Sunday, February 17, 2008

Burning Books

I've probably missed a bit of the debate about whether his son should burn Nabakov's "last manuscript". I think Tom Stoppard's response that it should be burnt, because that was Nabakov's wish, is a little out of order. Writers aren't necessarily the best judge of these things - what they are the best judge of, I think, is how they want a work to be presented. A writer should always have the final cut, not the editor or publisher. Yet, there's a difference with the posthumous work. I'd say that over the last twenty or thirty years the lack of a new generation of literary superstars (particularly in what was once called "modernism"), combined with the growth in the academic establishment, has made us far keener to over-preserve our geniuses, in that we might understand them more. As I look over at my wall of literary biographies, I realise that this insight into their process, their development, is as key in our understanding - and appreciation - of literary figures as it in us poring over Blake's notebooks, Beethoven's manuscripts or Turners sketches, in their art forms. Though Nabakov didn't sanction the "final cut" of "The Original of Laura", he did, I think we can agree, wish that his (body of) work would live beyond his life, not be taken to the grave with him. Writers don't build statues to their lives, they write books and poems and plays; but just as Ozymandias's might statue was buried in the sand after the culture around him withered and died, so does a masterpiece require a culture to protect it. In the case of Nabakov - and I would say all of the modernists of the 20th century - there's a sense that their innovation, their "project" if you like, risks being lost once the generation of readers who found them whilst they were still alive, disappears. Even in the Times article there's a reminder of this, Princeton students finding Nabakov "too literary" for them. Remember, the Metaphysical poets, were forgotten for years - even Shakespeare had a trough after his death. What shouldn't be done is the publishing of "The Original of Laura" as a complete work, a fragmentary "new book by Nabakov". I felt very queasy about the issuing of Larkin's juvenilia for instance, yet found it valuable to read about in Motion's biography or in the letters. In this case, I think Nabakov's last work, like his working papers, or his drafts of finished novels, or any other unfinished work, has the same status. Some of the most inspiring experiences of my life have been in seeing an artist's work presented in full, from early promise, through their great period(s), to the decline - or perhaps, given a young death, a Keats or a Pollock for instance, a dip as they begin on a new phase or project. Whether or not it was Nabakov's wish that his final work was destroyed or not; I tend to agree that enough time has gone now to see that his wish was respected. A writer, has regret for those things that are missing - in other words, had Nabakov lived, or had "The Original of Laura" been the writing of a younger man, it would, in all likelihood have fed into his other works, a source text - even if it was never complete.

1 comment:

Dave King said...

Why are we so obsessed with the world not missing a line of what's been written? What was his state of mind when he made the request? What are talking about here? A fragment of a novel, not something to compare with Shakespeare's plays. There are so many issues. Writing my own post, I found more the more I wrote, but it comes down, surely, to rights: what gives who the right to over-ride the wishes of a dying man? He decided during his life what to write and what not to write. He had the right to decide what to leave and what not to leave.