Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The Nabokov Genizah


That is what was supposed to happen to a thousand years of documents written in Hebrew characters and hidden away in a room, a genizah, until they were rediscovered by European scholars in the nineteenth century. They were never removed to the Basatin Cemetery for interment and survived in that room until they would become, in the nineteenth century, the single most important source for biblical and para-biblical study, and even moreso for the history and literature of Jews living in the Islamicate Mediterranean and, some argue, for that wider Muslim society as well.

Rub Out.
Wipe Out.

All those things were supposed to happen to the index cards, the hand-written fragments, containing the last novel written by Vladimir Nabokov and left unfinished at the time of his death. The list of instructions still exists in his own hand. Like their thousand-year-old counterparts, his cards did not meet their fate.

Instead, they appeared in print.

A book that appears between boards offers the promise of a completed work, if not a coherent narrative. The challenges that it may throw down before the reader usually do not include the very technical aspects of reading. The Original of Laura defies the promises of its outward form, though, and it becomes as much a contemplation of the shape of text and the value of fragments as much as anything else; certainly it is that more than a novel. That old aphorism about not judging a book by its cover is wholly in play here. The novel is unfinished, but the book is not just about the novel. Rather, it is about forms of writing.

The hardcover edition of the book yields one more way of experiencing the text: The index cards are perforated and punch out of the book, leaving a stack of reproduced handwritten cards next to a book whose pages have eight lines of printed text beneath an empty frame with a view all the way to the back cover. The book achieves a wide audience in a form that, usually, definitionally is limited to a single solitary reader at a time. It universalizes and popularizes manuscript reading.

About a third of the way through the reading The Original of Laura, I realized that I was thinking about reading a novel at eight lines to a page: about speed and about prose-poetry and about fonts. I was thinking about Nabokov's handwriting, about the subtle changes in script that dying brings about, a microcosm of the changes wrought over a person's life, from learning to write the letters to owning a consistent and reproducible signature: the paleographic equivalent of a man's life flashing before his eyes. What I was not thinking about, indeed, what I could not have told you about at all, was what the story was about. I had a vague sense of the characters but not of a plot, even the sketchiest outline or faintest sense of where it all was going.

I have a vague sense that the fragmentary nature of the work complements (coincidentally, by nature) the content of the work. A text that can write about "identifying her with an unwritten, half-written, rewritten difficult book..." But that mostly got lost in the technical aspects of reading it through the first and second times.

I will have to read the book again before being able to write about how the text relates to its context, but for now it is the form and the act of reading it are what interest me.

I found myself struggling, at first, to read the cards penciled-in in the hand of a dying man, but soon I found myself reading in stereo in a manner that will be familiar to anyone who has read a manuscript with an edition of the text close at hand: First reading the hand-written and casting the occasional eye down at the print, but soon reversing their positions, mostly reading the print and glancing up at the manuscript. The only way to really read is to take the edition away: to choose one or the other.

Fighting the physical form of the text and becoming so fixated upon the words and the shape of the words that the very existence of a bigger picture — well, there is no bigger picture. There is something that the reader absorbs by reading in this way and by pulling back in tiny increments until the reminder of that bigger picture hits her like a shockwave; the details are all there, impressed in her mind, and the result is simultaneously panoramic and high-definition.

And finally, there is the question of the disposition, the thing that both The Original of Laura and the Genizah cache are best remembered for.

Yet ultimately, neither was meant to be destroyed. Transfer to the cemetery stopped by the twelfth century, if not earlier. And Nabokov's son, Dimitri, writes: "The lesser minds among the hordes of letter writers that were to descend upon me would affirm that if an artist wishes to destroy a work of his that he has deemed imperfect or incomplete, he should logically proceed to do so neatly and providently ahead of time. These sages forget, though, that Nabokov did not desire to burn the Original of Laura willy-nilly, but to live on for the last few card lengths needed to finish at least a complete draft."

And so we read them together. In this crossing of intention and memory, the secular approaches the sacred and the modern the medieval.

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