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The  Original  of  Laura                 Tina  Morgan   Editorial  Theory     WR510  Section  2   April  30,  2013                    

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In 2008,  Alfred  A.  Knopf  published  The  Original  of  Laura,  a  “Novel  in  Fragments”  and  the   last  remaining  manuscript  by  Vladimir  Nabokov.  The  circumstances  of  this  publication   were  juicy.  Nabokov  had  ordered  the  unfinished  novel  burned  following  his  death  in   1977,  but  his  wife  couldn’t  bring  herself  to  comply,  so  the  manuscript  passed  to   Nabokov’s  son  (and  sometime  editor  and  translator),  Dmitri,  in  1991.  The  younger   Nabokov  played  the  coquette  for  years,  hinting  at  the  manuscript’s  quality   (“Unprecedented  in  structure  and  style”)  and  publicly  mulling  his  options  (Gates).  The   debate  played  out  in  the  literary  press  and  beyond,  with  some  vehemently  on  the  side   of  the  elder  Nabokov,  and  others  on  the  side  of  historical  and  scholarly  preservation.   We  cannot  know  precisely  what  it  was  that  convinced  Dmitri  Nabokov  to  publish  the   manuscript  (in  the  book’s  introduction,  he  somewhat  glibly  asserts  that  he  published  the   book  because  “I  am  a  nice  guy,  and  having  noticed  that  people  the  world   over…empathize  with  ‘Dmitri’s  dilemma,’  I  felt  it  would  be  kind  to  alleviate  their   sufferings,”)  but  we  know  that  he  eventually  did,  and  chose  to  edit  the  work  himself   (Nabokov  xviii).    

“Dmitri’s  dilemma”  thus  resolved,  the  question  of  “Should  the  manuscript  be  

released?” gave  way  to  myriad  others:  Does  Laura  have  value  outside  of  its  historical   context?  What  decisions  informed  the  structure  of  the  book  itself,  and  what  was  the   theoretical  basis  for  those  decisions?  The  book  describes  itself  as  “A  Novel  in   Fragments,”  but  what  is  Laura,  really?     We  know  that  Dmitri  Nabokov  ultimately  chose  to  publish  his  father’s  notecards   (henceforth,  Vladimir  Nabokov  will  be  referred  to  as  “Nabokov,”  his  son  will  be  referred  

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to as  “Dmitiri,”  and  the  notecards  that  comprise  Laura,  the  “manuscript,”)  and  we  have   in  the  book’s  introduction  some  idea  of  why  the  manuscript  was  published,  but  there   isn’t  much  information  on  what  informed  the  structure  of  the  book.  The  book  consists   of  scanned  facsimiles  of  the  138  notecards  (one  per  page),  with  a  written  transcription   of  the  content  of  the  card  below.  The  transcription  is  faithful  to  a  fault,  including  even   Nabokov’s  notes  to  himself  (“invent  tradename,  e.g.  cephalopium”)  that  are  clearly  not   intended  to  be  part  of  the  narrative  (Nabokov  127).  Phrases  that  Nabokov  underlined  on   the  cards  are  underlined  in  the  transcription.  The  cards  are  not  organized  into  chapters,   but  presented  with  the  heading  that  appears  at  the  top  of  the  card.  Some  of  these   headings  provide  a  useful  guide  to  Nabokov’s  intended  chronology,  others  are  more   cryptically  titled:  “Legs  1,”  “Legs  2,”  “XX,”  “Eric’s  Notes,”  “oo.”  Some  spelling  has  been   corrected  using  brackets,  but  “nonstandard”  spellings  have  been  retained.     These  precautions  suggest  a  cautious,  documentary-­‐style  editor  deeply   concerned  with  preserving  every  aspect  of  the  manuscript,  the  kind  that  G.  Thomas   Tanselle  laments  in  his  1995  essay,  The  Varieties  of  Scholarly  Editing.  Tanselle  asserts   that  an  editor’s  specialized  knowledge  and  insight  “enable[s]  them  to  construct  more   accurate  texts  than  any  of  the  producers  (scribes,  printers,  even  authors)  of  previous   texts  were  able  to  do”  (Tanselle  17).  Surely  no  one  has  more  specialized  information  on   Nabokov  than  Dmitri,  who  also  translated  and  edited  some  of  his  father’s  other  works.     Why  didn’t  Dmitri  bring  some  of  this  insight  to  bear  on  the  manuscript  and  impose  some   coherency  on  its  structure?    

