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Burn, Baby, Burn: An Emotionally-Biased Reflection on Incinerating Nabokov's Last Manuscript

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Some people know themselves better than others. Vladimir Nabokov, in his writing if not in his life, was a man who knew exactly who he was. By creating word puzzles, inserting himself into his narratives, and possessing his characters with often bizarre and outrageous obsessions, Nabokov presented the world with a body of work that was defined by its intentions. His writing -- from well-known masterworks like Lolita to more obscure gems like Invitation to a Beheading and Pnin -- is characterized by a unique sense of control: over his characters, his language, and his readers.

For many people, Nabokov's literary iron fist is exactly what makes his writing so appealing. And for my part, it's also exactly why I believe that his final, unfinished manuscript should be destroyed.

Not that I don't hold with sentimentality: I collect useful and useless things with little discrimination, I litter my apartment with novels I've already read and choke my purses with beach glass, marbles, and Russian alka-seltzer. As such, when I first heard about the flurry of debate surrounding The Original of Laura -- as the manuscript is titled -- I was torn. Nabokov left explicit instructions with his wife, Vera, stating that if the novel remained unfinished at the time of his death it was to be burned. But here was one last echo of his voice. How could we avoid straining to hear?

For reasons of her own, Vera did not destroy the manuscript before her own death, leaving it in the hands of their son. And Dmitri Nabokov, up until recently, has been agonizing over what to do: follow his father's last wishes, or preserve a piece of his literary legacy. But now the deed is done however, the bells have tolled, and Dmitri has announced that he'll release the contents of some 185 Nabokovian note cards out into the wider world. He claims to have come to this decision after imagining his father "with a wry smile, in a calmer and happier moment, saying 'Well, you're in a real mess here -- go ahead and publish. Have some fun.'"

Now, far be it from me to claim that I know Nabokov better than his own son, let alone that I know anything about their personal relationship. But I can't help but think that this smacks of presumption -- if not on Dmitri's part, then on the part of all those who heartily embraced his resolution. An artist should, as long as they live, have the right to decide how their work will be presented to the public. Some might argue that Nabokov is in fact not alive, that he is, in fact, quite specifically dead. But he lived just long enough to make his wishes about this situation clear. And by ignoring them, by sending the unfinished Original of Laura blithely off to the presses, we are trusting our own judgment over his, prioritizing our own desires.

Tom Stoppard (who noted the knee-jerk associated of this scenario with Kafka's plea that his own work be destroyed) got it right when he said that we as human beings have a "completeness complex" -- people hungrily assume that they have a right to everything that has existed or could exist, that the burning of The Original of Laura is somehow tantamount to a personal denial. But looked at rationally, that's simply not so. By burning the manuscript, we aren't denying ourselves of a god-given opportunity to read one last Nabokov novel. Because that novel - by Nabokov's standards, it doesn't exist.

His is a body of work composed not just of words, but of choices, intentions, and fanatical jurisdiction. Whatever The Original of Laura could have been as a complete work, it will never become a finished product, no matter how many hands stroke its pages. Given this, I believe that the unfinished manuscript stands as a more beautiful contribution to Nabokov's oeuvre as an intact mystery than it would as the empty bones of a piece, passed from hand to hand, in perpetual limbo.

But of course, that's just me: you can decide for yourself on this one. However much power Nabokov exerted through his writing, he's also known for saying that only two of the characters he wrote ever earned his respect: Lolita, and Timofey Pavlovich Pnin. And they were the ones who shrugged off his dictates and his obsessions, ran out into the night, and escaped him.