September 30, 2009

A Frightening Vision of Nabokov's Ghost

Give this article from The Wall Street Journal a quick glance. I found it very intriguing and almost humorous at some points. It’s hard for me to imagine the publishing world without posthumously published books. After the cloud of Obits and retrospectives settles, one of the first questions that everyone asks is what the author has left behind — what’s been left unfinished — what’s lying lying around that we can curl up next to before there is nothing else?  And there’s always something, half of a novel, four unpublished stories written 25 years before, outlines, etc…

I waffle back and forth when I try to decide whether or not I agree with publishing  unfinished or unpublished work. On one hand there’s Kafka; we’d have none of his work without the persistence of Max Brod, nor would have any idea what “Kafkaesque”, a staple descriptor in writing workshops, meant. But for every Kafka, there’s a handful of Truman Capote’s, whose novel Summer Crossing was written when Capote was a barely twenty. The manuscript was “rescued” from his trash can by his housekeeper and auctioned off after her death in 2004. The novel is by no means bad, but I have a hard time believing that if Capote had thought it was worth publishing, he wouldn’t have sought that option out for himself.

Of the examples in the article in WSJ, I find the Nabokov example to have the most shades of grey but also the most possibilities for extreme outcomes — either good or bad. It also has a certain amount of irony that I think Nabokov would’ve appreciated. His “manuscript” is a series jumbled index cards that have no discernible organization. Can’t you just see Nabokov sitting at his desk thinking this idea up and laughing at us for believing we could conceive of what he really meant for? That’s the image in my head anyway. It also reminds me of the poet John Shade in Nabokov’s Pale Fire, who wrote out his drafts on a series of index cards.

The plan for the publication of this “manuscript” is a bound facsimile of the cards with perforate edges that can be torn out and rearranged how the reader thinks they should be organized. I’d envision Nabokov taking this one of two ways. 1) He’d hate it and rip the cards out of the publisher’s hands and burn them himself. Or 2) He’d like the innovation of the form instead of a gaggle of academics poking and prodding the cards into the equivalent of Frankenstein’s monster. The bonus option, my personal favorite, is that this form is actually how he planned it out all along and his son is following some kind of script.

In the end, I guess it doesn’t really matter. I know I’ll be reading this book, along with the posthumously published writings of David Foster Wallace, Kurt Vonnegut, and Ralph Ellison; all have novels that will be published by the end of next year. One part of the article that I thought could have be examined more was the economics of publishing posthumous novels; that they’re the closest thing to a sure thing possible in the publishing world. There also seems to be this kind of trend in Hollywood, where an unprecedented amount of film remakes are being green-lighted. Just something to think about when you crack open the latest Norman Mailer book or you buy your tickets for the upcoming Wolfman movie.

On a completely unrelated note, The Millions concluded their list of the top twenty books of the new millennium,  with The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen earning top honors. I will refrain from commenting on their decision for the time being. Maybe Nabokov will be on their next list.

Best,

–Cameron

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