The Original of Laura

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The 138 penciled index cards comprising the manuscript of VN’s The Original of Laura failed to sell at Christie’s on Friday. With a pre-auction estimate of $400,000-600,000, the bidding moved quickly from the $200,000 opening to $280,000 and then stalled out. It took less than 23 seconds.

There was obviously much interest in this first open offering of the manuscript of a VN novel. Four broadcasting video cameras covered the event including one from the Russian TV network Zvezda. As soon as the the cards in lot number 95 failed to sell, three of them, including Zvezda, immediately began to break down their equipment and pack up.

The five inscribed and lepidopterized VN books that were also offered all sold at prices within or just under their estimates. A 1947 Henry Holt Bend Sinister, presented to Véra Nabokov’s sister, Sonia Slonim, got knocked down at $9500 (estimated $7000-10,000); a 1952 Rifma Stikhotvoreniia 1929-1951, presented to Véra Nabokov’s cousin, Anna Feigen, $10,000 (estimated $10,000-15,000);  a 1952 Chekhov Dar, presented to Slonim, $8000 (estimated $10,000-15,000); a 1959 Putnam Invitation to a Beheading, presented to Feigen, $6500 (estimated $7000-10,000); and, a 1962 Putnam third printing of Pale Fire, presented to Slonim, $11,000 (estimated $8000-12,000). The five prices do not include the buyer’s premium of 25%. A large number of the bids on the presentation copies appeared to have been placed over the phone.

The auction went as I had expected. The presentation copies were estimated fairly and all sold. But the TOoL manuscript failed at its estimated price level for several reasons. For one, even though its recent publication has generated a tremendous amount of publicity and interest, that does not automatically translate into the passion that is necessary for someone to want to lay out big bucks for a piece of literature. Laura is not Lolita. At least not yet. It is a new book. It does not yet occupy real space in our literary imaginations. And the economy is still limping along. Maybe Cornell or some other such institution couldn’t find a benefactor willing to put up the cash. The top failed bid of $280,000 was, I think, a relatively accurate pricing of the manuscript.

Incidentally, a copy of James Joyce’s Ulysses, a first edition, limited issue, one of 100 copies on Dutch handmade paper, and signed by Joyce, the most desirable version, estimated at $200,000-300,000, was also passed over. The biggest surprise, though, wasn’t a book, a manuscript, or even a piece of paper. It was the Olivetti portable typewriter on which Cormac McCarthy typed all of his work from 1958 to 2009. It was estimated at $15,000-20,000. It went for a whopping $210,000 plus $44,500 for the buyer’s premium. The tall, middle-aged man who bought it obviously had the passion and the bucks.

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Brian Boyd and Martin Amis weren’t the only ones working the podium at “A Celebration of Vladimir Nabokov” at the 92nd St. Y in New York City on 16 November. The third one was Chip Kidd. Kidd (see his website at is a prolific designer—of, among other things, books and book covers—and a writer. The look of objects, two and three dimensional, obviously mean a lot to him. At the 92nd St. Y he wore striking glasses (from Walter Gropius?) and a jacket of black, white, and (I think; I’m terrible with colors) maroon vertical stripes that appeared to proceed him on the stage and, before he had even spoken a word, electrified his presence.

Kidd began his turn by reading excerpts from published letters in which VN excoriated publishers, editors, and their scuttling assistants with his reactions to their jacket and paperback cover submissions. Sometimes VN fired after his quarry had taken flight and was already sitting on store shelves. He hated, with good reason, the cover of the already published paperback Pnin (three bobby-soxed coeds in the foreground, a rumpled, diminished Pnin in the background) that Avon issued in 1959. Kidd went on to read VN’s remarks on other book covers. VN’s main points were, in so many words, “be biologically accurate”, “be textually accurate”, and, when inspiration or knowledge fails, use simple black type. I have to say that one publisher, Putnam, seemed to catch on.

VN would have enjoyed the edgy covers Kidd designed for the Portuguese publisher Companhia Das Letras. Kidd showed images of them as they were meant to be seen by the prospective book buyer: With their belly bands on and then with them off. The covers were witty, strongly graphic, in-your-face, often juxtaposed images causing us in the audience first to feel the neck snap of recognition and then to laugh. (I’ll show you some of those covers in another posting.) Kidd also participated in John Gall’s project to redesign almost all of the covers in the Vintage paperback issues of VN’s works (see The Nabokov Collection at The Design Observer Group). Kidd himself designed the Ada cover.

