The decision to posthumously release Vladimir Nabokov’s final novel against his wishes is extremely debatable from an ethical standpoint, writes Paul Fennessy
Is it ever justifiable to disobey someone’s dying wish? Yes, according to Dmitri Nabokov – son of the novelist Vladimir – who recently decreed that the late author’s unfinished novel was to be finally published, almost 33 years after his death.
The project, entitled The Original of Laura, was more or less disowned by Nabokov just prior to his passing. He ordered his son to burn all of the novel’s 138 index cards, a format which he habitually adopted to write his books, thus ostensibly ensuring that it would never join the likes of Lolita, Pale Fire and Pnin among his eminent literary oeuvre.
Yet his son and late wife both failed to undertake this task, instead opting to conceal it for decades in a Swiss bank vault, due to the rather obvious dilemma which confronted them. However, after much persuasion from Ron Rosenbaum of The New York Times – one of Nabokov’s foremost admirers – Dmitri has finally decided to act definitively and release the text.
Was Dmitri’s decision ethical? There is no simple response to this pertinent question. Regardless, the virtues of his acquiescing with the decision are manifest. Had Max Brod adhered to Franz Kafka’s request and burned all of his writings, the author would have remained largely unheard of to this day. The literary landscape would in turn be significantly poorer without Kafka’s foreboding literature.
But it would be unfair to equate this recent scenario with the conundrum which Kafka’s writings encountered. Firstly, it remains highly doubtful whether The Original of Laura will have anything resembling the impact of Nabokov’s most esteemed novels. Judging by his behaviour, the author himself did not think much of his final work.
On the other hand, a few scholars have hailed it as a prototypically Nabokovian work and a masterpiece, while Dmitri has described it as “brilliant” and “potentially radical”. But given that his later novels are largely adjudged inferior to his best works, it seems unlikely to be a novel comparable to the genius of Lolita or Pale Fire.
Critics have complained that the great author’s reputation will be tarnished by what essentially amounts to the airing of his dirty laundry in public, especially if the novel reads insipidly. Generally though, observing a great artist fail is, in its own way, just as compelling as experiencing one of their masterworks. This is one of the primary reasons why The Original of Laura was rightfully published, notwithstanding its quality.
Yet it is also impossible to ignore the thorny issues surrounding Nabokov’s original forbiddance of the novel’s publication. The decision to the contrary was considered immoral in some quarters, but proceeding with the burning would undoubtedly be received with equal enmity from others.
The question of ownership, and the extent to which the general public is entitled to an artwork, are seemingly the key factors in the argument. Surely Nabokov should not have been allowed to deny his readership countless hours of potential pleasure and intrigue. Conversely, people are not necessarily deserving of a divine right to gain access to thoughts which the author ostensibly intended to keep private.
Indeed, the Nabokov situation is hardly unique. Others including Kurt Cobain and David Foster Wallace have been treated similarly, with public demand for their posthumous works far outweighing concerns about their own private wishes.
There is undoubtedly an element of cynicism surrounding this wanton neglect of the writer’s privacy when an opportunity for profit arises. In Cobain’s case, the singer’s personal diaries were published with little hesitation following his death, and his suicide note became available on innumerable t-shirts and websites. It cannot be denied that this sense of the publishing industry, among others, capitalising on a person’s death is unsavoury in the extreme.
Nonetheless, in Nabokov’s case, it is ultimately justifiable. Unlike Cobain and his diaries, the author could not have reasonably assumed that there would be little interest in his final novel. Surely he recognised the difficult position he was putting his son in by imploring him to dispose of its contents.
Therefore, there are ample reasons why The Original of Laura’s publication is infinitely acceptable. Nabokov undoubtedly wanted the novel to be read on some level; otherwise, he would not have bothered writing it in the first place. His efforts to discard the work were perhaps owing to his inability to adequately recapture past glories and to attain his customary level of perfection. But as already stated, this reason alone is not enough to warrant its destruction.
Furthermore, Nabokov’s attempt to sabotage his own output was overtly half-hearted. If he truly desired for this action to transpire, he would have administered it personally. As Edmund White, the author of A Boy’s Own Story among other acclaimed works, asserted in the Times last year: “If a writer really wants something destroyed, he burns it.”
Vladimir Nabokov’s final novel The Original of Laura was published last week.