I haven't read Vladimir Nabokov's posthumous and unfinished novel The Original of Laura. But I have read the excerpt from it that appears in the December issue of Playboy - which published quite a lot of Nabokov, including excerpts from Ada and Despair. Judging from the excerpt, the book certainly seems worth a closer look.
The excerpt is tantalizing, frustrating, and altogether fascinating. The fascinating part is perhaps the most interesting, because it is the part that amounts to a peek inside the creative process of a great writer. For instance, in the excerpt, Laura hasn't become Laura yet. She is called Flora. Laura, in fact, is the title character of the novel My Laura written by Dr. Philip Wild, to whom Flora had been married for three years.
What impresses in the excerpt is the overwhelming sense of absurdity. Four deaths are mentioned in its five pages, all in their way ridiculous. Flora's father, Adam Lind, is "a fashionable photographer," but the final pictures he shoots are of himself shooting himself in a Montecarlo hotel. His widow - Flora's mother, "a delightful dancer, though with something fragile and gauche about her that kept her teetering on a narrow ledge between benevolent recognition and the rave reviews of nonentities" - sells "these automatic pictures for the price of a flat in Paris to the local magazine Pitch."
The daughter of the dirty old man who frequents her mother's house when Flora is a child, redolently named Hubert H. Hubert, dies of a stroke in an elevator. His daughter had been run over by a truck at the age of 12. And then, of course, Flora's mother collapses and dies during the dedication of a fountain on the very day Flora graduates from college.
It is all so very tongue-in-cheek, almost a parodistic backward glance at Nabokov's own work, what with an early reference to "a work of fiction which one dashes off, you know, to make money," and the final reference to the novel My Laura: "the 'I' of the book is a neurotic and hesitant man of letters who destroys his mistress in the act of portraying her." Oh, and there is a wonderful passing reference to "a certain Dr. Freud, a madman."
The controversy over the book's publication - dying author asks wife to burn manuscript; she fails to do so and, decades later, his son gives permission for its publication - actually fits right in with the book itself. Maybe the whole thing was arranged by Nabokov with his wife and son as a postmortem joke. The excerpt is definitely worth the price of a copy of Playboy, which presumably still offers other pleasures as well (I refer, of course, to the cartoons and the interview, if they still have an interview). It made me want to at least take a look at the book, if only because the sense I got from the excerpt is rather different from much I have seen written about the work. It can hardly be a masterpiece, but it does seem more than just a curiosity.