Thursday, January 17, 2008

Literary Dilemma

A lot going on in the news today, but the piece that most caught my attention was this article in Slate about the choice faced by Dmitri Nabakov, son of novelist Vladimir Nabakov: whether to publish his father's last, hitherto-unpublished manuscript, or to destroy it -- as his father wished.

I think it depends mainly on why his father wanted it destroyed. There seem to be various possibilities. But let me just focus on one, which is at least suggested by some of the linked article: Nabakov senior wanted the manuscript destroyed because he didn't regard it as good enough to constitute a finished, publishable work.

If that's the reason, I say burn it. Just imagine what would happen if the manuscript got published. Nabakov devotees everywhere would turn to it with tremendous expectation and probably be disappointed. No harm, you say? I think there is harm: in my experience, reading an inferior work is not only disappointing in itself but can retroactively diminish the pleasure of reading the same author's good works.

Consider The Cunning Man by Robertson Davies, published shortly before his death. It's a disappointing mishmash -- it reads as though Davies was hauling out all his pet literary devices one last time, but didn't know what to do with them any more. It's all tricks and no substance. Having read it, one sees more clearly the influence of the same tricks in Davies's previous, excellent novels, and the pleasure of having read them is somewhat diminished.

Obviously, I don't know anything about the quality of Nabakov's unpublished manuscript, but I think it's appropriate for authors to want the public to know them only by their good works, not the ones they never finished, either because they just didn't get around to it or because they abandoned them as inferior. So if (note the if) the reason Nabakov didn't want this manuscript published was his feeling that it wasn't up to snuff, I say snuff it.

My only hesitation is that this rule would probably have denied us the opportunity to read Franz Kafka's The Trial, which Kafka desired to send to the fire and which was saved only by his literary executor Max Brod's decision not to respect Kafka's wishes. But at least Brod explained that he had told Kafka in advance that he wouldn't burn works that Kafka left in his care, and also that Brod thought the works in question (also including The Castle) were in fact Kafka's best.

So perhaps Dmitri should temper the rule a little by reaching his own, independent judgment about the quality of the unpublished manuscript. If it's the master's final masterpiece, maybe that would be grounds for disregarding the master's wishes. But given that the whole thing apparently amounts to only thirty manuscript pages, I have a suscipion that it's probably not Nabakov's greatest work, but something more like an idea that he never really pursued. We're all better off not reading it.

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