Nabokov: Burn His Partials or Preserve Them?

There’s a slightly interesting discussion here about whether Vladimir Nabokov’s unfinished “The Original of Laura” novel should be destroyed as he wished or preserved and possibly published.

I’m a huge fan of Nabokov–he’s taught me more about writing than any other writer–and am conflicted by the issue. The writer in me wants to see the partial, wants to see any notes, jottings, drafts still in existence, as a way of learning more about writing. The reader in me says, destroy the partial as Nabokov wanted.

Does anyone care about this specific case, or about the general issue of preservation or destruction of papers, drafts, and partials that the writer has said should be destroyed? What is the value of keeping them? At what point do a writer’s rights end and the reading public’s, or academic’s, rights begin?

I’m asking here because the discussion at the Reading Experience has gone downhill fast.


  1. says

    Based on what I read (and after trying to ignore some of the asshattery being displayed in the comments section), if the work is only roughly 30 pages, I really couldn’t see any real justification in this particular case for it to be published by itself. If it’s somehow the equal to Nabakov’s other works, I could see it being made available in a university’s special collections for researchers, but if it’s lacking a true structure and end (or even a middle), then why bother in this particular case?

    But the other cases, like that of Kafka, are a bit harder to decide, considering it’s all fiat accompli anyways. I know I for one am glad that works like those of Kafka and Vergil were saved despite their authors’ declared wishes for them to be destroyed, but I cannot help but wonder if there’s a much larger question here: That of the place and role of the Author in Art. If something becomes of public value (say a painting or a “great novel”), then does the Author/Maker of that piece lose proprietary rights? It’s an issue I think we’ve been struggling with in recent years, especially with music royalties and I wouldn’t be surprised if people’s attitudes on the Nabakov question would correlate strongly with certain beliefs regarding copyright/royalties.

  2. says

    I’m of the same mind as you, Jeff. I’m curious, but at the same time would like to see Nabokov’s wishes carried out. It’s a tricky issue. Although I like Larry’s idea of placing them in the special collection of a university library.

  3. Divers Hands says

    This was actually the topic of discussion in a class I took a few years back which featured Nabokov’s works quite heavily. The professor had actually studied under Nabokov at Cornell and believed quite fervently that the “Great Man” ‘s (Not joking there. Called Nabokov that almost exclusively during discussions. This particular professor literally worshipped the ground the man walked on – kept a jar of dirt to prove it. At first, I thought it was just a clever joke, but the individual was posessed of a passion for the man most strict religious adherents would have had trouble mustering for their preferred deity.) wishes should be repected unquestioningly. I’m more of the opinion that people only dictate things like this at their death as some kind of last little hubris. Honestly, unless your memoir turns out to be an illustrated appreciation of child pornography (and just picture that in an ornate Victorian font on an oversized hard bound volume, complete with little nude putto and an idyllic scene of frollicking waifs) what reason do you really have to want your works destroyed? Afraid someone might mock your unpublished scribbles? Plagiarise that last great idea or line?

    I operate under the belief that once you’re dead that should be it from a legal sense. You are no longer in use of your body or its various faculties, and thus whatever remains should be dedicated to the greater good. Any viable organs you have should be harvested, physical property not specificlly willed to others should be donated to public and/or charitable institutions and your intellectual works should be given up to the public domain – no exceptions. Only the living should be able to make money from their work – the dead either don’t or can’t care (Because if either case were not true we would be haunted by a lot of whiny pedantic assholes complaining about how we abused their favorite t-shirt by tossing it in the rag bin or be forced to wander the earth trying to recover that sold off record collection.). I mean, how sad is it that artists like Elvis Presley and Kurt Cobain consistently generate more revenue than actual touring acts these days?

    Therefore, unleash the hounds of critical theory and toss poor lost Sirin’s manuscripts and notes to the ravenous eyes and pens and would be geniuses. Will it generate a lot of crap? Absolutely. But just think of those few rare gems of brilliance and polish that just might emerge…

  4. says

    Divers Hands nailed it. Once you’re gone from the flesh, there’s no further interest in the world. Personally I can understand why a living writer might wish for his unpolished works to be destroyed (in fact, I think I need to have a little fire of my own one day soon, just to make sure a few little embarrassments never see the light of day) but once he’s gone he’s not going to know or care what we do with em – or with his history or anything else.

