Dmitri Nabokov on his father's unfinished novel

Dmitri Nabokov on his father's unfinished novel

Published April 19, 1999 9:21AM (EDT)

On Thursday night, Dmitri Nabokov, 64, was nursing a leg he had jabbed with a pole on an airport tarmac on his way to New York. "I didn't really feel the pain -- it was all that spurting blood that really made me ill," the former opera singer told Salon Books. Nabokov was at Town Hall in Manhattan, along with a pack of celebrated writers and critics, to pay homage on the centenary of the birth of his father, Vladimir Nabokov, the author of "Lolita."

Dmitri Nabokov still serves as his father's translator and literary executor. He is normally press-shy, but backstage after the ceremony, Salon Books asked him about his thoughts on the posthumous publication this summer of Ernest Hemingway's novel "True at First Light."

"You know more than you admit," was his curious response. "In Hemingway's case, his heirs aren't necessarily doing him a favor. Some of the things he wrote are very praiseworthy, and some of the things he wrote he did not want published, including one thing that one of his heirs actually rewrote -- first corrected, and then rewrote. That's something I would never consider doing to any of my father's work. I translate it as best I can. I adapt, where I can, [Russian] sentence length to the American and English languages -- which are different, but neither of which supports extremely long sentences. But I don't ever alter the meaning of the words."

So much for Hemingway. What other case did Dmitri Nabokov have in mind?

"You know, my father left an unfinished novel at the time of his death, called 'The Original of Laura.' According to a note of his, he had written half before he died. He saw his own writing more or less as undeveloped film: images that still required to be recorded -- on paper, in this case. There was only one such project left at the time of his death, and he ordered it destroyed. Burned, incinerated, whatever. He didn't like unfinished things.

"Neither Vira [Vladimir's wife and Dmitri's mother] nor I had the courage to destroy the thing," he went on. "We knew that if we did not destroy it someone eventually would read it and indeed publish it. My mother, when she died, left me the legacy of deciding this very thorny question, and I'm now in the process of making the decision to give that novel to a worthy institution where it would be secured in the proper microclimate, and where it would be available to highly qualified scholars -- and where its publication would not immediately be allowed but envisioned sometime in the future."

Zoran Kuzmanovich, a professor of English at Davidson College in North Carolina and the editor of the journal Nabokov Studies, later told Salon Books that few people outside the circle of Nabokov's family and friends have heard about "Laura," and even fewer have had any direct exposure to the unfinished novel. But Kuzmanovich heard Dmitri read a few passages from the work a few years ago at a Cornell University conference. "It was vintage Nabokov," he reports. "It sounds as though the story is about aging but holding onto the original love of one's life."

Will Nabokov lovers ever get their hands on the great novelist's final book? For now, the question seems only to give his son and literary executor a bad case of the butterflies.

By Craig Offman

Craig Offman is the New York correspondent for Salon Books.

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