two-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
44-Jan-Feb-2010
user_rating: 
0

A-The Original of LauraRussian novelist Vladimir Nabokov, who died in 1977, is considered one of the most influential writers of the 20th century. He is best known for his controversial novel, Lolita, which Modern Library ranks fourth on its list of "Top 100 Novels."

The Story: Vladimir Nabokov never intended for his final, unfinished manuscript to be published. His request that The Original of Laura be destroyed upon his death, however, went unheeded, first by his wife, and then by his son Dmitri, who finally agreed to its publication after decades of indecision. The manuscript was handwritten on 138 index cards, all of which are reproduced here, with perforations so readers can punch them out and rearrange them. The story features 24-year-old Flora, a licentious beauty married to a much older man. Her suicidal husband is the morbidly obese neurologist Philip Wild, who conducts experiments that will gradually erase his body parts and send him into oblivion.
Knopf. 278 pages. $35. ISBN: 9780307271891

New York Magazine 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Laura offers just enough of the familiar Nabokovian pleasures to be enjoyable as a straightforward read: style, invention, humor (‘I strongly object to the bipedal condition'), occasional sprays of archaic vocabulary (inguen, nates, hallux, omoplates, volupty). But its deepest pleasure is the one Nabokov wanted us never to have: a peek at the imperfect, ordering intelligence behind all of his finished products." Sam Anderson

New York Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"In many respects, the release of a rudimentary version of his last novel does a disservice to a writer who deeply cherished precision and was practiced in the art of revision. ... Yet, at the same time, these bits and pieces of Laura will beckon and beguile Nabokov fans, who will find many of the author's perennial themes and obsessions percolating through the story of Philip ... and his wildly promiscuous wife, Flora, who seems to have been the inspiration for a fictional character named Laura." Michiko Kakutani

NY Times Book Review 3 of 5 Stars
"In fact, it's simply fragments of a novel: the first five chapters, some taking up just a few cards, along with drafts and parts of other chapters, a random phrase or sentence here and there, and some notes. ... The Original of Laura has enough obscure indications to keep his most obsessive admirers arguing about where he was going, though too little conclusive evidence to detain anyone else for long." David Gates

Los Angeles Times 2 of 5 Stars
"The book ... is best treated as a curiosity for Nabokov fans. ... To be blunt: As a novel--even as the sketch of a novel, with operating instructions enclosed--The Original of Laura is largely an exercise in frustration." James Marcus

Wall Street Journal 1.5 of 5 Stars
"The first effect of reading The Original of Laura gives less pleasure than a certain squeamishness. ... The lineaments of a serious literary undertaking are obvious, too, but in only a few places can one discern even a hint of the technical brilliance, the penchant for parody, the irresistible flippancy that we would recognize as the work of the author of Lolita, Pale Fire and Ada." Alexander Theroux

Critical Summary

"A glorious mess," is how the New York Magazine critic described Nabokov's unfinished manuscript, which languished in a Swiss vault for three decades. It is a sentiment shared by the majority of reviewers, who acknowledged that while glimpses of the author's skill shine through in this rough draft, there is simply not enough material to review. Most questioned whether this book should have been published at all and were disturbed that Nabokov's specific wishes were disregarded. Overall, critics considered The Original of Laura more of a gift book for Nabokov fans interested in his editorial process than a serious piece of literature.