    The idea of one’s physical detritus being applied to the overall good is right on. My father turned 80 last year and he’s looking down the barrel of his own mortality. I’ve made a couple of trips to New Mexico expressly to help him distribute stuff that he wants disseminated a certain way, knowing when he’s gone two things will be true: His unaccounted stuff will be scattered randomly, and he won’t be able to do anything about it.

    Perhaps Nabokov wanted to have the option of working right up to the last minute, so didn’t destroy these works himself. But leaving such a wish seems to me ill considered, unfair, and ultimately silly. Whatever is decided, Nabokov isn’t going to know about it and the benefit that could be derived from these papers seems great enough to preserve them.

    Unless of course he left something like this

    Shut up, confounded
    Crippled, stranded
    By ennui I
    Pivot on myself

    In which case he should have burned it himself!

  5. says

    I suppose if we feel we must honor the wishes of the dead we could just make facsimiles of the work in question and then burn the original. Everyone wins!

  6. Andrew Cooper says

    Vergil said to burn “The Aeneid” at his death, but the Roman emperor ordered that it shouldn’t be burned.

  7. says

    I’d like to chime in as a Rare Books and Special Collections Librarian, with a particular interest in archiving the works of current, living SF authors. I’m responsible currently for the archives of E.E. Knight, Jack McDevitt, and Sarah Monette, as part of our SF archive collection at Northern Illinois University, in DeKalb, IL. I have agreements with other authors that I don’t discuss publicly until I have materials in hand (7 of which are on the SF Novelists blog), but if you wish to email me privately, I’d be glad to share some additional names with you.

    Please consider archiving your materials. Even the stuff that you currently find embarassing. Especially in genre literature, not enough archival source materials get saved in relation to the amount that was produced at the time. And the materials that don’t get saved can’t get studied. Simply put, the canon gets established over time based on what materials are available. If you want to shape the canon, you need to have materials available to scholars for study. Nineteenth-century literature is like this–with the exception of the acknowledged “rock stars,” it is actually difficult to get a feel for what was really widely popular at the time because it wasn’t considered “important enough” to get saved. And yes, families had a tendency to burn “inappropriate” materials, which scholars still mourn to this day, because it makes it very difficult to form a complete idea of the working life of an author with an incomplete record.

    Everything does not have to come into the archive at once. You can always hold the stuff that you’re less happy with back until a later date (or posthumously).

    I think that the Nabokov materials should be in an archive. The family can always choose to restrict access to those materials, but I think that it is important for every aspect of the writing process to be documented, including the failures. Otherwise, the historic record of the writer becomes distorted. Isn’t it kind of reassuring to know that *everything* Nabokov did wasn’t genius, even if overall he was a “Great Man?”

  8. says

    My intuitions seem to depend on how much time has passed since the author’s death, which can’t be rational, but there you go. I would feel very strongly the case for respecting, say, Kurt Vonnegut’s wishes for the disposal of his unpublished manuscripts; but it would seem (to me) utterly ridiculous for historians to worry about whether e.g. the Venerable Bede would have wanted them pawing through his private papers.

    Probing my intuitions further, my respect for the author’s wishes declines slowly as we go back through the twentieth century, and drops off very sharply at around 1914.

    Should authors/artists get special solicitude? If historians are going to refrain from reading Nabakov’s unpublished manuscripts because we think he wouldn’t have wanted us to, should they also refrain from reading, e.g., Civil War letters, if we think the authors meant them to be private? (This isn’t a rhetorical question — I’m genuinely conflicted).

  9. says

    No one should burn books or destroy them, period. Nabakov left them behind, so they are no longer his, really. I almost wonder if his wish wasn’t a sort of grim posturing–a perverted joke–something to see if he would be treated like Virgil or a mere mortal–suffer the horrible fate of Gogol or be considered precious.

  10. Land of the Timblynods says

    Yeah, it’s on the level of sacrilege, to destroy it. How much more bulging his oevre would be had Hawthorne not cast 12 years of material to the flame. One mans trash is another’s treasure–something like that, but on a more monumental scale. Surely it would be worse to blow up a star. Every surviving jot and tittle of his stuff should be preserved–every excretion of the mind scooped up for posterity.


