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To destroy or publish?Nabokov's last work


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#1 dirac

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Posted 31 January 2008 - 03:04 PM

This piece by Ron Rosenbaum recently appeared in Slate. It concerns Vladimir Nabokov’s unpublished and unfinished final work, which he wanted destroyed. His son, Dmitri, has been dithering for years trying to decide what to do:

Does it matter what V.N. would feel, since he's long dead? Do we owe no respect to his last wishes because we greedily want some "key" to his work, or just more of it for our own selfish reasons? Does the lust for aesthetic beauty always allow us to rationalize trampling on the artist's grave? Does the greatness of an artist diminish his right to dispose of his own unfinished work?


Lots of interesting questions there. I think we would all like to believe that our last wishes will be honored by our nearest and dearest after we’ve bought the farm. On the other hand, the dead are dead. They’re past caring, and it would be a shame to lose anything by an artist like Nabokov, even undistinguished apprentice work, which this manuscript plainly isn’t. Any opinions?

#2 bart

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Posted 31 January 2008 - 03:17 PM

Interesting article. Thanks, dirac.

Here's some information regarding the Nabokov Papers which are placed in the Library of Congress:

Nabokov began donating various papers and manuscripts to the Library of Congress in 1958. The resulting sizable collection promises to be a treasure-trove for future generations of Nabokovians.

The official policy on access to the collection, per Alice Lotvin Birney, American Literature Manuscript Historian at the Library of Congress, is as follows:

"Dmitri Nabokov still controls access to those Vladimir Nabokov Papers in the Library of Congress donated by the author. According to the terms of the Instrument of Gift signed by Vladimir Nabokov May 30, 1959, and by the Librarian of Congress June 23, 1959, the author or his wife or son has control of both access and copyright for fifty years, i.e. until June 23, 2009. At that point, the collection will be open and the as yet unpublished Nabokov writings in it will be in the public domain. Presently, Dmitri responds separately to each detailed application for access submitted through the Manuscript Division. Those items acquired from persons other than the author, located at the end of the collection, have no access restrictions."

Destroy or publish are not the only alternatives. If you check the website on which I found the above -- http://www.libraries...kov/archive.htm -- you'll find that the LofC's holdings include index card "notes" for Pale Fire and Lolita. Wouldn't it be possible to deposit the new material in the Lof with access similarly controlled for a period of time by the Library or the Estate?

My own feeling is that scholars and serious critics -- that is, those who understand the function and the limitations of such notes -- could be given access first.

#3 dirac

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Posted 31 January 2008 - 04:27 PM

Destroy or publish are not the only alternatives.


True, bart, and thanks for posting, but I don't think Nabokov (the da) would have made that distinction, having himself no great regard for 'scholars and serious critics.' If he didn't want people who read him for love and pleasure to see what he'd written, I doubt he'd allow any special dispensation for professional experts. And all of those things will eventually be in the public domain, something presumably understood by Nabokov when he signed on the dotted line. In addition, he said quite specifically that he wanted this item destroyed, and apparently he didn't sound terribly ambivalent about it.

#4 Mel Johnson

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Posted 01 February 2008 - 04:46 AM

A word here about how professional archivists deal with papers during the "appraisal period" (not a dollar value estimate, but a summary of the importance of the materials to the collection): An initial assessor views the collection and makes a statement as to the content. Then there is a section on "disposition" - where it went, whether to collection or out and why and where. It is up to the appraiser how much of the "disposed" material is copied to file. In this case, should the executor act to declare the items as "to be destroyed in accordance with Last Will and Testament", then that has to be done. The executor must act, however. It looks to me as though these papers will make it to public domain, if Dimitri hasn't acted to date.

#5 papeetepatrick

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Posted 01 February 2008 - 09:10 AM

Does it matter what V.N. would feel, since he's long dead? Do we owe no respect to his last wishes because we greedily want some "key" to his work, or just more of it for our own selfish reasons? Does the lust for aesthetic beauty always allow us to rationalize trampling on the artist's grave? Does the greatness of an artist diminish his right to dispose of his own unfinished work?


Lots of interesting questions there. I think we would all like to believe that our last wishes will be honored by our nearest and dearest after we’ve bought the farm. On the other hand, the dead are dead. They’re past caring, and it would be a shame to lose anything by an artist like Nabokov, even undistinguished apprentice work, which this manuscript plainly isn’t. Any opinions?


