The faintest ink is better than the best memory -

The faintest ink is better than the best memory


I’m a late discoverer of the ridiculous  genius of Nabokov. I read Lolita in university, and watched the film a bunch of times, but while I understood – from the famous opening lines – that he was a writer who had the English language by the tail, I was too lazy, or too intimidated, or both, to read more of his books.

This past summer I read Pale Fire, walked around in a daze for a week or so after, then buried myself in the delight of Pnin. Speak, Memory is next on the agenda, though it maybe a while before I get to it.

When Nabokov died in 1977, he left behind  138 handwritten index cards, which were the fragments of a final book titled “The Original of Laura”. The problem is, he instructed his family to burn the cards after his death. Instead, they fell to his son Dmitri, who kept them locked in a Swiss vault for thirty years, showing them to a select group of scholars and hinting that he was inclined to finally obey his father’s wishes.

That book has now been published to a storm of controversy. Some scholars are delighted with the work, while others – including Tom Stoppard – think that the author’s wishes outweigh any desires by the family and public to see it published.

Yesterday’s edition of On Point on NPR was devoted to the book and to the nature of Nabokov’s creativity. It’s worth listening to just for the great audio-clips of Nabokov ripping into writers like Proust and Pasternak, but it also digs into the question of whether the book should have been published in the first place.

Listen to the On Point podcast

My own views on this are straightforward: of course the book should have been published. Writing, like life itself, is a war against entropy; it is a relentless campaign to bring  coherence, meaning, and beauty to the anarchic indifference of the universe. A million monkeys could type randomly for a million years and never come up with anything as remotely poetic as the opening couplet of the poem “Pale Fire” – it takes a consciousness to bring order to the alphabet, to subject syllables to semantic discipline.

The war involves of billions of individual battles, and while death comes to us all eventually, our creations are potentially immortal. There may not be a single one of Aristotle’s genes still floating around the pool, but his memes are more more numerous and more prolific than ever. The thoughts, the ideas, the poetry on those 138 index cards represents a permanent beachhead against entropy (well, as permanent as you’ll get in a universe that is itself finite), and to deliberately destroy them would be as criminal as deliberately destroying a human consciousness.

The dead have no right to constrain the living, at least not in the war against chaos. It is to Dmitry Nabokov’s credit, and our eternal benefit, that he refused his father’s request to commit literary capital punishment.

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The faintest ink is better than the best memory

  1. Possibly the best review on it I`ve read, from one who`s up to the task:

    And there`s a New Yorker podcast of Mary Gaitskill reading Nabokov`s Signs and Symbols that will knock you right back into that daze as well.

    • Thanks for the link, much appreciated.

      • JMD — that review leads me to possibly revise my conlcusion slightly. Instead of saying the book should definitely have been published, I might instead say:

        Not necessarily published, but necessarily not destroyed.

        • Exactly.

          Even Hemon in Slate has to admit there are finely cut gems of N. at his best here.
          Save it all. Every word.

  2. I am going to have to think about this. I am 50/50 between it is Nabokov's property and he decides its fate and Potter's impassioned argument about words/ideas transcending the ages.

  3. The dead have no right to constrain the living, at least not in the war against chaos.

    Right on. And that's why I will never join Writer's Union who are copyright maximalists who believe the dead should constrain the living (as well as the living constrain the living.)

  4. Kafka made the same request, likewise dishonoured. When I adjudged his Eleven Sons to be a parable of the writer’s creative process I as soon felt no imperative to preserve it and knew that had I been entrusted by Kafka to set all his works on the pyre I would have. Nabokov’s son betrayed his father. Writers learning from the consequence of betrayal are as stained as the disloyal son.

  5. Everyone should also keep in mind that Nabokov wanted to burn his manuscript of Lolita, but his wife stopped him.

  6. If he had wanted to burn the cards he should have burned them. Take that entropy, and that!

  7. I'm not necessarily opposed to publication, though I think in this sort of instance it should have been done as a scholarly, rather than general, edition. Maybe even have the entire book be photoreproductions of the index cards themselves, without the interference of an editor putting them into order, etc. But it does disturb me when these things are published in general editions that (despite whatever disclaimers) tend to promise some level of completeness.

    • I agree with that. I made a note above qualifying my argument. The point is, it should not be destroyed. That does not mean it's in anyway a commercially viable or critically complete work.

    • I'm not sure I understand how this would work. What would be the difference between those two editions? Higher price and less availability? If it's going to go out into the world, why should only PhDs have access and not Nabokov's other readers. I think that's a publishing strategy, based on what I know about Nabokov, that would annoy him even more than the current publication.

      The existing book is photoreproductions of his index cards, isn't it? How could they be presented without an editor putting them into order? (It's entirely possible I've just horribly misunderstood what you meant.)

      I agree with your final seven words though. The subtitle "A Novel in Fragments" is ridiculous, as it suggests the novel was intended to be a fractured narrative. "Fragments of a Novel" would be far more appropriate.