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His Dying Wish

Matt Schudel

Vladimir Nabokov, the celebrated Russian author of "Lolita," "Pale Fire" and other monuments of 20th-century literature, was working on a new novel, "The Original of Laura," at the time of his death in 1977. He ordered that the manuscript be burned. His command makes you wonder about any relative's "dying wishes."

It's one thing for Grandma to make a last visit to the ancestral home (think of Horton Foote's wonderful play and film "The Trip to Bountiful"), but should someone reach out from the grave to deny the world a potential masterpiece?

That's the issue that Nabokov's son, Dmitri, has wrestled with for 30 years. Last week, according to this article in London's Guardian newspaper, Dmitri Nabokov decided to defy his father's wishes and have the incomplete manuscript of "The Original of Laura" published at long last. Is he being a disobedient, money-grubbing son who hopes to cash in on one last payday from his father's pen? Or is he doing the world a service by giving us his father's last writings, however imperfect they may be?

Well, here on the Obituaries Desk, we have the utmost respect for the dead (who are the only people addressed as "Mr." and "Mrs." in The Washington Post, by the way). But when I learned that Dmitri Nabokov was ignoring his father's wish, I was grateful. I think the act of burning an unfinished manuscript is akin to an act of literary murder. If Nabokov really didn't want "The Original of Laura" to see the light of day, he could have burned it himself. But if his son had destroyed it, he would have been a literary villain.

There are times when posterity must override a dying person's wishes -- assuming the elder Nabokov was not just being coyly petulant, which was his wont. The legacy of a Nabokov transcends his private wishes. A similar case occurred two years ago, when a posthumous collection of writings by poet Elizabeth Bishop appeared.

Some critics were appalled, saying the meticulous Bishop would never have allowed her unfinished works to see print. Well, maybe that's true, but why should readers and scholars be denied the opportunity to see the works in progress of great writers or artists? Perhaps, by seeing the rough draft of a poem or novel, we can understand a genius's creative method more fully.

By Matt Schudel |  May 1, 2008; 1:06 PM ET  | Category:  Matt Schudel
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5/2/08 Enjoy reading Matt's blogs. Perhaps he or one of his fellow obituarians can somehow indicate to me,the origin of a verse at the end of Mr.Shayt's death notice in the Post today. A short E would make me happy getgasr@verizon.net
Thanks a heap.

Posted by: George Anderson | May 2, 2008 11:25 AM

There isn't much money in general fiction or in poetry, so any executor or loved one who goes against a will in this way is probably doing it out of love for the writer or respect for his or her talent. The written word, and especially the literary written word, should always be preserved.

Posted by: Charlene | May 5, 2008 9:01 AM

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