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The situation  is  further  complicated  by  Dmitri’s  decision  to  perforate  the  cards   for  easy  removal  and  his  suggestion  that  the  reader  rearrange  them,  as  Nabokov  often   did.  This  can  be  read  as  a  continuation  of  the  conservative,  documentary  style  that  the   card  reproductions/transcriptions  suggest—the  most  accurate  expression  of  the  state  of   the  tangible  manuscript.  And  yet,  the  cards  have  been  placed  in  a  specific  order.  The   cards  that  are  most  clearly  enumerated  and  carry  a  narrative  thread  are  placed  in  order   at  the  beginning,  and  the  more  fragmentary  cards,  the  ones  with  only  a  context-­‐free  line   or  two  on  them,  are  arranged  in  the  back  half  of  the  book.  The  last  card  in  the  book  is  a   too-­‐convenient-­‐by-­‐half  card  listing  synonyms  for  the  word  “remove”:   “efface/expunge/erase/delete/rub  out/wipe  out/obliterate”  (Nabokov  275).  The  book’s   introduction  doesn’t  mention  what  order  (if  any)  the  cards  were  found  in,  or  what  the   process  was  for  ordering  them,  and  details  are  frustratingly  absent  from  interviews  with   Dmitri.  Of  course,  the  reader  has  to  the  option  to  remove  and  rearrange  the  cards,  but  I   suspect  that  most  are  content  to  read  them  in  the  order  prepared  by  Dmitri  and  the   Nabokov  scholars  who  assisted  him.  The  casual  reader  will  assume,  subconsciously  or   not,  that  this  is  the  “right”  order.  Thus,  Dmitiri  has  made  a  substantial  editorial  decision   and  neglected  to  make  even  a  cursory  note  about  this  process.  So  the  editing  of  Laura   cannot  be  classified  as  conservative  or  documentary,  which  Tanselle  deems  appropriate   for  works  of  solely  historical  merit.  Does  Laura  then  possess  value  beyond  its  historical   significance  as  the  last-­‐known  writing  from  a  legendary  author?    

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The answer  takes  us  down  the  well-­‐trod  paths  of  “work”  and  text.”  We  know   that  the  manuscript  for  Laura  is  a  document,  and  an  important  one.  But  does  it  contain   enough  narrative  value  to  be  considered  a  “text,”  and  merit  an  edit  befitting  one?     We  can  begin  with  Roland  Barthes  and  his  essay  “From  Work  to  Text.”  Barthes   defines  a  “work”  as  a  defined  and  tangible  object,  and  a  “text”  as  a  field  in  which   methodological  connections  can  be  made:  a  network  of  associations,  references,  and   symbols.  Barthes  conceives  of  the  text  as  field  for  “play,”  a  verb  chosen  for  its   spontaneous,  unstructured  connotations.  Reading  (or  “producing”  the  text)  is  not  a   linear  process:  the  text  can  be  “broken…it  can  be  read  without  the  guarantee  of  its   father…It  is  not  that  the  Author  may  not  ‘come  back’  in  the  Text…but  he  then  does  so  as   a  ‘guest’…his  life  is  no  longer  the  origin  of  his  fictions  but  a  fiction  contributing  to  his   work”  (Barthes  272).  The  card  format  of  Laura  seems  to  lend  itself  to  this  interpretation   of  text:  the  reader  can  “break”  the  text  (indeed,  it  is  already  broken,)  and  create  a   production  of  meaning  that  can    (in  opposition  to  the  New  Critical  theory  of  the  self-­‐ sufficient  text),  include  their  preconceptions  about  Nabokov.     This  characterization  of  text,  defined  by  the  reader’s  production  of  meaning,  is   shared  by  Stanley  Fish,  who  asserts  in  his  essay  “Interpreting  the  Variorum,”  that   intention  is  produced  and  attributed  by  the  reader  to  the  text.  There  is  a  dearth  (and  in   a  grand  sense,  a  repudiation)  of  evidence  for  authorial  intent  in  Laura,  but  the  readers   will  produce  an  intention  for  Nabokov,  in  effect,  “writing”  the  text  themselves.  That   said,  a  problem  arises  when  we  consider  that  Nabokov  did  not  intend  the  manuscript  to   be  published  in  its  unfinished  state.  To  write,  says  Fish,  is  to  extend  an  “invitation”  to  

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readers to  apply  a  set  of  strategies  on  the  text  (Fish  458).  Did  Nabokov  truly  extend  this   invitation,  simply  by  making  notes  about  the  novel  and  completing  a  few  rough   paragraphs?  The  formal  strategies  that  Nabokov  uses,  according  to  Fish,  would  have   been  informed  by  an  expectation  about  how  readers  generally  decode  those  strategies,   but  I’m  not  sure  that  expectation  constitutes  an  invitation,  though  Fish  likely  does.      

