The emerging controversy over the fate of Vladimir Nabokov's final, unfinished manuscript raises issues similar to those discussed in the preceding post. In that post I suggested that the publication of the "original" versions of some of Raymond Carver's stories will serve only to diminish readers' estimation of Carver's fiction. I further argued that even if Carver's editor in effect co-wrote the stories, it would be better for those original efforts to remain unpublished. What ultimately matters is the quality of the work, and, since I believe the impure versions of the stories (those edited by Gordon Lish) are superior, they are the versions that should be available to future readers.
In the Nabokov case, a manuscript the author felt should not be available will either be destroyed or be published against the author's wishes. Whereas Carver agreed to the publication of the impure versions of his work (thus effectively claiming them as his own), here the author wanted the impure version of his work-in-progress (impure because not completed) to be withheld from publication. If we are finally able to read The Original of Laura, we would be reading something the author had not yet claimed as his own (worthy of being attributed to "Vladimir Nabokov" on the cover), something that, to Nabokov's way of thinking, did not yet constitute a text that could be read at all in any meaningful sense. It was the finished work that Nabokov would share with his audience; the work done on the way to that finished form should not concern them.
In discussing the issues involved in this controversy, Ron Rosenbaum asks, "Does the lust for aesthetic beauty always allow us to rationalize trampling on the artist's grave?" But the unfinished manuscript could not have "aesthetic beauty" as Nabokov would have defined the term. Aesthetic beauty emerges from the work as it is fully shaped, exhausting its creator's artistic resources. The completed work might fail to have aesthetic beauty, but only the completed work manifests the aesthetic beauty the artist/author attempted to bring about. Nabokov wanted The Original of Laura destroyed because it coud not provide the aesthetic satisfaction he wanted his fiction to provoke above all else. (The "tingle" in the spine he himself most valued when reading works of literature.)
There are of course notable challenges to the purity of effect Nabokov demanded. Kafka wanted his incomplete work (including The Trial) similarly dispatched to oblivion, and most of us are surely glad that Max Brod, his executor, did not follow his instructions. Few would deny that even in their truncated or unpolished form Kafka's novels provide a distinctive aesthetic experience. Perhaps The Original of Laura would also redeem itself in its fragmentary state, although from Rosenbaum's description of it (through Dmitri Nabokov), it doesn't seem that it will. Still, Nabokov is such a beguiling writer it is certainly possible that this 30-page manuscript has a sufficiently realized appeal that it would be a loss to literature--or at least to Nabokov's body of work--if it were to be destroyed.
Nabokov would never have gotten himself into a situation like that Raymond Carver faced when deciding which version of his stories to make public, since it is inconceivable that he would have allowed an editor to interfere with his work in the way Gordon Lish apparently did in editing Carver. But the two cases are related in the way they foreground important questions: Who has the authority to decide when or whether a text should be officially sanctioned under a deceased author's name--the author, through his or her explicit instructions or tacit acquiescence, or his/her "executors," those in possession of the text in question? How do we assess unpublished works in the larger context of an author's known work? Most importantly: At what point does a text have sufficient aesthetic integrity that we are justified reading it as a text, and not just a draft still on its way to its artistic consummation?