Sentences — August 7, 2008, 6:22 pm

Weekend Read: An unwritten, half written, rewritten difficult book

Two months ago, I wrote about the news of Dmitri Nabokov having announced, after protracted hemming and internationally reported hawing, that he intended to publish his father Vladimir’s final, unfinished novel, The Original of Laura: Dying is Fun. At the time, and among other things, I mentioned that pieces of this mysterious novel had actually already unmysteriously appeared, nine years ago, in The Nabokovian, the twice-yearly publication of the International Vladimir Nabokov Society (IVNS). You can read about the quite interesting circumstances of that advent here. As a bonus, that post also included, tucked into its distant tail-end, a piece of one of the pieces of Laura that IVNS had already shared with an uninterested world.

As the world always seems to take greatest interest in what is loudly hidden from view than in what it quietly and abundantly has, curiosity in and conversation about Laura has grown since Dmitri announced his intentions. When will it appear? readers now wonder. Who will publish it? readers ask. Is it any good? I can’t wait to find out. The first two questions have yet to be publicly settled, but the final one has been treated by Nabokov biographer Brian Boyd who, in the TLS, said:

I think it is a fascinating novel. It is very fragmentary, people shouldn’t expect to be swept away. He is doing some very brilliant things with the prose, the story just flashes by, the characters are rather unappealing. It seems a technical tour de force, just as Shakespeare’s later works where he is extending his own technique in very, very concentrated ways. [The text is as] grotesque in some ways as, and unsavoury in different ways from, Lolita. It’s the kind of writing that induces admiration and awe but not engagement.

For this installment of Weekend Read, the fun begins with a second snippet of a section of Laura that appeared in The Nabokovian. Who knows precisely at what juncture it arrives in this story said to be about comically fat Philip Wild, brilliant neurologist, but I can say that it does engage this reader:

A tear of no particular meaning gemmed the hard top of her cheek. Nobody could tell what went on in that little head. Waves of desire rippled there, a recent lover fell back in a swoon, hygienic doubts were raised and dismissed, contempt for everyone but herself advertised with a flush of warmth its constant presence, here it is, cried what’s-her-name squatting quickly. My darling, dushka moya (eyebrows went up, eyes opened and closed again, she didn’t meet Russians often, this should be pondered).

Masking her face, coating her sides, pinaforing her stomach with kisses—all very acceptable while they remained dry.

Her frail, docile frame, when turned over by hand, revealed new marvels—the mobile omoplates of a child being tubbed, the incurvation of a ballerina’s spine, narrow nates of an ambiguous, irresistible charm (nature’s beastliest bluff, said Paul de G. watching a dour old don watching boys bathing).

Only by indentifying her with an unwritten, half written, rewritten difficult book could one hope to render at last what. . . .

As for more on Dmitri’s decision-making, not to say his engagement with his father’s posterity, I offer, as a more substantial contribution to your armchair entertainment, an interview with Dmitri. Not another one, you might say, if you’ve been following the news, but this interview, with Sueellen Stringer-Hye, is less self-promotional and more robust. It ranges from the personal to the technical, from the literary to the administrative, and all of it is lucid and fascinating. It appears in the current issue of The Nabokov Online Journal (NOJ), a publication of Dalhousie University, of Halifax. I came to the interview through the kind advice of Steve Crook, estimable librarian of the Berg Collection of the New York Public Library. “The Berg Collection,” their website says, “contains some 30,000 printed volumes, pamphlets, and broadsides, and 2000 linear feet of literary archives and manuscripts, representing the work of more than 400 authors.” Among these authors is Nabokov père, whose manuscripts and books and letters and other objects reside there. Mr. Crook had the enviable task of archiving every last stitch of it, little glimpses of which, through the years, I’ve had the privilege of seeing. He has my thanks today for alerting me to the interview, which contains this from Dmitri:

If I were overseer of the world (as I sometimes fantasize) there are many changes I would consider. For instance, I would eliminate shopping malls, which seem to spawn mass shootings. I would cancel popular holidays that promote the most vicious human instincts. While I was at it, I might also consider the option of a third term for a current president if it is obvious that nobody can do the job better, thereby postponing by at least a year the energy, time, and expense of a futile election. When an election did become necessary, I would abolish the mention of religion in political contexts. I would drastically limit the expenditures that all the hoopla entails, and redirect all leftover funds, through strictly controlled channels, to the poor and the ill, upon whom we bestow such abundant lip service.

And it continues here. I propose it as your Weekend Read.

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Ashley arrived for her prenatal appointment at Black Hills Obstetrics and Gynecology, in Rapid City, South Dakota, wearing a black zip-up hoodie and Converse sneakers.1 To explain her absence from work that morning — a Tuesday in April 2015 — she had told a co-worker that she was having “female issues.” She was twenty-five years old and eight weeks pregnant. She had been separated from her husband, with whom she had a five-year-old son, for the better part of a year. The guy who’d gotten her pregnant was someone she’d met at the gym, and he’d made it abundantly clear that he wanted nothing more to do with her. Ashley found herself hoping that the doctor would discover some kind of fetal defect, so that her decision would be easier. She glanced across the waiting room at a television playing a birth-control ad and laughed darkly. “Jesus, Lord, it would be so nice if someone just pushed me down a flight of stairs.”

In the exam room, she perched on the table with her feet crossed at the ankles, her blond hair brushing the back of her pink hospital gown. “I don’t know what’s available for me here,” she told her doctor, Katherine Degen, who sat facing her on a stool. “I figured nothing.”

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The baby was due in November, when Ashley, who was a nurse, hoped to be enrolled in a graduate program to become a nurse practitioner. Getting pregnant as a teenager had forced her to put that dream on hold, but she had thought that she was finally ready; she had even submitted her application shortly before the March 15 deadline. For the first time in her adult life, Ashley felt as if her plans were coming together. Then she missed her period.

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In the exam room, she perched on the table with her feet crossed at the ankles, her blond hair brushing the back of her pink hospital gown. “I don’t know what’s available for me here,” she told her doctor, Katherine Degen, who sat facing her on a stool. “I figured nothing.”

 Some names and identifying details have been changed. 

“Big, fat zero, unfortunately,” Degen said, making a 0 with her fingers. The last doctor who provided abortions in Rapid City retired in 1986, three years before Ashley was born.

The baby was due in November, when Ashley, who was a nurse, hoped to be enrolled in a graduate program to become a nurse practitioner. Getting pregnant as a teenager had forced her to put that dream on hold, but she had thought that she was finally ready; she had even submitted her application shortly before the March 15 deadline. For the first time in her adult life, Ashley felt as if her plans were coming together. Then she missed her period.

It would be too difficult to attend school as a single mother of two, Ashley knew. She had made an appointment for three weeks from now at the nearest abortion clinic, in Billings, Montana, 318 miles away. But just a week and a half ago, her husband had said he wanted to get back together and offered to raise the child as his own. Was it a sign that she was meant to continue the pregnancy? As a rule, Ashley approached her problems with resolve. She was capable and tough; she liked shooting guns and lifting weights. She kept track of her stats and checked off her goals as she achieved them one by one. Yet the dilemma before her had shaken her confidence. She leaned back and turned to watch the ultrasound screen. The black-and-white image danced. A sharp, fast thumping emerged from the machine. As Degen removed the wand, Ashley wiped the corner of her eye.

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