Thanks to a generous colleague (yay Mitchell!), I landed myself a front-row seat at an event at the 92nd Street Y celebrating Vladimir Nabokov and his most recent work ‘The Original of Laura’ which was published posthumously. The 2 hour program included keen insights into Nabokov’s life, poignant readings of his work and a sneak preview of what the soon-to-be-published ‘The Original of Laura’ will look like. It was a stellar cast all around.
The evening began with a 1964 recording of Nabokov reading out one of his favorite poems, “The Ballad of Longwood Glen” at the 92nd street Y. What an animated and dynamic voice he had! It bubbled with “nasty compassion” and rose with “comic fastidiousness” and pondered the mystery of Art Longwood’s strange ending. It felt surreal to hear his booming voice in the darkness, and the synchronized laughter of two audiences 35 years apart following almost every line.
Aussie Brian Boyd, Nabokov’s biographer, went next, complaining that he had a “hard act to follow”. He’s Irish and emigrated to New Zealand, which meant that for the first 5 minutes, I was just getting used to his accent. He told us how he first got his hands on ‘The Original of Laura’ some years ago when he asked Nabokov’s wife Vera and son Dmitri if he could read it. Vera finally consented, but he could only read it under her “trained eye” and wasn’t allowed to take any notes. Nabokov had instructed Vera, before he died, to destroy the book, so her hesitation was understandable. Boyd confessed last night that his own reaction wasn’t quite as straightforward; when first asked by Vera and Dmitri what to do with the book, he seconded Nabokov’s morbid opinion to destroy it. He sighed with palpable relief that they completely ignored his suggestion and kept the book alive, and indulged us with some sentences he found memorable (having since read and re-read it, with an opportunity to take notes.):
A teenage girl’s first observation of an erect penis – “…head [of the penis] turned askew as if weary of a backhanded slap he may receive at the decisive moment”. This girl’s name is Flora, who was the Greek goddess of fertility. Boyd noted that Nabokov turned that image upside down, since this female character is more like the goddess of sterility. Another sneak peek quote: Flora, naked with a man, is described as having an “exquisite bone structure that slipped into a novel…supported several poems.” I found that absolutely beautiful; how delicate yet confused a character.
The main character’s obsession with erasing himself, since his life is “an anthology of humiliation”. ‘Anthology,’ Boyd explained, is derived from the Greek word to collect flowers, and here, again, Nabokov cleverly used it in a more unappealing context, quite a contrast to the idea of collecting items of beauty.
Boyd told a story about ‘The Nabokovian’, a magazine (1 in 5, actually; so much Nabokov love in the world) dedicated to Nabokov’s work, that created a contest to see who could write most like Nabokov. Dmitri, Nabokov’s son, submitted parts of ‘The Original of Laura’, and it didn’t win. Which just went to show how new and fresh and evolving Nabokov’s writing was, always keeping the reader on his toes. Boyd eloquently and admiringly attributed to Nabokov a flair for reshaped literary structure, lucid illucidness, elegant quicksilver sentences, pointed illusion and rewritten narrative structure in ‘The Originals of Laura’. He also managed to eloquently plug his own book, ‘On the Origin of Stores’ (see Google books preview here) that addresses the ever-changing flourishes of a writer.
The second presenter was Martin Amis whose accent was easier to follow since he is straightforwardly British. He, too, has spent time with Vera and Dmitri and observed that the Nabokov family was an “equilateral triangle of love”. He read aloud from different stories by Nabokov, focusing not on the writer’s famously comic tone, but on the tragic instead, to bring out his “dementedly talented” characters, Nature’s “darkly gesticulating trees” and what he called the “Nabokovian trademark: genius expressed in a single sentence.” He quoted several sentences from Nabokov’s score of works and I managed to find a similar article of his online (having scribbled incomplete quotes in my notebook while he spoke) that contained most of the sentences, which you can (grievously) enjoy, below:
“A sick bat crept past, like a cripple with a broken umbrella.”The couple lived in their “nice old drafty house that hung about like the flabby skin…of some fool who had gone and lost one third of his weight.”A terrified woman during the Holocaust: “Aunt Rosa, a fussy, angular, wild-eyed old lady, who had lived in a tremulous world of bad news, bankruptcies, train accidents, cancerous growths – until the Germans put her to death, together with all the people she had worried about.”“Only in the detachment of an incurable complaint, in the sanity of near death, could one cope with this for a moment.”“I loathe my belly, that trunkful of bowels, which I have to carry around, and everything connected with it – the wrong food, heartburn, constipation's leaden load, or else indigestion with a first installment of hot filth pouring out of me in a public toilet…”
Chip Kidd presented next, calling himself “the comic relief,” to the amusement of a lot of the audience (some of whom I heard audibly gasping at the quotes brought to life by Amis). He has designed book covers for 23 years and currently works at Knopf, which is publishing Nabokov’s ‘The Original of Laura’. Kidd took us on a journey of book cover designs for past books by Nabokov, the author’s passionate reactions (mostly of dislike) to the covers, and culminated with the thought process behind what ‘The Original of Laura’ will look like when it’s published. He read aloud excerpts of letters from Nabokov to book designers and I quote a few below – bear with me, for I simply scribbled as Kidd invoked Nabokov’s sneering disdain.
To Penguin: This “corny caricature is meaningless…repulsive and badly drawn…use another company’s design or omit picture altogether.”To Harpers: “Time is passing and I still have not seen jacket, blurb and design…I trust there is no Russian stuff – churches, pagodas, samovars – being considered?...Such were inflicted on me by an English outsider…”Referring to a “jacket with the mauve beatnik…horrible, disgusting and tasteless...No pictorial effects...Lettering is hideous.”Referring to a book with flowers on the cover: It looks “like a ghastly vulva…emphatically against this design…Why don’t you use the simply drawn design I made for you?...Multiply or stylize them, don’t Freudianize them!...innocent blossoms.”When the laughter subsided, Kidd had the last line: “I’m happy that I started designing his book covers after he died.”
You can see the final cover design on the Wiki page for ‘The Original of Laura’ (the link is posted in the 1st paragraph). The book is noted “A novel in fragments” at the bottom of the cover since Nabokov only got as far as writing each paragraph of the book on index cards. About three-fourths of the cards are numbered and the rest either aren’t, or follow a different ordering scheme of letters. Each card is written on in pencil in Nabokov’s delightful handwriting, and we were able to see a few after the event that were on exhibit. The book will have copies of each note card on the top half of the page, and typed text below it, and Kidd has created a ‘punch out’ effect in the book, so if the reader wants to “punch out” the index cards and rearrange them – as Nabokov did as he put his stories together – the reader can.
The evening ended with a Boyd doing a reading from the beginning and middle of the book. Each turn of phrase had the audience chuckling, cringing or groaning. Nabokov may longer be with us, but his writing still packs a strong punch.