December 2009 saw the posthumous publication of Vladimir Nabokov’s final, unfinished novel, The Original of Laura. Lavishly, lovingly and breathtakingly produced, the book reproduces the index cards on which Nabokov used to write. You get this unfinished last novel in the master’s own hand in the index cards with text at the bottom transcribing the manuscript. It’s rather a thrill to hold the book in one’s hands.
Reading it, though, is not as much of a thrill. There are only echoes of the great man at the top of his game. This is, as Martin Amis – one of the finest novelist-critics writing in English today and a longtime admirer of Nabokov’s – says, a genius in decline.
The Original of Laura (another very perceptive review sent me back to the original of Nabokov: undiluted by age, at the peak of his powers. I reread some of his best stories from the Collected Stories, and, of course, Lolita. Amis, always magnificent when he is writing about his literary heroes and favourite books, has a long essay on Lolita in his anthology of literary criticism, The War Against Cliché. (The essay originally appeared in the Atlantic Monthly.) I reread that too, and so should you.
Lolita is, for my money, one of the greatest novels of the twentieth century. To put it in a line, it is about power, about America, and about obsession. And it is written in the sort of prose that only Nabokov can write.
If you haven’t yet read it, do. If you have, go back to it. I find something new in it every time I read it.