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The Original of Laura

The fate of Nabokov's last, unfinished novel has been a hot issue of late (yes well it's obligatory, all this to burn or not to burn folderol), sparked (OK I'll stop) by Ron Rosenbaum on Slate. My interest in The Original of Laura is in better understanding the methods of construction of a master craftsman, as one aspect of my larger interest in literature is in how things are made, and how this is integral to the final product (which then becomes foundational material for future construction, both for writers and readers; cf prior post); I have little interest in manufactured controversy. But in the particular case of Nabokov, a coincidence of interests have made the ephemera more attractive, as I've even built additions (well, lean-tos) on other incomplete work (the metaphor of the chess problem has some force as regards publishing draft material; the intended solution has to work [be sound] and be properly framed, put into context, made interesting). Rosenbaum's latest installment includes second-hand reports on what TOOL's all about (as well as a more interesting colloquium on its fate); these deserve more extensive quotation than he afforded {his extracts curliqued}:

"Brushing through 'veiled values and translucent undertones': Nabokov’s pictorial approach to women", Lara Delage-Toriel, Transatlantica 2006-1 (Apr 6 2006)

In his last unfinished, and supposedly testamentary, novel, The Original of Laura, this type of vertiginous mise en abyme becomes a ruling narrative principle. Like a Möbius strip or an Escher print, the manuscript’s involuted plot expands upon the ambivalence of the sign inscribed within its very title. The referential indetermination of “original” and “Laura” is indeed refracted by a complex matrioshka-type of narrative in which pictorial and literary representations appear to mirror each other and thus unhinge the classical foundations of mimesis. {Its central female character seems to be Flora, the wife of the narrator and, most likely, the ‘original’ of Laura, who is the eponymous heroine of a novel titled My Laura. This novel is sent to the narrator and main protagonist of The Original of Laura by a painter, a rejected admirer of his wife, Flora, of whom “he did an exquisite oil a few years ago.” In My Laura, the mistress is less lucky: she is destroyed by the “I” of the book whilst “in the act of portraying her”—‘literally’, as a writer. Apparently “the portrait is a faithful one,” its features being “absolutely true to the original.” Our desire to peer through the frame—like the unfortunate protagonist of Nabokov’s short story ‘La Veneziana’—is thwarted by the elusive nature of this ‘original’: does it refer to the mistress of the “I,” the Laura of My Laura, or to the probable mistress of this novel’s author, the Flora of The Original of Laura? The manuscript’s playful juxtapositions obviously incite the reader to fuse both ‘originals’ into a single original, a gesture which Nabokov graphically performs in ‘chapter’ 5, by contriving an amusing hybrid, ‘Flaura’. On close observation of the manuscript, one notices that the name contains in fact two capital letters, ‘F’ and ‘L’, as though Nabokov had been loath to give precedence to either name and had instead opted for some typographical monster, a bicephalous cipher of sorts.}

Nabokov’s dove-tailing conundrums become even more artfully significant when we consider the fact that portraits of courtisanes called Flora or Laura are well-known masterpieces by such Renaissance artists as Titian and Giorgione and already constitute variations on the theme of Petrarch’s Laura.

The watermarked presence of these artists beneath the surface of his text is another feat in Nabokov’s chiaroscuro deftness of touch. The adjectives “veiled” and “translucent” which Nabokov selected to define chiaroscuro in Pnin suggest nuances that may be either conspicuous or concealed, depending on the way they catch the light or the angle from which they are perceived. But the visibility of these nuances is equally tributary of the degree of saturation with which the artist endows them; he can shade them in to reveal a veiled value, or shade them off to convey a muted glimmer-effect, a “translucent undertone.” When I first referred to chiaroscuro, I explained that it was a device contrived by Leonardo da Vinci to create an illusion of volume on a flat surface. Chiaroscuro is thus intimately linked to the deceptive quality of art. When addressing fledgling artists in his treatise on painting, Leonardo also singles out indirection as a paramount virtue: “Light too conspicuously cut off by shadows is exceedingly disapproved by painters […]; do not make your figures appear illuminated by the sun, but contrive a certain amount of mist or of transparent cloud to be placed between the object and the sun.” It is particularly significant that Leonardo should mention a “transparent cloud,” as though the old master’s phrase were foreshadowing Nabokov’s own terms. It induces the same type of shimmer-effect, designating, like the “veiled”/ “translucent” couple, a screening device that may at once conceal and reveal.

