The Guardian reported today that Vladimir Nabokov’s son Dmitri has finally decided not to burn his father’s unfinished and fragmentary manuscript, titled ‘Laura.’ Nabokov, a noted perfectionist, was adamant during his lifetime about not having his legacy tarnished by unfinished works, and so forbade them from being published after his death in 1977. After its rediscovery, the manuscript sat in a vault for a few years while Dmitri pondered whether to burn it and deprive the literary world of another insight into the mind of one the greatest writers of the 20th century, or to betray his father’s wishes and publish it. In the end, his gut told him that revealing ‘Laura’ was too seductive to pass up.
After years of hype and uncertainty, it is likely that ‘Laura’ will disappoint many (most?) when it is finally published. Written on 50 index cards, it can’t possibly compare to Nabokov’s complete works. Realistically, it will probably be a lot more appealing to Nabokov scholars and biographers, helping them get a more complete picture of the writer’s life and intellectual development, rather than to the layman who is only interested in a casual reading. Even if now we finally have a definite decision on Dmitri’s part, what remains most interesting about this whole story is the moral and ethical dilemma that it brings about.
What if Max Brod had decided to follow Kafka’s wishes and burn all his manuscripts, which contained two unfinished novels (The Castle and Amerika), along with a myriad of stories and short aphorisms? Kafka was almost unknown during his life, and had he remained just as obscure, we would never know one of the earliest and most emblematic symbols of European modernism. The impact of ‘Laura’ is unlikely to be this major but it still deserves to be seen; otherwise Nabokov should have either burned it himself or never have put his ideas on paper. Ultimately we can’t control our legacies from beyond the grave, no matter how much we may want to. Once we are gone, we do not belong to ourselves anymore, but only to those who are still alive.