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, Véra 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 preservingBritish 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.
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!'