument against destroying the manuscript is that if the work of other writers has been published posthumously despite their wishes to the contrary.

How much poorer the literary world would be without the work of Kafka, whose plea to destroy his work after his death was ignored by his friend Max Brod. And Emily Dickinson had very little of her poetry published in her lifetime: she ordered her sister to burn the rest, though fortunately for us she didn't.

Another nice example (from the Sticks and Stones blog) is that of Virgil who:
... asked that his masterpiece, the Aeneid, possibly the finest work of extant Latin literature, be destroyed after his death; the Emperor Augustus himself stepped in to ensure that this did not happen - one of the few occasions on which we can be thankful for supreme autocratic power.
Nabokov himself intended to destroy an early draft of the novel that later became Lolita:
Once or twice I was on the point of burning the unfinished draft and had carried my Juanita Dark as far as the shadow of the leaning incinerator on the innocent lawn, when I was stopped by the thought that the ghost of the destroyed book would haunt my files for the rest of my life.
As maybe the ghost of Laura would continue to haunt us?

So what do you think? :

Just as an aside, I wonder why it is so much more emotive to talk about a manuscript being burned than say shredded?

Update (28/2/08) :

With the decision to burn or not burn The Original of Laura still hanging in the air, Dmitri Nabokov has a chat with the ghost of his dad according to a second article by Rosenbaum, published on the Slate website. Thanks to the Grouch for posting the link.

Update (23/4/08)

He's reached a decision, thanks to his father's intervention, Kate Connolly reports on the Guardian blog that he told German magazine :
I'm a loyal son and thought long and seriously about it, then my father appeared before me and said, with an ironic grin, 'You're stuck in a right old mess - just go ahead and publish!'


enar arshad said...

being burned is more dramatic than shredded tho' both are destructive

GUO SHAO-HUA said...

if my last wish was to have my work destroyed but people ignored my request, i would be pissed off, no matter what the outcome. think about it.

and Banville's argument is rubbish. people know when they going to die meh? "hey, i'm going to die in about 5 minutes. pls go burn my manuscript."


Glenda Larke said...

As an author, the idea that someone would want to publish some of the rubbish I have lying around the house in unfinished form is totally appalling to me.

I keep it, because I may want to mine some of it one day. Not in the expectation that one day it should be read by others.

This is Nabokov's work. It is up to him - even after death - to say what should happen to it. We have no rights to it. None.

animah said...

I say burn it - although I'm a Nabokov fan. It was his wish and we should respect it.

Anonymous said...

It's more emotive because fire has a long history of association with mankind. For a long time, people have around the fire, cooked around a fire, pretty much did everything in front of a fire.

Jordan said...

My cheeky side thinks the solution might be to photocopy the whole thing, then burn it.

But yeah, just burn it.

GUO SHAO-HUA said...

looks like i'm the dumbass. i went and clicked "No" in the poll, thus mistakenly adding to the call for the manuscript to be saved. sheesh.

bibliobibuli said...

a psychological slip revealing your inner kitten

Anonymous said...

Some people who voted yes seem not to have left comments, otherwise why would there be twice as many No votes as Yes votes?

Anyway: this will probably make some people angry but I don't think the living have any responsibility to "honour" the wishes of the dead, since I don't believe in an afterlife. Society's first responsibility is to the living. Therefore Tom Stoppard's argument:

"it’s hardly modest to make one’s own desire more important than his."

contains a logical fallacy as far as I'm concerned, because Nabokov's "desire" no longer exists, and therefore how can it be more or less important than anything?

Like Glenda, I would shudder to think of people finding my bad drafts, but this seems to be a different case. I think that if Nabokov's own son -- who ostensibly knows his father's work very well? -- feels that this book would've been his father's "most brilliant novel," then we should keep it. Yesyesyes Tom Stoppard, there are whole parallel universes full of lost works, but why add to that universe when we have a choice?!? To me the only thing that's in any way sacred is knowledge, and we should always be on the side of increasing knowledge, not destroying it.

-- Preeta

Anonymous said...

I meant, some people voted to KEEP the manuscript, as I did, seem not to have left comments.

-- PS

GUO SHAO-HUA said...


you may not realise it, but those thoughts of yours are very dangerous.

the person's dead, so what? i don't want to get into the political here. i'll just leave you with the above..

it has nothing to do with whether there's an afterlife. that's absolutely silly. when has principles and respect ever been about the afterlife? are you free to desecrate anything you wish just becos the person is DEAD?

Anonymous said...

How can anyone bring themselves to burn Nabokov's manuscript? It's sacrilegious. To say - it was his wish and we should respect it - is not enough. Nabokov the man, may have thought it was crap but Nabokov the genius deserves that his book be read, discussed, debated. The manuscript deserves that much respect too, I think.

Nabokov suffered from bi-polar disorder, didn't he, so the plea could have come when he was feeling really low.

Besides, to me, book burning brings forth images of barbarians burning books throughout history - out of fear and stupidity.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Guo --

I'll stand by what I said, which is that society's only responsibility is to the living. If keeping this manuscript -- or any other action that goes the wishes of the dead in any case -- would hurt those still living, I would say, don't do it. The reason I would not desecrate someone's grave or speak ill of the dead is because it hurts *the living* -- the bereaved families, those who loved the departed person. The idea of "respect" absolutely DOES have to do with the question of an afterlife! How can you "respect" something that simply isn't there?!?!? In my belief system, I can only respect the living. I don't believe the dead person is watching us and feeling hurt that his/her wishes were not respected. So I would follow those wishes only if the children/loved ones of the dead person *want* them followed.