Yes, it does matter what V.N. would feel, because he laid down the law on this when he was alive, not dead. In a sense, if the manuscript is allowed into public domain, it's Dimitri's work, not Nabokov's, because one is then reading something illegitimate. It is greedy and it is totally disrespectful. The work has much more mystery if left unread by scholars and public alike. Dimitri could still talk about it, people don't have to have access to everything. It's probably some father-son psychological entanglement and there could be feelings of inferiority as there often is with a great parent, I don't know. But it's to me just another example of exploitation of the individual as a disposable commodity that has become even more popular in the current era than in the past. It's much as though the great artist is told 'well, you gave us more than almost anyone else, so why not this too? Shouldn't we have some say?'

Wasn't there a video of some cocaine being used near Heath Ledger at some party or event quashed yesterday? I was surprised that it would be. I wouldn't read the 'Laura' book, and I hope that anyone who does will read it accompanied by 'I am reading something that the author didn't want me to read' going on the entire time. Because it is not Nabokov's work you are then reading, as it is with 'Ada' or 'Lolita'. You are reading something about Dimitri. Otherwise, forget copyright laws, do condensed books of 'Lolita', allow overt plagiarism, not just the 'crytomnesia' described in the article, and let Balanchine be danced literally anywhere and by anybody, in new popularized versions and in Disney movies, with Kristen Chenoweth as Maria Tallchief, just like Fosse's work was slaughtered in the movie of 'Chicago'. At least Dimitri refused to tell Rosenbaum who had the other key to the safe. Impossible that Rosenbaum could see it as any other than trying to get everything exposed, although he does some 'passing the buck' to Dimitri as if he himself had been somewhat victimized by the matter (yes, he hasn't got the results he wanted yet).

#6 dirac

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Posted 01 February 2008 - 10:51 AM

Yes, it does matter what V.N. would feel, because he laid down the law on this when he was alive, not dead.


True. Yet if Nabokov had really, really wanted the cards destroyed, it would have not been difficult for him to do so, leading me to wonder if he wasn't perhaps having a bit of fun with us (and maybe Dmitri, unless the latter was in on the joke).

The executor must act, however. It looks to me as though these papers will make it to public domain, if Dimitri hasn't acted to date.


Thanks for your post, Mel, that was helpful. Dmitri seems to have been playing footsie on this matter for some time now and my hunch is if he was going to destroy the material he'd already have done it.

But it's to me just another example of exploitation of the individual as a disposable commodity that has become even more popular in the current era than in the past.


Edmund Wilson published "The Last Tycoon" as 'an unfinished novel,' when he must have known perfectly well that his old friend Fitzgerald had left a rough draft. But he thought it should be seen. (I'm not sure how Fitzgerald would have felt.)

There's also the example of Valerie Eliot publishing her late husband's original draft of what became "The Waste Land" showing exactly what Ezra Pound had cut, with comments. Eliot didn't actually forbid such publication but there's little question that he'd not have done it himself, not because he would have minded people knowing more of Pound's contribution but because he was a perfectionist like Nabokov who wouldn't have wanted his discards in public view. Mrs. Eliot has been most protective of Eliot's memory and would never do anything exploitative, yet she put it out there.

#7 papeetepatrick

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Posted 01 February 2008 - 12:16 PM

True. Yet if Nabokov had really, really wanted the cards destroyed, it would have not been difficult for him to do so, leading me to wonder if he wasn't perhaps having a bit of fun with us (and maybe Dmitri, unless the latter was in on the joke).


If this is the case, then it's not an interesting joke, nor in any way amusing. It would be only a way of indulging himself at others' expense, by wasting immense amounts of their time, if Dimitri was 'in on the joke' (or NOT), it would be like Humbert Humbert raping 'Lolita'. I don't believe this is the case, but if it is, then such questions as 'what of the dead person's wishes should be honoured' are strictly Not Applicable, and the whole business with Rosenbaum is cheap, repulsive publicity. I don't believe this, as I said. I think he did not want the manuscript published, and since it's clearly written out, and then Mme. Nabokov simply 'never got around to it', it begins to sound like something maybe Salvador Dali would do as a 'joke', which in that case would be only to prove that 'the dead are perhaps not past caring'; but not something Nabokov would do, as 'Lolita', if nothing else, proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that Nabokov is not silly. In other words, if it is released against Nabokov's will, then that is at least something--bad, IMO, but it exists as a comprehensible piece of phenomenology. If it's just a 'lavish joke' in which everybody who is involved with it in any way, including us commenting on it today, then it is not even worth discussing. But I can't see how that just because he could have physically destroyed them himself that it means there is any likelihood that he just wanted to pull an endless prank that would propel him well beyond his mortality--but providing him with the immortality not of the Great Writer, which 'Lolita' gives him, but rather the immortality of the Buffoon. He would have to be a special kind of thanatophobe to want that sort of immortality, and I never could imagine he did. If this really is possible, then please inform.