Less certain  would  be  Wolfgang  Iser’s  reaction  to  the  Laura.  Iser  shares  with  

Barthes and  Fish  the  belief  that  the  reader  creates  meaning  for  the  text:  “The  reader…   can  never  learn  from  the  text  how  accurate  or  inaccurate  are  his  view  of  it…the  codes   which  might  regulate  this  interaction  are  fragmented  in  the  text  and  must  first  be   reassembled”  (Iser  392).  This  initially  seems  like  a  fine  frame  through  which  to  read   Laura,  whose  status  as  “A  Novel  in  Fragments,”  seems  to  invite  the  connective  leaps  and   “perceptual  closures”  described  by  Iser.  However,  when  Iser  offers  a  framework  for   classifying  the  perspectives  of  narration—the  narrator,  the  characters,  the  plot,  and  the   fictitious  reader—we  see  that  several  of  these  are  missing  from  Laura.  I  would  argue   that  Laura’s  plot  is  too  insubstantial  to  be  classified  as  a  narrative  element,  and  I  would   argue  that  the  “fictitious  reader”  feels  as  shaky  to  me  as  Fish’s  notion  of  the  author’s   “invitation”  to  the  reader,  at  least  with  regard  to  Laura.  Both  theorists  would  dismiss   this  as  a  preoccupation  with  authorial  intent,  which  is  integrated  in  both  their  theories,   but  doesn’t  inform  them  in  the  same  way  it  might  for  Tanselle.  Ultimately,  I  believe  Iser   would  contend  that  a  reader  could  create  some  meaning  from  Laura,  but  that  the   book’s  blanks  and  negations  (in  this  case,  veritable  narrative  canyons)  might  prove  too   vast  to  provide  a  reading  rich  with  meaning.  

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One might  view  Barthes,  Fish,  and  Iser  as  part  of  continuum:  Barthes  is  most  

adamant that  authorial  intent  is  irrelevant,  while  Fish  and  Iser  allow  that  the  strategies   used  by  an  author  assist  the  reader  in  the  creation  of  the  meaning  of  the  text.  Paul   Eggert,  in  his  essay  “Document  and  Text:  The  ‘Life’  of  the  Literary  Work  and  the   Capacities  of  Editing,”  also  de-­‐prioritizes  the  author  and  focuses  on  reader-­‐produced   meaning:  “Neither  writing  nor  publication  is…a  production  of  text;  both  writing  and   printing  are  documentary  activities—physical  translations  of  mental  processes”  (Eggert   12).  Eggert  also  shares  Fish’s  belief  in  the  crucial  role  of  “interpretative  communities”  in   determining  meaning.  Both  theorists  acknowledge  that  some  of  the  specialized   knowledge  possessed  by  certain  interpretative  communities  will  include  historical  or   scholarly  information  about  the  tangible  “work”  (what  Eggert  calls  the  “document”),   including  information  about  the  author.  Eggert  doubles  down  on  this,  asserting  that   “Any  theory  of  editing  needs  to  recognize,  whether  consciously  or  not,  the  distinction   between  text  and  document,”  but  must  also  consider  historical  information  about  the   production  and  reception  of  the  work.  This  seems  like  a  pragmatic  lens  with  which  to   read  or  edit  Laura.  No  reader  of  the  book  will  be  unconscious  of  the  circumstances  of  its   publication,  especially  since  Dmitri  addresses  it  in  the  introduction.  The  history  of  Laura   cannot  help  but  be  the  “dark  matter”  in  the  readers’  minds,  and  though  this  is  an   extreme  case,  I  would  argue  that  in  any  setting,  the  reader  will  have  some  information   about  the  life  of  the  book  in  their  hand,  even  if  they  have  only  looked  at  the  cover  or   read  the  back  matter.  The  document  is  part  of  textuality.  Eggert  does  not  necessarily   advocate  for  a  text  whose  sole  concern  is  to  honor  authorial  intent,  but  he  

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acknowledges that  the  author  is  the  locus  of  the  historical,  social,  and  professional   context  of  the  work.      

