Should We Burn Nabokov?

"The moon's an arrant thief,
And her pale fire she snatches from the sun"

Upon Vladimir Nabokov's death on July 2, 1977, there was never a question about what to do with his body. Nabokov died in Lausanne, Switzerland. His corpse was cremated in Vevey and buried in Clarens.

But there is a question about his final piece of work: is it mortal or immortal? The novel is called "The Original of Laura," and it was written on 50 notecards, which amounts to about 30 pages of manuscript writing according to Wikipedia. Nabokov stated repeatedly that he wanted any unfinished work burned at the time of his death. This makes it even more complicated for the literary community, and most of all for Nabokov's son, Dmitri.

Right now, it's sitting in a Swiss bank vault, guarded like only enormous sums of money usually are. But this particular vault may contain material that will be scorched and ruined instead of being preserved under lock and key.

With any writer, this would be a difficult matter to resolve: do we preserve the work for posterity and scholarly research, or should we preserve the author by preserving his or her wishes? But in consideration of Nabokov's literary career, the questions are even more taxing. Nabokov himself wrote one of the ultimate critic-critical novels in history, Pale Fire, in which poet John Shade is pursued and interpreted by Charles Kinbote, one of the most bizarre and terrifying characters in modern literature. Shade writes his magnum opus "Pale Fire" on index cards and then burns drafts outside his house as Kinbote watches. Who do we side with in this situation-- is the critic who wants to preserve Nabokov's work really similar to a Kinbote? I don't believe so, since executors of literary estates in the past have refused to burn the work they watch over. If they hadn't, a considerable amount of today's classic literature would be non-existent. Virgil requested the Aeneid be burned. One of Nabokov's heroes, Nikolai Gogol, burned the second part of Dead Souls himself.

But then there's the other hand. Although the few who have read the work say this is a revolutionary piece of literature, does that mean that critics should fight Nabokov's own desires as an author? If they follow that standard, then why do authors so carefully follow the edits in his own manuscripts without considering what he has to say about the work on the whole? If there is no authorial intent to publish, who is qualified to put out a book an author did not want released?

To complicate matters further, Nabokov is well-known to play games with his readers, even including chess puzzles in his final editions of books. What if this is all an elaborate ruse? What if he already knew our appetites were whetted for his next novel and, despite his protests, the editors would have their way and the writing would be released? What if he made the right bet? Worse, what if he made the wrong bet?

As of today, no decision has been made.

Posted by kevin on Mon, 10 Mar 2008 11:35:02 -0400 -- permanent link

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