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Thursday, January 17, 2008

If You Want Something Done Right…

posted by on January 17 at 11:57 AM

Before his death, Vladimir Nabokov unequivocally stated that he wanted his survivors to destroy his final manuscript, a book called The Original of Laura. His son, Dmitri, has wondered for decades whether he should actually destroy the book. Now Slate, which I’m honestly a little shocked to discover is still in business, wants to hold a forum to determine what happens to the book, because there’s a moral quandary and should the world be denied another work by Nabokov and blah blah and etc. I’ll repeat the first sentence of this post, with emphasis added:

Before his death, Vladimir Nabokov unequivocally stated that he wanted his survivors to destroy his final manuscript, a book called The Original of Laura.

In conclusion, Dmitri Nabokov is an idiot. That is all.

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Why didn't Nabokov do it himself then? Perhaps it is more complicated than this.

Posted by PJ | January 17, 2008 12:00 PM

It's a trap!

Posted by Mr. Poe | January 17, 2008 12:04 PM

I figure, if he has an issue with them not following his objectives, then he can sue them.

I mean seriously, the man is DEAD. If he wanted it destroyed he could have done so himself. He didn't, so the matter no longer concerns him.

Posted by Johnny | January 17, 2008 12:05 PM

Dmitri Nabokov isn't an idiot so much as he's the offspring of one of the 20th Century's most notable literary figures, who recognizes that an unpublished manuscript has some value; if not as a work of literature in-and-of itself, than at least as a possible source of income to him and his family.

Vladimir may have thought it a piece of drek, but a lot of people would still probably buy it anyway.

Posted by COMTE | January 17, 2008 12:10 PM

The lesson here is this... If you want something done after you die that badly then you'd better do it before you die.

Really, making someone else do it is just plain lazy, that's what that is.

Posted by monkey | January 17, 2008 12:19 PM

The lesson here is this... If you want something done that badly after you die then you'd better do it yourself before you die.

Really, making someone else do it is just plain lazy, that's what that is.

Posted by monkey | January 17, 2008 12:20 PM

Please ignore post #5 and go straight to #6.

Posted by monkey | January 17, 2008 12:21 PM

Maybe this is undiluted cynicism, but if I were a Great Writer Of My Time who was looking to be a Great Writer Of All Time, this would be a fantastic way to inspire cult interest after my death, thus ensuring that discussion of my work continued after I was gone. "What's in the final manuscript? Why did he want it destroyed? Should it be destroyed? Let's speculate what's in it! Let's publish twenty copies and sell them for a million dollars! Let's publish twenty million copies and sell them for seven dollars! Let's never let this issue die!"

Posted by Christin | January 17, 2008 12:34 PM

Good that Emily Dickinson's heirs did the same thing with her papers too, right?

Oh, wait...

Posted by bma | January 17, 2008 12:37 PM

@4: I highly doubt that Dmitri Nabokov is influenced by money in this decision: he's 73, is sure to have plenty of money, and has no heirs. I think it's a combination of enjoying the attention and honestly feeling torn about what to do.

This reminds me of the Kate Chopin story, "Her Letters." A wife has old letters from a lover that she can't bear to destroy herself, because they give her comfort. After his wife's death, her husband finds the bundle of letters, with a note attached saying that she trusts him to destroy them for her, unread. He follows her wishes, but wondering what was in them eventually destroys him.

Posted by Aislinn | January 17, 2008 12:43 PM

The idiot here seems to be Vladimir.

Posted by Sirkowski | January 17, 2008 12:46 PM

Re Chopin's letters: I'll take the sans-serif ones - you take the ones with Polish diacritical marks.

Posted by WHAT WOULD DOLORES HAZE SAY? | January 17, 2008 12:50 PM

Destroy the only copy of a work by one of the most famous authors of the last century? What a despicable idea. Had Vlad destroyed it himself when alive, I still would be appalled.

Posted by gfish | January 17, 2008 12:54 PM

oh the tortured artist boo-hoo. who's the worst judge of artwork? the artist.

release the fucking manuscript - how bad could it be? and if it is truly terrible, it will barely dent nabokov's reputation. does "ebony & ivory" diminish the accomplishment of "helter skelter"? ok, bad example...

kevin shields, take note.