Jerome McGann  amplifies  this  position  in  his  essay,  “The  Text,  the  Poem,  and  the  

Problem of  Historical  Method.”  McGann  advocates  for  greater  dialogue  between   proponents  of  the  “historical”  method,  and  so-­‐called  “intrinsic”  critics.  He  allows  that  a   work  can  transcend  its  social  and  historical  context,  but  he  believes  that   …the  method  of  printing  or  publishing  a  literary  work  carries  with  it  enormous   cultural  and  aesthetic  significance  for  the  work  itself…the  essential  character  of  a   work  of  art  is  not  determined  sui  generis  but  is,  rather,  the  result  of  a  process   involving  the  actions  and  interactions  of  a  specific  and  socially  integrated  group   of  people  (McGann  274).     This  is  especially  true  of  Laura,  whose  structure  and  content  constantly  refer  to  the   circumstances  in  which  it  was  published.     McGann  respects  authorial  intent,  but  only  to  the  extent  that  it  may  have   informed  a  certain  publication.  There  is  no  critical  text,  just  texts  that  were  prepared  by   different  people  (editors,  publishers,  authors)  for  different  purposes,  at  different  times.   McGann  argues  that  critical,  “eclectic”  texts  de-­‐historicize  the  work.  He  scoffs  at  the   notion  of  the  “text,”  which  he  calls  “a  critical  idea  which  at  once  reduces  poetry  to  a   verbal  construct  and  inflates  it  to  the  level  of  an  immaterial,  nonparticular  pure  Idea   (the  poem  as  Ideal  Text)”  (McGann  277).  On  purely  semantic  level  I  agree,  but  I  think   that  his  notion  that  the  text  is  supposed  to  represent  a  “pure  Idea”  is  a  little  shaky,  as   Barthes,  Iser,  Fish,  and  Eggert  all  celebrate  the  plurality  of  meanings  in  the  text.  McGann   later  asserts  that  no  work  has  “universal”  value—its  capacity  to  move  us  comes  from  its   humanity  and  its  human  origin—which  is  perhaps  what  he  was  referring  to  in  deriding  

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the notion  of  the  “pure  Idea.”  McGann  is  happy  to  tether  a  text  to  the  full  weight  of  its   associations,  perhaps  in  part  because  it  grounds  the  text  in  messy,  mundane,  reality— reasserting  its  “humanity.”   McGann’s  position  on  the  critical  text  does  seem  practical,  though.  A  work   accretes  diverse  influences  from  inception  to  reception,  and  the  notion  that  an  editor   can  weed  through  them  all  and  determine  which  represent  the  true  intentions  of  the   author  does  seem  unlikely.  One  wonders,  though,  what  course  of  editing  McGann   proposes,  if  every  edition  and  permutation  of  a  book  is  equally  valid.  I  assume  that   McGann  would  approve  of  the  structure  of  Laura,  in  that  it  acknowledges  its  historical   circumstances,  but  also  in  that  it  is  thoroughly  a  product  of  those  circumstances.  That  is,   every  decision  made  in  the  production  of  the  book—the  structure,  the  design,  the  tone   of  the  introduction—acknowledges  foreknowledge  of  the  book’s  place  in  history.  It  is  a   deeply  self-­‐conscious  document,  and  the  story  it  tells  is  much  more  compelling  than  the   story  it  purports  to.    

I’d like  to  return  now  to  G.  Thomas  Tanselle,  as  we  find  ourselves  at  the  end  of  

the authorial  intention-­‐continuum.  Tanselle  shares  McGann’s  interest  in  the  historical   context  of  a  work,  but  largely  as  a  means  of  illuminating  authorial  intent.  Tanselle   asserts  that  “intangible”  texts  like  manuscripts  are  simply  instructions  on  how  to   perform  a  particular  text,  and  an  editor’s  role  is  to  determine  what  form  the  author   wanted  that  performance  to  take:  “The  reconstruction  of  the  text  of  a  work  from  the   texts  of…documents  can  never  be  accomplished  with  certainty.  However  much  evidence   survives,  the  production  of  the  texts  of  works  always  involves  critical  judgment”  

