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.