Posted by max solomon | January 17, 2008 12:55 PM


Yeah. And Franz Kafka, too. He wanted everything burned after he died. In his case, though, I suspect he was, in some way, proving his thoughts on human nature, knowing they probably wouldn't be.

Posted by Nose Knows | January 17, 2008 1:00 PM

Nabokov was pretty famous for only wanting his final, perfect manuscripts to be published, if I recall. So, that would lead me to think don't publish it...

But, my opinion would also be influenced by why he didn't do it himself. If it was a work in progress and he physically wasn't able to destroy it before he died, that would suggest destroying it, but, if he had a chance to do so and didn't... maybe he didn't really want it done. Also, I wonder if it was a blanket instruction (i.e., destroy all unfinished works) or specific to this work.

My husband is an author and he has said that he wants his unpublished work destroyed if he dies... but, I'm not sure if he's really thought about it or just says it because it seems like a writerly thing to say. I can see how this would be a really difficult thing for the son to decide.

Posted by Julie | January 17, 2008 1:13 PM


Indeed, it is only because Kafka's friend Max Brom couldn't bring himself to destroy the books that we have many of Kafka's works today.

It's undoubtedly a tough decision, but I think it is possible to feel more of a duty to society in general than to a deceased friend or relative.

Posted by also | January 17, 2008 2:03 PM

So I'm writing a book, it's not done, it doesn't meet my own standards yet, I don't want it read until it does, I don't expect to die but I don't want anyone to read my imperfect incomplete work so I tell my heirs that if I don't publish it they can't and I die and they decide screw me I'm dead publish it. Wrong.

Posted by r., j | January 17, 2008 2:39 PM

If you rearrange the letters in the actual statement Nabokov made, can you make a sentence that says, "You better not destroy this manuscript, you mindless twits"?

Posted by bokie's bitch | January 17, 2008 4:56 PM

Oh, man, I knew that people were going to bring up Dickinson and Kafka. The difference is that Nabokov was a celebrated author who is known as a perfectionist.

The thing about really good novelists is that they're good not just because of what they put in their novels. What they leave out is just as important as what actually gets printed on the page.

For people to believe that they're somehow owed a new Nabokov novel, or that they're going to gain some sort of insight into how he works by studying a misfire of his, is ridiculous.

I can't think of a single posthumously-released novel by an established author that was worth a damn, and I guarantee that, as much as I love Nabokov, this novel will be utter shit. It's best to let it be.

Posted by Paul Constant | January 17, 2008 5:54 PM

@20. I rather liked C.S. Lewis's The Dark Tower, and that was post-humously released, unfinished. I think it was going to be a novella, though, not a novel.

That being said, destroying it is probably the thing to do, unless there's some other circumstances that we aren't aware of.

Posted by Julie | January 17, 2008 8:47 PM

Call me a sucker for preserving stuff even against explicit orders--like the Eiffel Tower in 1944, tapes of waterboarding, and the White House/DOJ emails. OK, I guess I'm an idiot, just like Dmitri. Must be that damn class I took in thermodynamics.

Posted by Mark at YVR | January 17, 2008 9:06 PM

Wikipedia says "...roughly half finished ..." "...about fifty hand-written index cards, equivalent to about thirty conventional paper manuscript pages." I'm not sure how 30 pages is a "half finished" novel, but undoubtedly it would lack the subtlety and nuance of, for example,

"Here is Virgil who could the nymphet sing in single tone, but probably preferred a lad's perineum" [Lolita; Vladimir Nabokov]
I mean just how much of that can you get on fifty index cards? It would probably be best to not publish it, but destroying it may be a bit much, since as others have said, he didn't bother to destroy it himself, perhaps the restricted collection of some university library would be a good place for it.

But who cares about 30 pages of an unfinished novel when Dmitri is still around (though he seems to have lost interest in blogspot, last post was about a year ago, but what is there is worth reading).
Maybe the Stranger could get him as a writer?

Posted by Epimetheus | January 18, 2008 1:11 AM

I know Dmitri and you sir are no Dimtri -- but, from all I read above, I must conclude you are an idiot!

Posted by CaneMan | January 18, 2008 7:00 AM

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