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BOOK REVIEW: Neither form nor function

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By Vladimir Nabokov

Edited By Dimitri Nabokov

Knopf, $35, 278 pages

Reviewed by Christian Bourge

Dmitri Nabokov has given the literary world a somewhat fascinating yet terribly troubling gift by surpassing his mother's defiance of Vladimir Nabokov's wish to have his last, unfinished novel burned after his death. The sketches of brilliance on display as a result of Nabokov's son's decision to publish the 138 index cards that make up his father's incomplete "The Original of Laura (Dying is fun)" will leave those well-versed in his prose wondering what it could have been.

The history of the narrative, which doesn't even rise to the level of short story in its incomplete form, is arguably more important than the writing itself. It is unsurprising that Vera Nabokov didn't abide by her husband's wishes and destroy the novel, which had been in the works for two years before his death in Switzerland in 1977. She went against his wishes earlier and did the world an invaluable service when she kept his "Lolita" manuscript out of the incinerator. In that case, her fortitude ensured the survival of one of the world's great novels.

But unlike the efforts she applied to "Lolita," Vera Nabokov never published this partial novel. The decision to do so over three decades later by Nabokov's 75-year-old son provides an experience akin to a disappointing childhood Christmas present that held the wonder and promise of infinite playtime joy only to turn out be a misbegotten wish.

The incomplete and increasingly rambling text shows some signs of technical brilliance. But the parody and word play that define Nabakov's sensibilities are rarely present within the somewhat abstract and ultimately simple plot.

Flora, the daughter of artistic parents, finds herself the principle character of a novel, "My Laura," scandalously laid out by a man who appears to be her former lover. It traces her life from an early forced sexual experience by a groping Hubert H. Hubert, who, in winking reference to Humbert Humbert of "Lolita," is her mother's lover. Once again, Nabokov explores the trails of his advanced age through his characters, including disease, his lifelong literary obsessions with youth and the female form as well as the indignities that come with getting older.

This all remains in an incredibly convoluted form. The rare flashes of the novelist's brilliance do tantalize, such as an introduction of Hubert that breathlessly outlines his basic character in two sentences: "Her glamorous lovers were now replaced by an elderly but still vigorous Englishman who sought abroad a refuge from taxes and a convenient place to conduct his not quite legal transactions in the traffic of wines. He was what used to be termed a charmeur."

But whatever promise the text holds is undone not only by its embryonic form but by the publisher's presentation. In what at first seems novel but turns out to be little more than gimmick, removable copies of index cards in the author's own hand are included on every page supplemented by the typewritten text below. The limited writing on each page breaks up the narrative in a frustrating manner that makes reading a chore at best.

Nabokov liked index cards for their portability, allowing him to write while being driven around by his wife. Providing versions to the reader ostensibly allows them to play Nabokov, rearranging his writing as he was known to do. But the very concept of having others rearrange his words would have surely disgusted the author.

As his son points out in the foreword, Nabokov once criticized "Don Quixote," despite its merits, as "crude" and "cruel." This manuscript comes riddled with crossed-out words and notes on possible additions that demonstrate the care with which Nabokov crafted every sentence and idea. However, making these revisions public is, in its way, no less cruel and crude. For a writer who toils to make every word flow precisely, the book in its current form is simply too ragged and raw.

Ultimately, "Laura" is little more than a guilty pleasure for the most dedicated Nabokov fan, a minimalist peek into his mind during the last two years of his life. One can't help but feel that the work should have never been published, particularly in this form. A master is a master because of the finished product.

Popular myth has long fueled competing views of artistic brilliance. The idea of a tormented writer slaving for perfection is balanced against the idea that genius flows like a fountain from a talented mind. Reality, arguably, lies somewhere in between for most. "Laura" provides the reader a view of the toil that must be overcome. It is a messy sight that might be best avoided.

Christian Bourge is a senior editorial writer for The Washington Times.

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