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Friday
Nov202009

The Original of Laura

 A short essay of mine on this same subject appeared almost two years ago.

For better or worse extramarital activity holds a special position in modern literature, and we should ask ourselves why.   Apart from the rare arranged marriage where neither party has ever felt an inkling of affection toward his appointed mate, adultery is pure emotional violence.  It is a scythe, a brass bull, a shrapnel bomb, and its scars are more likely to be hidden than to heal.  It is and will always remain the most classic of middle-class crimes, and not only because it is often induced by passions so alien to the mediocrity and caution commonly incident to the bourgeois.  The poor cannot be bothered with such freedoms; the rich consider flings – impulsive or sustained – a nuisance akin to maids that steal, waiters that spill, and wrinkles that do not fade.  No, a cozy family home replete with creature comforts and a certain level of daily enjoyment is the exclusive privilege of the middle demographic segment, and with that comes the vulnerability that each of us dreads.  Adultery is nothing new to this author's oeuvre – nor, for that matter, are homosexuality, oddball academics, frisky lasses, and the creeping delusions of a mad artist – all of which feature in this long-awaited posthumous publication

Our protagonist is a clinically obese neurologist, Philip Wild (literally a "wild horse"), a native speaker of French, a wheezer, a popular professor, and an admirer of a young woman named Flora (at one point referred to as FLaura as if she hailed from the American wetlands).  Flora is of Russian stock, raised in France and England by her ballerina mother Lanskaya (at one point referred to as Land-sky-ya), and sexually precocious in a way that no longer surprises us in Nabokov's oeuvre.  That she is attractive and promiscuous we take as a given; that she would fall for someone like Dr. Wild – who also happens to find some young men her equal in sensuality – would not rank high among our guesses:

A brilliant neurologist, a renowned lecturer [and] a gentleman of independent means, Dr. Philip Wild had everything save an attractive exterior.  However, one soon got over the shock of seeing that enormously fat creature mince toward the lectern on ridiculously small feet and of hearing the cock-a-doodle sound with which he cleared his throat before starting to enchant one with his wit.  Laura disregarded the wit but was mesmerized by his fame and fortune.

A paramour is needed to reattach our characters to cold and banal reality, and such a volunteer is found in the person of Rawitch (at one point referred as Raw Itch, and at another as Rah Witch), a Polish painter of some talent.  Rawitch does not get what he wants, which is to pry Flora away from her hulking hubby; so he exacts an even more terrible revenge by composing a novel and gleefully handing a copy to the selfsame neurologist.  Since painters are stealthy chaps, the book is entitled "My Laura," hence the above passage, and it takes very few of the indefinite oceans of Dr. Wild's brain cells to understand that the bastard is talking about an adulterous love affair with his wife. 

Laura or Flora or whatever you wish to call her has had a long and generally satisfying sex life, even if her first fleshy encounter resembled rape more than anything else.  The perpetrator, a certain Hubert E. Hubert, is a bald fortysomething widower and a family friend, a term that has come to denote someone either deranged or lonely.  Mr. Hubert takes advantage of Flora's late father and despicable mother to ingratiate himself into the household's trust; he then sets about his main objective:

She was often alone in the house with Mr. Hubert, who constantly "prowled" (rôdait) around her, humming a monotonous tune and sort of mesmerizing her, enveloping her so to speak in some sticky invisible substance, and coming closer and closer no matter what way she turned.  For instance, she did not dare let her arms hang aimlessly, lest her knuckles came into contact with some horrible part of that kindly but smelly and "pushing" old male.

Hubert's surging desire yields an even better description, and another that might easily have appeared unedited in one of Nabokov's prior novels.  There is also the small matter of Dr. Wild's remedy to his personal ills, both physical and psychological – but I will devolve the research of such details to the interested reader.

It should be noted but not belabored that The Original of Laura has little claim to being an ordinary novel.  The book is composed solely of one hundred thirty-eight index cards faithfully reproduced and followed on each page by a printed transliteration; almost no amendments are made apart from a few obviously misspelled words (although "bycycle" and "stomack," both of which appear twice, are left untouched).  The cards are detachable and, in principle, easily reordered – but we have already reached the gimmick portion of our program.  The book's value will ultimately reside in its incompleteness, in the occasional triumphs of artistic genius and the blueprints for further successes, all of which provides a remarkable view into a fantastically creative mind.  Unfortunately the format, which greatly mimics the themes broached in the book, has gained the ire and mockery of the critical pundits who reiterate like dusty phonographs that the work should have never been published for two inane reasons: it was Nabokov's wish, and, well, it's not all that good.  Another source of disdain has turned out to be Dmitri Nabokov's supple yet acerbic introduction, which reveals resentment and loathing (mostly towards these same critical pundits) not extant in any other of his discursive writings.  I shall not quote it but its elegance and argument would probably gain a nod of approval from the father the Englished casting of whose Russian works became Dmitri's primary filial duty.  Those who love Nabokov will feel a special obligation to the book; those who do not know him will have little to say and even less to contemplate; but its uniqueness and originality of presentation will never be doubted.  And what of Laura herself?  What are we to think of a libidinous, golddigging twit?  As another great mind once said, if a woman cannot make her mistakes seem charming, she is merely a female.   

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