SCOTT SIMON, host:
The name Lolita is singed into many minds because Vladimir Nabokov chose it for one of his most vivid characters. Could he do the same for the name Laura? We may never know. "The Original of Laura" is the title of the author's final work. Nabokov had filled 30 to 40 index cards with a handwritten draft of the novel before he died in 1977. He left instructions for his heirs to destroy them. He didn't want a rough draft to appear as a book.
And yet, "Laura" still exists. Nabokov's son, Dmitri, is on the verge of deciding what to do with the manuscript. And Ron Rosenbaum, columnist for Slate, has corresponded with Dmitri Nabokov about the decision and recently wrote the article Dmitri's Choice.
Mr. Rosenbaum joins us from our studios in New York.
Thanks so much for being with us.
Mr. RON ROSENBAUM (Columnist, Slate.com): Thanks for having me on.
SIMON: And why wasn't "Laura" burned, in fact, as the author wanted?
Mr. ROSENBAUM: Well, Dmitri is in a Hamlet-like position. He has the orders of a stern, dead ghostly patriarch - his father, Vladimir - saying destroy the manuscript. And when Vladimir died in '77, he asked his wife to burn this final unfinished manuscript.
Mr. ROSENBAUM: By 1991, when she died, she hadn't done it. And one can understand her reluctance. And the task then passed to Dmitri, who is now 73, and sooner or later has to make a decision about whether to obey his father's final wishes or to preserve for posterity, for scholars, for greedy people like myself who have loved Nabokov's work. And - so, you know, curiosity certainly drives us to want Dmitri to preserve it. But on the other hand, it raises the question of shouldn't we respect an artist's wishes not to have his unfinished final work published?
SIMON: You've been on all sides of this question, haven't you?
Mr. ROSENBAUM: Yes. When I first learned about the existence of "The Original of Laura," which now reposes in a safe deposit vault in Switzerland, I wrote a column for the New York Observer, saying, please Dmitri, don't burn "Laura." But then, after it came out, I found myself having second thoughts because I thought, well, you know, where is the respect for Nabokov? Does an artist's right to a work of art end when he dies and then we could just disrespect it or can we disrespect it because he's a great artist? Should we punish him because he's a great artist, and by saying that we're allowed to disrespect his wishes for posterity?
It made me sympathetic with Dmitri's dilemma, and I still don't know how it's going to end up. After my Slate column appeared, I got an e-mail from Dmitri, all in capital letters...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. ROSENBAUM: ...in which he was someone agitated at all the attention it had brought, although part of me thinks that he may enjoy the attention. Nonetheless, he said that when I make the decision, I will do it privately and - I think he said, tell no one. So for all we know, after Dmitri's death, someone may open the safe and find just ashes within it or will find those index cards, and scholars will begin to puzzle out whether it tells us something more about this amazing writer's work.
SIMON: Do you know anything about the book?
Mr. ROSENBAUM: Well, it's interesting. A 1911 New York Times article called The Original of Gretchen was about a controversy over Goethe's Faust and the character Gretchen in it and who was the model for it. So I guess the original of is a kind of literary term, in other words "The Original of Laura" would indicate that she is a fictional character...
Mr. ROSENBAUM: ...and the original of Laura would be a real person upon whom Laura was based. And there are some - there was someone who, through secondhand knowledge, I think, said something about it being about a lost love. Otherwise, we know very little about it and Dmitri has been very enigmatic about it.
SIMON: I mean, on the other hand, it could also be a story about a turtle.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. ROSENBAUM: You know, odds are it's not about a turtle but more likely a butterfly. Those were - if it's Nabokov and it's an animal, it's likely to be a butterfly, possibly a caterpillar.
SIMON: The request that Vladimir Nabokov made for "The Original of Laura" to be burned, it's a request made of someone who is not his literary executor per se, it's his son.
Mr. ROSENBAUM: Well, you know, he is now his literary executor. He is.
SIMON: But a son has different considerations than a literary executor. I'm just talking about...
Mr. ROSENBAUM: I know. He's - I think Dmitri is very divided.
Mr. ROSENBAUM: He's a son. He's a translator and co-translator with Nabokov and he's a literary executor. So he's divided in three...
Mr. ROSENBAUM: ...at least.
SIMON: Has he ever said anything to you that indicates that he's read the index cards?
Mr. ROSENBAUM: Oh, yes. He did say that he had made a copy onto more conventional manuscript pages of the contents of the index cards. So that might be another way of finessing the...
Mr. ROSENBAUM: ...ultimate decision. He could burn the cards and keep the copy. And he's characterized it a couple of different ways, or perhaps they're not different. He said final distillation of my father's art, and he said a radical departure from the past. It's not necessarily in conflict, but he may be the only one who knows.
SIMON: Ron Rosenbaum, and his most recent book, "The Shakespeare Wars," is just out in paperback. Thank you so much.
Mr. ROSENBAUM: Thank you, Scott.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.