PUBLISH OR BURN?

This Slate article by Ron Rosenbaum has started a fierce debate on MetaFilter and doubtless many other places: “It’s the question of whether the last unpublished work of Vladimir Nabokov, which is now reposing unread in a Swiss bank vault, should be destroyed—as Nabokov explicitly requested before he died.” My own take is that if he felt that strongly about it he should have destroyed it himself, and that once you’re dead you lose the right to determine the fate of your work, but I can sympathize with those who believe Nabokov’s wishes should be respected. Mind you, we’re talking about “fifty hand-written index cards, equivalent to about thirty conventional paper manuscript pages,” so The Original of Laura can hardly be called a novel, and it certainly shouldn’t be published as if it were (much less “completed” by someone else), but I think it should be available at least to scholars. VV would be furious, but he was furious about a lot of things, including nonliteral translations and using the feminine forms of Russian names, so this would just be one more hypothetical annoyance.

Comments

  1. Kobi Haron says:

    The idea of burning anything by Nabokov isn’t only criminal – it’s in bad taste. He wrote some great short stories, so I don’t mind reading a 30 page piece by him. Nor am I worried that it’s a fragment if it’s any good. However after Pnin (1957) Nabokov’s work wasn’t so good, so I don’t expect much from Laura.
    An alternative interpretation – this is a publicity stunt, and a pretty good one.

  2. Dan Milton says:

    “furious about … using the feminine forms of Russian names”.
    Many, many years ago I took a course on the novel at Harvard by a visiting professor (which I was much too young to appreciate). About all I remember now is that he insisted the “a” of Karenina must be silent. This was in a course that began with a study of “Don Kwiksit”.

  3. Dmitri at least sounds like a more reasonable guy than Stephen Joyce, James’s grandson, who has made life miserable for Joyce scholars by denying permission for access, performance rights and quotations, and has possibly destroyed Joyce family documents. (New Yorker story by D.T. Max on this saga: http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2006/06/19/060619fa_fact)

  4. It doesn’t sound like the son will be able to bring himself to destroy it; and as long as it exists, I don’t imagine the pressure will let up for him to release it.

  5. michael farris says:

    “using the feminine forms of Russian names”
    uh …… anyone care to explain this? (as in what’s the issue and why did it bug him?)

  6. I don’t know why it bothered him enough to be “furious” about it, but he did hold that in English you should use the same form for men and women since English doesn’t have two forms, hence “Anna Karenin”. FWIW, I work with two Russian women emigrees and one does (-sky) and the other doesn’t (-ova).
    I will grant you that it can make relationships a bit more opaque to Anglophone readers.

  7. but he did hold that in English you should use the same form for men and women since English doesn’t have two forms
    Which makes no sense at all. English doesn’t have Russian names in the first place, so why mention them? “Vladimir”—what kind of name is that? We’ll call you “Fred,” OK?
    I always tell people who favor the Anna Karenin approach: “If you’re also willing to talk about Martina Navratil, fine. Otherwise, I don’t want to hear about it.”

  8. My translation of Anna Karenina dropped the -a. As it is, I had enough difficulty keeping straight the long Russian names; had husbands and wives not even had the same last names, it would have been that much harder. (When I’m reading a book and I don’t know the names, I don’t pronounce them fully in my head, so they’re distinguished largely by a few key letters, with arbitrary and unconscious criteria for what makes a letter “key.” And I know I’m not the only one who does this, because my classmates would often read names aloud completely wrong, with letters flipped and inserted and dropped seemingly at random.)

  9. Really? It would have been difficult for you to connect Karenin and Karenina? Well, then I’m glad you found a translation that made it easier for you, but I wonder how common that is.

  10. I think it should be published as a stack of index cards. Y’know, in a little box. Handwritten.

  11. marie-lucie says:

    As a young teenager, my sister became a voracious novel reader. She liked to tell us about her reading, but the names of the characters in the novels some of us had already read sounded very strange as she read them much too fast to take the trouble to pronounce them with any accuracy. She must have been doing the same thing that Ran describes.

  12. Even Virgil wanted his unfinished book to be burned after his death. If his friends Varius & Tucca had fulfilled his wish, now we wouldn’t have the Aeneid…

  13. Exactly, and Kafka wanted all his work burned.

  14. I was surprised when I read that MeFi thread to see that no-one had yet said “You know who ELSE burned books?” I suppose someone must have by now, though.

  15. David Marjanović says:

    Frankly, Kafka’s work should have been burned. <duck & cover> But that’s something you can only find out after you’ve read it…

  16. “You know who ELSE burned books?”
    Bakhtin?

  17. michael farris says:

    “You know who ELSE burned books?”
    I DID!!! HA HA HA!!!!!
    No, really, about 20-years ago I had a book-burning party. Many people were … not pleased by the name, but no one who actually listened to my explanation (including a number of librarians) found it offensive.

  18. interesting take on the decision not to obey kafka’s instructions to burn everything in one of milan kundera’s books of essays btw.
    i have to take exception to the disparagement of vn’s post-pnin work as well. ada, or ardor, is a masterpiece — and would be a vocabulary goldmine for this site, too.

  19. I agree, and I’ve been meaning to reread it for years.

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