< Last Words


Friday, October 30, 2009

Slate columnist Ron Rosenbaum once wrote of author Vladimir Nabokov, quote, “Encrypted within his words, encoded indecipherably, ambiguously, is something akin to the secret code of higher human consciousness, the DNA, the genome of genius.” Rosenbaum’s a fan. Nabokov, of course, is the author of beloved works like Pale Fire and Lolita, which he wrote both in Russian and English. Here he reads from that:

VLADIMIR NABOKOV: Perhaps not everybody remembers the way Lolita starts in English: “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue...”

BROOKE GLADSTONE: When Nabokov died in 1977, he left behind an unfinished novel, and explicit instructions that upon his death it should be burned. Instead, it was locked away. Eventually the decision about what to do with it fell to his son, Dmitri, who simply didn't decide, that is, until Ron Rosenbaum came along. In his Slate column he made the case for resolving the fate of Nabokov’s manuscript, once and for all, either publish or destroy. This final work of a genius should not languish in Purgatory. And, on November 17th, Nabokov’s final work, The Original of Laura, will, in fact, be published, complete with a thank you from Dmitri to Ron Rosenbaum for his unanticipated publicity campaign. But despite Rosenbaum’s central role in liberating his cherished writer’s last work, in direct contradiction of his cherished writer’s wishes, Rosenbaum says he’s still not sure it was the right decision because when it comes to a great author’s last unfinished work it’s too easy to rationalize defying a dying wish that denies us our pleasure.

RON ROSENBAUM: So many people said, oh, he didn't really mean it, or [BROOKE LAUGHS], you know, he’s so great, therefore, we don't have to respect his wishes. Or they'd bring up Kafka.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Which, we're going to bring up right now. You think Franz Kafka, creator of absolutely immortal works like Metamorphosis, ought to be regarded as a special case when he basically asked for all of these immortal works to be burned. Tell me why you think Kafka’s a special case.

RON ROSENBAUM: Well, I'm not sure it is. You know, I mean, I think it may well have been a violation, and if there’s an afterlife perhaps he’s gnashing his teeth. But, on the other hand, with Kafka we had maybe ten percent of his work available. We would have lost The Trial and The Castle. There wouldn't have been a Kafka. Maybe that’s what makes it special even though I still think the first principle should be respect the wishes of the creator.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well, let's take a case that’s a bit more complicated, David Foster Wallace, the author of Infinite Jest, who committed suicide last year. He didn't leave any instructions about what to do with his unfinished work. His agent is now sorting through various drafts of things. Foster Wallace apparently agonized over every word, and to some people the idea of publishing unfinished work actually dishonors his memory.

RON ROSENBAUM: He did not, however, say, don't publish it. With that in mind, the question is should all these loose papers be relegated to some university library in the form that they were found, or should someone be brought in to cobble together some, quote, “finished,” unquote, version of what’s left behind? I believe that if you’re going to publish something, it should be in as raw a state as possible. Don't try to impose an order on it that may not have existed even in the author’s mind.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Because the order you impose may not be the one that’s imposed for all time. Look what happened to Hemingway’s novel, A Moveable Feast. One wife put it together in a particular way, later a grandson comes along and says that’s not what he intended.

RON ROSENBAUM: I'm in favor of let a hundred flowers bloom, so let there be four, five editions of A Moveable Feast. Raymond Carver’s widow, isn't she now planning to issue the unedited Raymond Carver?

BROOKE GLADSTONE: And that’s a fascinating issue, because Raymond Carver is known for such austere prose. And it turned out he was way more wordy and that, perhaps, his editor helped create the Raymond Carver that we admire.

RON ROSENBAUM: I know. It raises questions of what we mean when we say Raymond Carver, [BROOKE LAUGHS] which is a very difficult question. But I'm in favor of publishing more and letting people judge for themselves what they think the author intended, if he did not leave clear indications himself.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: So Ron, I think anybody listening to this would think that you would have been firmly opposed to bringing out Vladimir Nabokov’s last unfinished work, in direct contravention of his own instruction. And yet, it turns out you are responsible. How did you get into this?

RON ROSENBAUM: Well, I first learned about the existence of these 138 index cards in a Swiss safety deposit box some years ago. I started writing about it in 2005. And it seemed to me that this should be a matter of more concern. It was left in the hands of his son Dmitri to burn on the instructions of his father, and yet, he hadn't burned them, and occasionally he would issue remarks that made it seem like this was a real treasure or a new way of looking at his father’s work or his final achievement. So I was always conflicted but I was in favor of making a decision. You know, at first I thought, wow, this is so exciting, I want to see it. And then in my last Slate article, I, I said, you know, I'm still conflicted but I believe that it should be burned. An author’s wishes stated that clearly deserve to be respected.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: And so, it’s decided. The Original of Laura will be published. You've had the privilege of seeing it in advance. It originally existed in index cards. What’s it look like now?

RON ROSENBAUM: Every page was a very thick paper, and in the top center of the page was precisely one of those index cards scanned and reproduced exactly as Nabokov had, with his pencil-written sentences and blottings-out and scrawlings-out all there, the cards exactly as they were. And – this is the daring and probably controversial thing – is the cards were perforated, so you could punch them out and hold them in your hands the way Nabokov did. But I think it captures the provisional nature of it, you know, These were index cards. This was not a finished book.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Does he have good handwriting?

RON ROSENBAUM: You know what he has is like good crossing-out. He has managed [BROOKE LAUGHS] to devise a way of scrawling out his words that he decides to leave out in a way that you can't decipher what’s underneath the Slinky-like scrawls no matter how hard you stare, although I think I deciphered two [BROOKE LAUGHS] words that Knopf or Dmitri might have missed in their transcript.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well, do you think that the vehement way he crossed things out might be an indication that he didn't want anybody to know his process?

RON ROSENBAUM: I think there’s some truth to that, but it sort of brings us closer to him to see how important it was to him that he not leave any imperfect tracks behind.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Did seeing his process diminish Nabokov’s genius for you, or the reverse?

RON ROSENBAUM: I think the reverse, actually. I think it indicated that he was very human, in a way, which is what gives his novel not the cold perfection that some see in it but, in fact, a very human insight into the soul.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: This novel, or any novel?

RON ROSENBAUM: All the ones I've read.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: So after this debate, what’s your verdict? Was it a good decision to publish, or not?

RON ROSENBAUM: Wow, I'm still conflicted about it. [BROOKE LAUGHS] I mean, I think I hold to my position that probably we should have respected Nabokov’s wishes. But look, it’s done. It’s there, and so I couldn't resist looking at it.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: And you’re glad you read it.

RON ROSENBAUM: I'm glad I read it.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ron, thank you very much.

RON ROSENBAUM: Thank you, Brooke.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ron Rosenbaum is a columnist for Slate and author, most recently, of The Shakespeare Wars.


BOB GARFIELD: That's it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Jamie York, Mike Vuolo, Mark Phillips, Nazanin Rafsanjani, Michael Bernstein and P.J. Vogt, with more help from James Hawver and Dan Mauzy, and edited – by Brooke. We had technical direction from Jennifer Munson and more engineering help from Zach Marsh.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Katya Rogers is our senior producer and John Keefe our executive producer. Bassist/composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. You can listen to the program and find free transcripts at Onthemedia.org. You can also post comments there, or email us at Onthemedia@wnyc.org. This is On the Media from WNYC. I'm Brooke Gladstone.

BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield.