Several interesting features to this story about Playboy‘s acquiring rights to run an excerpt from Nabokov’s The Original of Laura. That the New Yorker passed on the rights (!). The degree to which Playboy pitched some serious woo to gain them, including the dispatch of fresh orchids to the Wylie Agency offices. And that Playboy was asked to make an offer without having seen the manuscript — and did. The magazine’s literary editor Amy Grace Loyd is quoted as saying, “I knew because of Nabokov’s genius, even if the manuscript was even more messy than it actually is, I would probably still be content.”
For those of you who haven’t been following this saga: The Original of Laura is the manuscript Nabokov left unfinished at his death, in 1977. He requested that it be destroyed. It wasn’t. And now after some public hand-wringing and a lapse of a little more than three decades, the work will be published by Knopf on Nov. 17 — with suitably somber cover art by Chip Kidd. The 5,000-word excerpt runs in Playboy‘s December issue (out Nov. 10), accompanied by what one imagines will be less somber cover art.
So how good can we expect The Original of Laura to be? Wikipedia’s thorough entry on the novel shows only a small circle of people have read it (or had excerpts read to them), and bits and pieces of the manuscript have appeared in a couple magazines. But the most promising mention I’ve yet come across is contained in a letter written by Dmitri Nabokov to the National Review in 1987. The letter, a point-by-point rebuttal of claims made by critic-biographer Andrew Field in his V.N.: The Life and Art of Vladimir Nabokov, ends with a denial of Field’s characterization of the end of Nabokov’s life as marked by “heavy drinking” and “decline”. Dmitri writes:
[T]he decline Field invents presumably encompasses such petits riens as Ada, Transparent Things, Look at the Harlequins, and The Original of Laura, which was interrupted by Nabokov’s death and promised to be one of his most brilliant and original works (for the time being, my word will have to be taken for that).”