In this case, that appears not to be true. Nabokov's son seems to want to keep the manuscript. It seems to me he would not be hurt if his father's wishes were not followed. Nabokov's own wishes are, at this point, irrelevant to me.

-- Preeta

GUO SHAO-HUA said...

no one lives the scope of a life and leave nothing at the end of it. people leave behind memories for others, deeds, values, etc. to say that everything ends at death is to not value your own existence as well.

your thoughts are as disturbing as the Mein Kampf.

i think you seriously need to watch Akira Kurosawa's Ikiru (To Live). then you'd wonder what people would be saying about you at your funeral. i've thought about it all the time after i'd seen the film.

animah said...


Why then bother to have wills? Might as well not respect the deceased and let his/her inheritors fight it out?

If Nabokov wanted it destroyed, we should respect that. It was his wish when he was alive.

Anonymous said...

Animah -- good point, but I think you answered your own question. People leave wills so their children don't fight it out and make their own lives miserable -- again, following a will is society's responsibility to the *living.* People feel responsible for those they leave behind, and that's as it should be.

Mr. Guo -- my thoughts as disturbing as Mein Kampf?!? For crying out loud, one expects that sort of exaggeration from teenagers, not grown men. Of course people leave behind memories for others, good deeds, and values. That's what *I* believe -- what you believe is that in addition to these things, people also leave behind an immortal soul which is somehow more important and/or more lasting than the memories, good deeds, etc. I believe that what a person "leaves behind" -- e.g. Nabokov's manuscript -- is hugely important because they're the only part of a human being that survives. I don't believe that people don't leave behind a soul with feelings of its own that need to be respected. I'll leave you with a quote from Ian McEwan that sums this up exactly right and better than I can:

"What I believe but cannot prove is that no part of my consciousness will survive my death. I exclude the fact that I will linger, fadingly, in the thoughts of others, or that aspects of my consciousness will survive in writing, or in the positioning of a planted tree or a dent in my old car. [This premise] divides the world crucially, and much damage has been done to thought as well as to persons, by those who are certain that there is a life, a better, more important life, elsewhere. That this span is brief, that consciousness is an accidental gift of blind processes, makes our existence all the more precious and our responsibilities for it all the more profound."

-- Preeta

Anonymous said...

Sorry, egregious typo, this sentence should read:

I don't believe that people leave behind a soul with feelings of its own that need to be respected.


GUO SHAO-HUA said...

"what you believe is that in addition to these things, people also leave behind an immortal soul which is somehow more important and/or more lasting than the memories, good deeds, etc."

if i'm a teenager, then you must be five years old for putting those words in my mouth. i had clearly stated this has nothing to do with the afterlife, but i guess that went completely past your five-year-old head.

bibliobibuli said...

oi! play nice. :-P

maybe nabokov senior is sitting on a cloud relieved that people are considering saving his manuscript after all. who's to know?

i agree with banville, let the academics take a look. if the stuff is rough then it has some academic value but maybe not much else. if it is wonderful then publication of it won't disgrace nabokov's memory.

i'm curious and i really hope it isn't burned

Anonymous said...

Mr. Guo -- I don't see how I can have a sane discussion with someone who compares me to Hitler because I think Nabokov's manuscript should be preserved. I don't think you're actually reading my comments. It seems to me Hitler's problem was that he had no respect for the *living,* which, I stress, I have in abundance. Also, correct me if I'm wrong, but I think Hitler rather leaned towards burning books, not preserving them.

I've seen almost all of Kurosawa's films, including the one you recommend, but thanks anyway for the recommendation. And though you insist that your argument, such as it is, has "nothing to do" with belief in an afterlife, you've been unable to substantiate your claim. You only keep insisting that it has "nothing to do" with an afterlife, but all the arguments you present implicitly revolve around the idea of an afterlife. Give me a reason to destroy Nabokov's manuscript that has *nothing* to do with the idea of him watching us and being hurt, and then I'll listen to you.

Let me quote one of your comments here:

"the person's dead, so what? i don't want to get into the political here. i'll just leave you with the above.."

I'm not at all sure what you mean, actually. You'll have to finish your thought for me. I'm not sure what Hitlerian crimes (or potential crimes) you're imputing to me with no justification whatsoever -- I don't think you understand anything I'm saying.

All things considered, I think that when you compare me to Hitler you *must* be thinking of my funny haircut, my pencil mustache, and my excessive flatulence. How do you KNOW these things about me, Mr. Guo, how do you KNOW these things when you've never even met me before?!? Admit it, Mr. Guo, is my dog in your employ? Are you paying my dog to spy on me?


bibliobibuli said...

oh goodness. maybe my cat is a mole too!

gnute said...

I voted not to burn it out of selfishness and curiosity.

thegrouch said...

hi sharon,

a follow up piece by Rosenbaum.

bibliobibuli said...

many thanks, grouch. the article and the radio programme it links to are fascinating.

screech said...

Looking forward to it.

bibliobibuli said...

yes. added this update to the post yesterday. very glad!!!