Book Burning: It Might Be Okay This Time

Vladimir Nabokov died in 1977, having produced perhaps the greatest corpus of the 20th century. But there is one piece yet unread, one piece that enlightens only the interior of a vault in a Swiss bank. That piece, unfinished, is entitled The Original of Laura. Nabokov left his son, Dmitri Nabokov, with explicit instructions to burn the unfinished manuscript upon his death, but Dmitri has been understandably hesitant to fulfill his father’s wish.

Though my vote counts for nothing, I will cast it anyways: destroy the manuscript. Sure, like so many others, I burn with curiosity at the contents of The Original of Laura. Especially when I read the following:

And yet Dmitri had himself fueled our desire to possess Laura with some of his comments, as when he called it the “most concentrated distillation of [my father’s] creativity” and a “totally radical book.” Who would not wish to get even a sketchy glimpse of the omega point of Nabokov’s artistic evolution?

I think, though, that I offer a reason perhaps yet unconsidered for burning the manuscript: The Chilling Effect. Like so many authors, Vladimir Nabokov was paralyzed by the perception of imperfection. Realizing that the publication of a work exposes the author to public scrutiny, and possibly scorn, it is reasonable to allow an author to spend time in experimentation, frustration, and feverish reflection, with the guarantee that he or she will have the flexibility to tear apart failed experiments, eviscerate clichés, and finely machine metaphors. We have clearly moved towards a wiki/blog/forum world, with the consequential syndrome of so many words without thought, but it would be a foolhardy man indeed who would ink anything of complexity without the opportunity for rumination and self-editing. If every author wondered whether the words he is writing would be read, raw and incomplete, if he were to die just after writing them, perhaps the words would never get written.

We’ve been down this path before. Franz Kafka did not finish The Castle, and instructed his friend, Max Brod, to destroy all of his unfinished manuscripts upon his death. Instead, Brod chose to publish The Castle after heavily editing it (for acceptance by a publisher). The book ends, literally, in the middle of a sentence, which arguably works well given the themes of the book. However, I can’t help but wonder which of the words were Kafka’s and which were Brod’s.

One blogger suggests that, because Nabokov at one time was considering the destruction of the manuscript that would become Lolita, posterity would be well-served by the publication of The Original of Laura. The difference here is that Nabokov had the opportunity to recognize the flaws in what would become Lolita and decide that they were not insurmountable. Did he have such an opportunity with The Original of Laura?

Let purifying fire immolate the chilling effect. We’ve already been given more than we have the right to ask from Vladimir Nabokov; there is no need to neglect this one painfully simple wish.



  1. what you say is quite true and he may have wanted the manuscript destroyed because he felt he hadn’t had the opportunity to shape it into the form he wanted it.

    am not arguing (if indeed i am arguing at all – rather tried to be a fence-sitter and let my commenters thrash it out!) but for it’s non-destruction, which are different things.

    the latest news on this of course that Dmitri has been talking to his father (according to a second article by Rosenbaum) who seems now to be of the opinion that it might be a good idea to raise some money from the sale!

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