All Things Considered, April 30, 2008 · Vladimir Nabokov's final work — an unfinished manuscript scholars call The Original of Laura — was meant to be destroyed 30 years ago. When Nabokov died in 1977, he left instructions for his heirs to burn the 138 handwritten index cards that made up the rough draft.
But Nabokov's wife, Vera, couldn't bear to destroy her husband's last work, and when she died, the fate of the manuscript fell to her son. Dmitri Nabokov, now 73, is the Russian novelist's only surviving heir. He says he inherited the problem of whether to honor his father's wishes or save the literary master's last written words for posterity.
Dmitri, who translated many of his father's novels and short stories, says he never planned to destroy the manuscript — "I wouldn't have wanted to go down in history as a literary arsonist," he says — the question was really how to preserve it.
Dmitri says he could have stored it away, where it would have inevitably been discovered, or he could publish it now and "present this wonderful gift to the public" while he is still alive.
"My father was running the last yards of a 100-yard — or 100-card — dash to achieve this work before he died…" Nabokov says. "Until the last moments, practically, he was writing in his hospital bed."
Dmitri says the only reason that his father did not want the manuscript published was because it was not quite complete. "He did not want unfinished bits trailing behind him after his death," Nabokov recalls.
But after 30 years of grappling with the decision, Nabokov has announced his plans to publish the novel.
"I came to the very clear conclusion," Nabokov says, "imagining my father, with a wry smile, in a calmer and happier moment, saying, 'Well you're in a real mess here — go ahead and publish. Have some fun.'"