  11. Daniel B says

    When I first heard of this, I was on the side of keeping it, but have changed my mind.

    I think not honoring an artist’s very clear wishes can have a suppressing effect on future art and the artist’s willingness to experiment (or to write first drafts as roughly as may come natural to them).

    A writer of stature, especially, is likely to have very real concerns (if not obsessions) about maintaining their hard-won reputation. That’s a simple fact. If, in misplaced “service to a higher cause”, the writer knows that ANYTHING he writes may be published, who’s to say certain things won’t even be attempted (or will be destroyed before they have a chance to develop) out of fear they will come to light in their unfinished stages and tarnish the writer’s career.

    I know I have written things that would mortify me if shown in the original draft, but I had no real worries that would happen, so wrote them freely. We should offer the same respect to Nabokov and other artists who have made their wishes clear.

    To say that no artistic work should be destroyed is silly in this case. I’m sure Nabokov destroyed many first drafts on the way to a work’s completion. Out of respect for him, and to send a clear message that future writer’s can write as they please without the potentially inhibiting fear of thier unfinished efforts being used against them, the “Original of Laura” should be destroyed.

    -Daniel B.

  12. says

    Daniel– I didnt say writers can’t destroy their own work. But to leave it to someone else to destroy your work is a bit cowardly. It is also cowardly to not write what you want to for fear that in the middle you will accidentally O.D. and the rough draft will be shown to the world. If a writer doesn’t have the balls to do something because they are afraid of someone seeing the half finished work, then they need to get take up weaving.

  13. Daniel B. says

    >> I didn’t say writers can’t destroy their own work. But to leave it to someone else to destroy your work is a bit cowardly.

    No, I’d say it’s realistic to have a plan for your unfinished work should you die or become incapacitated.

    >> It is also cowardly to not write what you want to for fear that in the middle you will accidentally O.D. and the rough draft will be shown to the world. If a writer doesn’t have the balls to do something because they are afraid of someone seeing the half finished work, then they need to get take up weaving.

    I guess I don’t agree with your criteria for who should or shouldn’t be a writer. Concern for someone seeing the work in an unfinished state doesn’t really have any bearing on the quality of the ultimate output. Nabokov was obviously concerned about just that–does that mean he didn’t have balls? Should he have taken up weaving?

    -Daniel B.

  14. says

    I have serious doubts about Nabokov caring whether people read his unfinished work. From my understanding, his passing away was not sudden, so if it was something that important to him, he probably would have done away with the work himself. If there was any worry, I am almost certain it was because he didn’t want to be thought of as a crappy writer—not that he was afraid people would see his strange experiments.

    The bottom line is: burn your papers if you want them burned, but don’t leave it up to other people to do.

  15. Daniel B. says

    >> have serious doubts about Nabokov caring whether people read his unfinished work.

    Then why did he explicitly order it destroyed upon his death?

    >> The bottom line is: burn your papers if you want them burned, but don’t leave it up to other people to do.

    Probably good advice, but not always practical if you are still working with those papers (even if you are in a state of decline).

    It seems you’re willing to afford Nabokov two options:

    1. Give up working on the project and burn it all while he was alive.
    2. Be prepared to let everyone see his work after his death, in whatever state it happened to be in.

    I don’t believe it’s anyone else’s place to insist he conform to either of those options.

    I would like to think a 3rd option: “Entrust a loved one to dispose of the papers should he die” was his right to choose as well, and that request should be honored–both out of respect for his wishes, and to avoid a chilling effect on future writers who have the same concerns.

    -Daniel B.

  16. says

    Ok, just no body leave me as the person to burn their stuff. Because I won’t do it.

    Funny, I save most of the crap I write. Even the worst stuff I save. That way, five or ten thousand years from now, they can build a large pyramid to hold these papers and the in initiated (all fourteen hundred million of them) can enter and chant my scripture aloud while a small man wearing a napkin prepares tea.

    Yes Jeff, my satalite images of your house show a small plume of grey smoke ascending into the air.