Saturday, January 19, 2008

I want to read that unpublished Nabokov manuscript

Maybe you saw this Slate story by Ron Rosenbaum about whether or not Vladimir Nabokov's son will accede to his father's wishes and destroy a last, unfinished manuscript that is now sitting in a Swiss bank vault.

Nabokov requested that his son Dmitri destroy the manuscript. But he's been dead more than 30 years and Dmitri hasn't burned it yet, so clearly he has mixed feelings about this. Rosenbaum expresses some of the questions this way:
Does it matter what V.N. would feel, since he's long dead? Do we owe no respect to his last wishes because we greedily want some "key" to his work, or just more of it for our own selfish reasons? Does the lust for aesthetic beauty always allow us to rationalize trampling on the artist's grave? Does the greatness of an artist diminish his right to dispose of his own unfinished work?
I would answer these questions no, no, no, and yes. Literary history is full of manuscripts published posthumously against the specific wishes of the authors. That's the case with almost all of Emily Dickinson and Franz Kafka, with Walter Benjamin's great "Theses on the Philosophy of History," and I'm sure there are many more. (Additional examples welcome.)

I certainly don't think it's the case that an artist's wishes should always be disregarded, but I do think at some point the greatness of the work outweighs the reticence of the writer. And no one is greater than Nabokov.

P.S. ... One of the arguments Dmitri seems to be considering in favor of destroying the manuscript is the preponderance of bad Nabokovianism. To that I say: waa waa. There will always be bad critics; writing bad criticism is just a lot easier than writing great novels. But why give the final say to those people? For fear of bad criticism, no book would ever be published.

1 comment:

haahnster said...

No one could stop the seemingly endless flood of posthumous Hendrix releases (or Tupac, or so many others). Posthumous releases are a huge portion of the recording industry. Now, I'm not sure how many of those musical artists specifically expressed their desire not to release some or all of that material. But, I think in many cases it was at least implied by the fact that it was cut from the album for which it was recorded.

I'm not saying the analogy here is perfect. But, in any event, I say RELEASE IT.

Question: Pardon my ignorance on the matter, but why didn't Nabokov destroy it himself? I've read Lolita and Pale Fire, but am certainly no expert on Nabokov.