Ersatz Nabokov fools the big boys

An amateur prankster pulls off a literary hoax.

By Craig Offman

Published May 26, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Vladimir Nabokov had a predilection for literary pranks, but not all Nabokov scholars share his fondness for them. Last year Jeff Edmunds, who edits Zembla, a Web site for Nabokov enthusiasts, infuriated some of the Nabokov community with a joke of his own -- but now the joke's on them.

In September the 35-year-old cataloging specialist at Penn State University posted a critical essay ostensibly written by one Michel Desommelier, a Swiss professor, titled "'The Original of Laura': A First Look at Nabokov's Last Novel." The article quoted as yet unseen portions of the novelist's unpublished final opus, and since no one outside the tightknit group of Nabokov enthusiasts (to which Edmunds belongs) had had access to it, the posting was greeted with outrage by some scholars.

"Do you, a librarian, really know nothing about copyright?" one enraged specialist demanded in a letter to Edmunds. "I am appalled and flabbergasted at your behavior. You know, do you not, that Nabokov wanted this material destroyed if unfinished, as it certainly was?" The letter went on to threaten legal action. But this gullibility seems a lot less hilarious once you've gotten a load of Edmunds' forgeries. ("The cat, startled by a soundless noise, sensing the approach of an invisible intruder, rises and runs out of the room with a quick mincing trot.") His quotations might almost have fooled Nabokov himself.

"Dmitri [Nabokov, the author's son and literary executor] could not tell the difference between his father's excerpts and mine," Edmunds told Salon Books with understandable pride. The two men soon settled their differences, and Edmunds removed the offending article from the Zembla site. But he and Nabokov's Russian translator, Sergei Il'in, have now made the best of the situation. In April, they published a few portions of the phony novel in the Russian literary journal the Independent; this week they ran more in a second Russian journal, New Youth.

Meanwhile, Edmunds has written another 50 pages of ersatz Nabokov. But when he publishes this batch, he vows, he'll play it straight with his readers.

Craig Offman

Craig Offman is the New York correspondent for Salon Books.

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