In this respect, the convoluted structure of The Original of Laura, with its web of metatextual allusions and its iridescent play on “original,” could be considered an elaborate bow to the subtle art of the Renaissance. The manuscript depicts various portraits of a deceitful woman, each of them faithful, each of them mere images, offered to the viewer’s appreciation. If you look at Giorgione’s Laura or Titian’s Flora, you will notice that what is offered to the viewer is just as ambiguous: the woman seems to ignore the spectator, averting her gaze as though lost in her own thoughts. At the same time, the carefully calculated baring of her breast is a clear acknowledgment of the spectator’s presence. Quite obviously the true appeal of these portraits springs less from the features of the woman than from the way these are presented. We are seduced, etymologically led astray, because unsettled by the power of her enigmatic stance, which is neither entirely modest, nor entirely immodest. Although Nabokov’s manuscript remains rather sketchy, its embryonic plot does also reveal the same qualities vis-à-vis the reader; it is up to him to decipher the myriad signs generated by its specular structure. The disconcerting seductiveness of its deceitful mistress is paradigmatic of Nabokov’s preoccupations with representability, authenticity and faithfulness. What Nabokov’s pictorial representation of women lays bare is the fact that the seduction of art lies in its very deceptiveness, its tantalizing oscillation between “le vrai et le vraisemblable,” to quote the title of one of Nabokov’s essays. Because it functions, like the female figure, as a “double-talk mirror,” mimesis cannot be taken at face value only.

"Vladimir Nabokov, his masterpiece and the burning question", Stefanie Marsh, London Times, Feb 14 2008

Other people have seen the text. Only a handful, but, with a little digging, it becomes apparent that this most delicate of literary quandaries is not quite as veiled in secrecy as it once was. Zoran Kuzmanovich, the editor of the Journal of Nabokov Studies, was in that Cornell lecture room on the day Dmitri surprised his audience with an impromptu reading of Laura. “To me the passage or passages he read sounded very much like the passages of Nabokov’s densest, erotically charged prose,” he told me.

“I wrote in my notes that Laura may well be a woman and a book and that its chocolate mousse prose was not entirely safe from sounding like a parody of Lolita.”

Is Laura any good? {Talk to enough Nabokov scholars and the outline of a plot emerges: Philip Wild, an enormously corpulent scholar, is married to a slender, flighty and wildly promiscuous woman called Flora. Flora initially appealed to Wild because of another woman that he’d been in love with, Aurora Lee. Death and what lies beyond it, a theme which fascinated Nabokov from a very young age, are central. The book opens at a party and there follow four continuous scenes, after which the novel becomes more fragmented. It is not clear how old Wild is, but he is preoccupied with his own death and sets about obliterating himself from the toes upwards through meditation. A sort of deliberate self-inflicted self-erasure.}

Is Laura in a fit state for publication? Nabokov wrote most of his novels including Lolita and Pale Fire nonlinearly on index cards, which he would shuffle as part of his editing process. As Laura was unfinished and Nabokov often wrote the middle section of his stories last, it is questionable whether, published in her current state, Laura would have resembled the book that its author had intended to write. These are fragments – 50 cards compared with the 2,000 cards it took Nabokov to commit Ada or Ardor to paper.

“It seems revealing that the novel itself seems to be about work that seems to be unfinished,” says Boyd. “How finished it would have been if completed, I don’t know. There would have been deliberate lacunae.”

Rosenbaum found these accounts of what's TOOL's about somewhat at odds. But I find them consonant with what, given these sketchy reports, I would propose as a primary source: Poe's "The Oval Portrait", a short short that takes the relation of Art to Life to an extreme (and which, as a discourse upon a discourse, welcomes extrapolation [or is it involution?] to the story itself, as well as to critical appreciation). TOOL would be an elaboration of, a doubling of, an argufying of and an answering of TOP's theme. This conjecture also puts Delage-Toriel's in a new, somewhat different light. Beyond which, as Vera is dedicatee and first-row audience for Vladimir's fictions, it may indeed have been the capstone of the oeuvre that he piled up over his long career (rather than continuing the falling off that Transparent Things and Look at the Harlequins! are taken to be).

So perhaps all this talk of putting TOOL to the torch has illuminated some dark corner of Nabokovia. And perhaps its publication will bring a deeper appreciation, not in and of itself, but of prior work, all unnoticed before. Per TOP:

Long--long I read--and devoutly, devotedly I gazed. Rapidly and gloriously the hours flew by, and the deep midnight came. The position of the candelabrum displeased me, and outreaching my hand with difficulty, rather than disturb my slumbering valet, I placed it so as to throw its rays more fully upon the book.
But the action produced an effect altogether unanticipated.


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