There’s been a bit of discussion at Warwick’s this week concerning dead authors and their posthumous works – an intensive, full-staff round-table discussion piece is under way for the Warwick’s blog – stimulated by this week’s publication of Vladimir Nabokov’s unfinished novel, The Original of Laura. The debate is over whether it’s moral or not to publish a posthumous work if the author left explicit instructions for all unfinished work to be destroyed upon their death, as was the case with Mr. Nabokov.
When Nabokov died in 1977, he instructed his family to destroy what he had written and left unfinished – which, as it turns out, included a series of 138 notecards (as was his drafting style) of notations and passages for Laura. His widow, Vera, could not bear to destroy what he had written, so she had it placed in a Swiss bank vault, where it sat until his son, Dimitri, decided in 2008 to try and publish. The resultant work is rough, at best, put together in fancy-Chip Kidd style by…Chip Kidd with reproductions of the notecards on each page, accompanied by typed text “translations” of V.N.’s handwriting. Nabokov had some sort of personal numbering system to the cards, but the true order is unknown, so Kidd made each card perforated, so that the reader can pop them out & rearrange them into any order they see fit. (Who would do this, in actuality, I don’t know.) In their review back in July, PW noted that “It would be a mistake…for readers to come to this expecting anything resembling a novel.” As a whole, I think it’s fairly unreadable, relatively incomprehensible, and, well, unfinished, which is the point, really. I can see why Nabokov never wanted this to see the light of day – he wasn’t done writing it.
The argument can certainly be made for the literary & social benefit of the posthumous work of other authors. We would never have the three full-length novels, The Trial, The Castle, or Amerika by Franz Kafka if his literary executor, Max Brod, had not ignored the author’s wishes:
“Dearest Max, my last request: Everything I leave behind me … in the way of diaries, manuscripts, letters (my own and others’), sketches, and so on, [is] to be burned unread.”
Is this moral, even in light of the work that was ultimately produced? I’m not so sure, even though the world may be a better place with those novels in it, who am I to go against the author’s wishes? Perhaps when an author reaches a certain elevation in literary society, their posthumous work is fair game, but this was definitely not the case with Kafka during his lifetime. Some other well-known posthumous pubs:
I guess an argument can be made either way, on a case-by-case basis, depending on each reader’s opinions. Sort of like anything else with a book, whether you loved or hated the protagonist, despised the jacket art, or loved the dialogue – it’s all a matter of personal opinion. But…
What really lit a fire under me, as Chief Catapult Operator, has nothing to do with anyone so esteemed as Nabokov, Kafka, or Ellison, but rather with the late Robert Jordan, author of the “Wheel of Time” fantasy series. Jordan died in 2007 before he was able to finish his double-digit volume series, but wrote enough of the 12th volume that his executors were able to cobble together a final novel – or spread it out over three, actually – with the help of a ghostwriter. While I think it’s a little ridiculous that his “final” novel is actually three books, what really irritated me was this title page: