The Original of Laura

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 1)

ph_0111201257-Nabokov.jpg Vladimir Nabokov. Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Vladimir Nabokov started working on The Original of Laura in 1974 under the title Dying Is Fun. Later, he titled it The Opposite of Laura. The final title, The Original of Laura, is found in the incomplete manuscript. While seriously ill in a Swiss hospital, he worked feverishly on the novel but was unable to finish it. Aware that he would not be able to complete the project before he died, Nabokov left to his wife, Véra Nabokov, the manuscript, written on index cards, along with a request that all his unfinished manuscripts be destroyed. She was reluctant to grant his wish, thinking that the writings of her husband, a great writer, should be preserved at least for scholars, if not for the general public. She left the decision to their only son, Dmitri. Upon her death, he too grappled for years with the dilemma of whether to burn the manuscript. He finally decided not to do it, and the novel has now been published after decades of gestation.

Any discussion of the first draft of The Original of Laura must be based in large part on its incompleteness. Many questions about the meaning of the plot, even in small details, remain unanswered. It is certain that the author would have elaborated on some of them in the course of finishing the book. The last index card contains only unconnected words: “efface,” “expunge,” “erase,” “delete,” “rub out”, “wipe out,” and “obliterate,” along with a crossed-out word. The list seems to indicate that Nabokov intended to make presumably significant changes in the manuscript.

To evaluate the novel as it stands, it is useful to follow the plot concerning the relationship between Philip Ward and his wife Flora, as much as it is possible to do so. A brilliant neurologist and scholar, Philip is very corpulent and homely looking. He hates his body to such a degree that he wishes he could get away from it. His young wife, Floraa good-looking, promiscuous flirtdoes not satisfy him as she does others. It seems that the main reason for Philip’s attraction to her is not sexual desire but rather that she resembles his former love, Aurora Led. Philip seems to be sexually impotent, for which reason he hates his body, beginning with his small, stinking feet (a possible allusion to the size of his penis).

Philip secretly writes a novel about his wife and the difficulties of their relationship. A painter by the name of Ravitch then suddenly sends him his own novel, My Laura, which makes clear reference to Philip’s wife. In the painter’s novel, Laura is destroyed. Philip is not hurt by this manuscript, as he is too consumed by hatred for his body. Rather, it only makes him wish more for death, but in an unusual way. When Philip dies of a heart attack, Nabokov does not dwell on the earthly nature of his death. Furthermore, he does not indicate whether Philip has succeeded in his desire to overcome death. Instead, he hints at philosophical frames for death, such as Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche’s theory of the will, the Buddhist philosophy of the “absorption into the supreme spirit,” and Brahma’s embrace of nirvana.

Several features in the manuscript reveal basic and established characteristics of Nabokov’s literary profile. Among these are his preoccupation with death, fondness for creating puzzles, and highly inventive use of rare or coined words. Philip’s strong desire is to end his life, not through a physical act of suicide but as a mental exercise. For him, death is not the end of it all, nor is it even a tragic experience for most people (the subtitle to the novel is still Dying Is Fun). He often expresses a strong hatred for his own body. I loathe my body, that trunkful of bowels, which I have to carry around, and everything connected with itthe wrong food, heartburn, constipation’s leaden load, or else indigestion with a first installment of hot filth pouring out of me in a public toilet three minutes before a punctual engagement.

Philip’s bodily hatred begins with his feet and moves first to his torso and then to his head. His “stinky”...

(The entire section is 1685 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 1)

Booklist 106, no. 1 (September 1, 2009): 26.

Library Journal 134, no. 15 (September 15, 2009): 51.

The New Republic 241, no. 1 (February 4, 2010): 30-35.

New York 42, no. 39 (November 23, 2009): 89-91.

The New York Review of Books 56, no. 20 (December 17, 2009): 16-20.

The New York Times, November 10, 2009, pp. C1-C2.

The New York Times, November 15, 2009, pp. 8-9.

The New York Times Book Review, November 15, 2009, p. 8.

Publishers Weekly 256, no. 31 (August 3, 2009): 1.

The Times Literary Supplement, December 4, 2009, p. 19-20.

The Wall Street Journal, November 13, 2009, p. A21.