18 January 2008

To burn or not to burn?

According to Inside Higher Ed,
The son of Vladimir Nabokov is weighing whether to carry out the late novelist’s request that his final, unpublished work — currently in a Swiss bank — be destroyed. An article in Slate reviews the issues involved and how they relate to the question of who really owns literary work.
Ron Rosenbaum explains,
What I'd like to do is convey to Dmitri the best of your responses to this (literally) burning question, since he deserves to know the sentiments of the intelligent reading public as well as those of the close-knit coterie of Nabokovians greedy to view the body of [The Original of] Laura's text.
Maud points to reactions by Laila Lalami and Stephany Aulenback. Bookninja has something to say (as well as many thoughtful commenters). Michael Orthofer discusses a troubling point.

I'm reminded of the controversy that swirled around Alice Quinn's publication of Elizabeth Bishop's Edgar Allan Poe & The Juke-Box: Uncollected Poems, Drafts, and Fragments. Many thought Quinn should've left well-enough alone--especially Helen Vendler:
It will be argued that Bishop could have burned all these pieces of paper if she did not wish them to see publication. (I am told that poets now, fearing an Alice Quinn in their future, are incinerating their drafts.) But burning one's writings is painful, and Bishop kept her papers, as any of us might, because the past was precious to her. Bishop did not expect to die when she did, in 1979, at the age of sixty-eight; her death was sudden and unforeseen. (Even if she had left instructions not to publish her papers, she could not rely on their being obeyed: Max Brod disobeyed Kafka's explicit command to destroy his writings. But some poets have been obeyed: Hopkins asked his sisters to burn his spiritual journals, and they did.) Had Bishop been asked whether her repudiated poems, and some drafts and fragments, should be published after her death, she would have replied, I believe, with a horrified "No."
I suppose I could resign myself to the destruction of those infamous index cards if Dmitri were to answer Rosenbaum's plea and tell us a little bit more about it:
Tell us what you want to tell us about Laura (including the "real" name of the original). Tell us why you think it's the "distillation of [your] father's art." Tell us, please, what that can mean. Or explain why Laura is such a "radical" departure from his previous work.
I guess we won't have too long to wait.

UPDATE: Scott at Conversational Reading and Dan of The Reading Experience also discuss the issue.

4 comments:

rjnagle said...

Never fear. Modern storytellers are putting their stuff on the web almost immediately, polished or not. I'm guessing that once archive.org/alexa gets it, you're out of luck.

amcorrea said...

Good point. It'll be interesting to see how this changes things in the future.

A.H. said...

I just read this post for the first time, since you linked it recently. This scenario reminds me of the part of Kundera's Testaments Betrayed, which delves into the problem of Max Brod's broken promise to Kafka - since Kafaka directed Brod to destroy all his unfinished manuscripts, discarded novels, diaries, notes, etc after his death, but Brod turned around and published every last scrap of it, not to mention cashing in on the cult of Kafka to which he largely contributed (and from which he profited). Kundera is one of those writers who is terrified of posthumous betrayals, hence his refusal to give interviews or otherwise provide content for fodder that might be misconstrued or analyzed to death after he's gone. It's a fairly disturbing problem, in my opinion. I think it's a shame they even consider publishing things the author felt sub-par.

amcorrea said...

I agree with you, for the most part. Yet there is that part of me that doesn't want to think of the nonexistence of the Aeneid or The Trial. But some sort of balance must be struck. In the case of Nabokov, more and more I agree that it should be burned--especially since it's the skeleton of a novel that was never written.

There's another article I'm reading right now that examines the issue and includes the responses of John Banville and Tom Stoppard. Maybe I'll have more to add when I reach the end of it...