#8 carbro

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Posted 01 February 2008 - 12:40 PM

What is the point of a will if the executors can ignore it? It is a legally binding document. VN's motivation is irrelevant; his wishes are not.

#9 GWTW

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Posted 01 February 2008 - 12:44 PM

Fascinating topic. Thanks, dirac, for bringing it to our attention.

I think D. Nabokov is in a very tough position. His mother was the original executor of the estate and she should have destroyed the index cards / manuscript. By failing to do so, V. Nabokov made it clear that she considered that the index cards should not be destroyed. D. Nabokov is damned if he does and damned if he doesn't.

Edited to add: The V. Nabokov I referred to is Vera, and not Vladimir.

carbro, the article doesn't make it clear where and how Nabokov made it clear that he wanted the document destroyed. Do you know for sure that this request was part of a legally enforceable will?

#10 papeetepatrick

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Posted 01 February 2008 - 01:05 PM

By failing to do so, V. Nabokov made it clear that she considered that the index cards should not be destroyed.


No, she just made it clear that she couldn't or wouldn't take care of it herself.

From the article:

"But in any case, before he died in 1977, Nabokov made clear that he wanted those cards destroyed.

At the time, the task fell to V.N.'s adored and devoted wife, Véra, but for one reason or another, by the time she died in 1991, she had not gotten around to putting a match to Laura. "

Either this is true, however he made the request, or we need not take the article seriously.

#11 dirac

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Posted 01 February 2008 - 01:23 PM

QUOTE(GWTW @ Feb 1 2008, 03:44 PM)
By failing to do so, V. Nabokov made it clear that she considered that the index cards should not be destroyed.

No, she just made it clear that she couldn't or wouldn't take care of it herself.


But isn't that possibly an indication that she felt the material should be preserved? I think so.

VN's motivation is irrelevant; his wishes are not.


Agreed - but Max Brod ignored his friend Kafka's wishes, fortunately for everyone.

If this really is possible, then please inform.


No, I don't really think that Nabokov was pulling a fast one on us this time. But yes, I think he was quite capable of such a prank and I can imagine him chortling out there in the ozone somewhere over the fuss.

#12 carbro

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Posted 01 February 2008 - 01:37 PM

carbro, the article doesn't make it clear where and how Nabokov made it clear that he wanted the document destroyed. Do you know for sure that this request was part of a legally enforceable will?

No. Sorry. It was an inference I drew from Mel's and papeetepatrick's posts and is not stated in the article.

#13 Mel Johnson

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Posted 01 February 2008 - 05:16 PM

If it's not a part of the will or a codicil attached thereto, then the executor is under no obligation to destroy, or cause to be destroyed. VN could have taken out a full-page ad in the NY Times, and if it weren't witnessed by two people, then it really doesn't have the necessary legal weight to compel an executor to do anything.

#14 dirac

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Posted 02 February 2008 - 02:41 PM

If it's not a part of the will or a codicil attached thereto, then the executor is under no obligation to destroy, or cause to be destroyed. VN could have taken out a full-page ad in the NY Times, and if it weren't witnessed by two people, then it really doesn't have the necessary legal weight to compel an executor to do anything.


Thanks. Emphasis on under no legal obligation.....

#15 dirac

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Posted 14 February 2008 - 04:27 PM

More discussion, with opinions solicited from Tom Stoppard and John Banville.

http://entertainment...icle3365802.ece

Many authors, including the playwright Sir Tom Stoppard, believe passionately in honouring Nabokov’s instructions and point out that the fragments would in no way represent the book the author had intended to write. But others argue that Laura is just one of several of Nabokov’s works that he wanted destroyed after his death.




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