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(Tanselle 12).  A  purely  documentary  text  is  not  necessarily  the  best  distillation  of  the   author’s  intent,  even  if  it  is  a  facsimile  of  the  author’s  manuscript  (and  in  any  case,   decisions  about  presenting,  structuring,  and  emending  a  facsimile  text  still  constitute   editorial  influence).  Tanselle  is  pragmatic  about  the  role  of  collaborators,  editors,  and   printers  in  the  production  of  texts,  suggesting  that  these  factors  be  weighed  carefully  by   anyone  attempting  to  produce  a  “critical”  edition.     Tanselle  favors  an  approach  to  textual  criticism  that  values  the  editor’s   contributions  to  the  text.  He  recognizes  the  utility  of  documentary  editions  for  certain   purposes,  but  since  Laura  bills  itself  as  “A  Novel  in  Fragments,”  and  not  a  historical   document  of  scholarly  value,  it’s  safe  to  say  that  Tanselle  would  favor  a  more  critically   edited  version  of  Laura,  though  it’s  difficult  to  imagine  what  form  it  would  take.       Laura’s  structure  seems  born  of  necessity.  One  has  to  wonder  what  the  book   would  have  looked  like  if  Nabokov  had  favored  legal  pads  or  napkins  over  notecards.   The  notecards  are  convenient,  too,  in  their  suggestion  that  some  permutation  of   shuffled  cards  could  be  the  key  to  understanding  Nabokov’s  intentions.  We  cannot  call   The  Original  of  Laura  a  critical  edition  (and  the  book  was  so  poorly  received  that  I   cannot  conceive  of  one’s  production,  although  certainly  parts  of  the  manuscript  will  be   reproduced  in  other  forms),  but  it  could  be  argued  that  we  actually  have  is  a  variorum  of   sorts.  The  notecards  are  the  sole  extant  manuscript,  so  they  can’t  be  defined  against   another  manuscript,  but  the  shuffleable  cards  do  allow  a  reader,  if  one  so  chose,  to   entertain  every  possible  variance  in  organization  and  meaning.    

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We can  say  that  The  Original  of  Laura  is  a  historical  document,  a  facsimile   edition,  a  Barthesian  text,  a  single-­‐source  variorum,  “A  Novel  in  Fragments,”  or  as  one   reviewer  quipped,  “simply  fragments  of  a  novel”  (Gates).  We  can  call  it  a  book,  since  we   may  hold  it  (it’s  heavier  than  you  might  expect)  and  turn  its  pages.     We  cannot  call  it  a  novel,  though,  and  it  cannot  be  the  final,  dizzying  masterpiece   we  imagined  when  all  we  knew  was  that  somewhere  out  there,  it  existed.  It  cannot  even   match  the  wild  and  wooly  story  of  its  own  death  sentence,  salvation,  and  publication:   the  last  story  that  Vladimir  Nabokov  ever  began.          

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Works Cited   Barthes,  Roland.  “From  Work  to  Text.”  Aesthetics.  Eds.  Susan  Feagin  and  Patrick     Maynard.  New  York:  Oxford  University  Press,  1997.  270-­‐274.  Print.   Eggert,  Paul.  “Document  and  Text:  The  "Life"  of  the  Literary  Work  and  the   Capacities  of  Editing.”  Text  Vol.  7  (1994)  :  1-­‐24.  Print.   Fish,  Stanley.  “Interpreting  the  Variorum.”  Critical  Inquiry  Vol.  2  No.  3  (1976)  :  391-­‐396.     Print.   Gates,  David.  “Nabokov’s  Last  Puzzle.”  New  York  Times  11  November  2009.  Web.   Iser,  Wolfgang.  “Interaction  Between  Text  and  Reader.”  The  Reader  in  the  Text:  Essays     on  Audience  and  Interpretation.  New  Jersey:  Princeton  University  Press,  1980.   Print.   Nabokov,  Vladimir.  The  Original  of  Laura.  New  York:  Alfred  A.  Knopf,  2009.  Print.   Tanselle,  G.  Thomas.  “The  Varieties  of  Scholarly  Editing.”  Scholarly  Editing:  A  Guide  to     Research.  Ed.  D.C.  Greetham.  New  York:  The  Modern  Language  Association  of   America,  1997.  9-­‐29.  Print.    

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