The Original of Laura Tina Morgan Editorial Theory WR510 Section 2 April 30, 2013
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
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?
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?
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
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.
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
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
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”
(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.
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.
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.