"The Original of Laura," Vladimir Nabokov

The great Russian master's long, lost unfinished novel surfaces

Vladimir Nabokov’s final novel has been published in fractured form, handwritten in large chunks on a small bundle of index cards, all of which are reprinted as the leaves of a book, complete with facsimiles of beverage and age spots on their otherwise empty backs, should a reader feel the urge to punch them out, stack them like what they presumably once were — a stack of index cards — and shuffle them.

It is somewhat comforting to discover that he has spotty spelling, because Nabokov dead still writes better than anyone alive. Perhaps most famous for Lolita, Nabokov revisits that novel like a bright young writer. He tells a tale of Hubert H. Hubert, a sniveling, meager little man who worms his way into a young girl’s family, “meserising [sic] her, envelopping[sic] her, so to speak in some sticky invisible substance and coming closer and closer no matter what way she turned.”

This same Hubert H. Hubert is saved from death by incisive parody thanks to the intervention of “a stroke in a hotel lift after a business dinner. Going up, one would like to surmise.” The same young girl — Flora was her name, notice the two mounting trips of the tongue and that big round O in the middle — goes on to have a relationship with a brilliant man, enormously fat, with smelly feet: “I know my feet smelled despite daily baths, but this reek was something special.” The two of them copulate, “he holding her in front of him like a child being given a sleighride[sic] down a short slope by a kind stranger.”

Nabokov is fortunate at the turn of nearly every card. Even the book’s collapsed ending is provocative. Who is writing? Is it the fat man talking about his feet again? Nabokov? Whoever it is goes on — in very stylish prose — to describe the ignominy of age, more problems with feet, the “delight of getting under an ingrown toenail with sharp scissors,” and his ability to erase, obliterate or otherwise… The final nine-word, eight-line card is pure Nabokov brilliance, including loopy scribbling out and inevitable death of the author. Going up, indeed.

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