Kidd obviously relished getting the chance to design his first Nabokov first edition. And not just the jacket for Laura, but the whole book, with the need to solve the problem of how to present 138 pencil-written index cards. We have all seen it, an absolutely original, and memorable cover. (Isn’t that what Prof. Sorbeck of The Cheese Monkeys was after in his students?). Kidd spoke of how Sonny Mehta, the publisher and editor-in-chief of Knopf, called him into his office and presented him with the job. An early draft had a background-foreground gradient, a left-to-right fade of the text into the background, but with the text in black and the background in white. Some of the staff felt no one would be able to decipher a cover that said “Vladi | Nabo | The Ori | of Lau”. But Kidd pointed out that since a giant campaign was planned for the book, everyone would know what it was. Sonny liked it. But he suggested that Kidd try inverting the foreground and background. Kidd liked that.

As for the other elements of the book design, Kidd felt he had to avoid mating a separate container of cards somehow attached to the book. He didn’t want to create a kind of boxed gift set. The punch-out cards were inspired in part, he said, by an old set of superhero punch-outs he owned. In fact, Kidd pointed out that if you take Laura and “actually punch out all of the cards, you get a surprise”. He didn’t reveal what that surprise is. And, insane bibliomaniac that I am, I haven’t had the guts to desecrate my copy of the book and actually do the punching out. I’ve examined the book carefully and still can’t figure out what he meant. Kidd went on to point out other aspects of his book design, including his use of extra-heavy paper, of images of the first and last cards on the book’s binding, and of fading backgrounds and type on the flaps and endpapers.

When you look at your copy of the book, you quickly notice Kidd’s use of red for highlighting, dotted lines for outlining, an implied playing card-like design with Nabokov’s initials on the book’s last page, and the very quirky placement of the dust jacket’s “Printed in …” and copyright statement. You may also notice a mistake: The date on the title page is wrong.

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To continue from my previous posting about Christie’s 4 December auction of VN’s index cards/manuscript of The Original of Laura.

On 5 May 2004, the well-known French auction house Tajan offered 104 lots from Dmitri Nabokov’s personal library of inscribed and lepidopterized presentation copies of his father’s works along with minor manuscript material and books about VN. Some of the books included annotations and corrections. The estimated prices were high, very high. Three had a top estimate of 100,000 €. The catalog was an expensive affair, issued in hardcover.

Though I have never found direct information on exactly what happened, I heard through the grapevine that the auction was a disaster and that nothing was sold. In fact, Tajan didn’t issue on paper or online a list of the auction results. What happened? I think that those 104 lots were just too many for the Nabokov market to absorb at one time and the estimated prices (and therefore the reserves) were simply too dear to potential buyers. Tajan must have spent a lot of money on preparing for the auction and got nothing for its efforts (depending on whatever deal it struck with Dmitri). And Dmitri had to take all of his books back home.

So here at Christie’s we have, quantitatively, a much more modest offering: one manuscript (very much in the public’s literary eye today) and five inscribed editions. The five books have estimates from a low of $7,000-10,000 to a high of $10,000-15,000. These are justifiable estimates for copies inscribed to close members of the family outside of the very inner circle of Véra and Dmitri.

And the 138 index cards? I ask myself, How often does a novel by a major literary figure come on the market? Extremely rarely. I mentally turn the cards over in my hands. This is terra incognita. This is at the very high end of the literary market. I see a shot into the stratosphere that will, like a cloud-seeding experiment, affect everything VN under it. So for now, unsatisfyingly, I decline to come to a conclusion. I’ll attend and see what happens and then reach for an understanding.

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Christie’s auction of The Original of Laura manuscript

Christie’s auction of The Original of Laura manuscript

For sale: The original of The Original of Laura.

No, not the copy, the published version, that goes on sale on 17 November, but the actual index cards.

Dmitri Nabokov has consigned the 138 index cards to the New York branch of Christie’s for the “Fine Printed Books and Manuscripts” auction on Friday afternoon, 4 December. The pre-auction estimate (lot 95) is $400,000-600,000. The catalog for the auction (number 2227) features a cover photo of the first card of the novel (“The Original of Laura | Ch. One | Her husband, she answered, was a | writer too—at least, after a fashion. | …”) and an often seen photo of VN by Jerry Bauer. Pages 50-53 contain a description of the origins of the manuscript, a depiction of the fragmentary novel, and comments about its publication. The catalog text reads in large part as if it were written by Dmitri Nabokov. There are further photos of the index cards, many of which are deliberately blurred totally beyond legibility. I don’t know why.

Also in the auction (lots 96-100) are five of VN’s books inscribed and lepidopterized to Véra’s sister, Sonia Slonim, and Véra’s cousin, Anna Feigen. Their auction estimates range from $7,000-10,000 to $10,000-15,000.

It’s exciting stuff. I’m not aware of any VN novel manuscripts ever being offered at auction. Maybe a story or a poem, but not a novel. One reason is that the great bulk of VN manuscripts and other material was sold to the Berg Collection at the New York Public Library in 1991 or given to the Library of Congress. But I honestly don’t expect the 138 TOoL cards to get knocked down near the estimated prices. Unless one of those bonus baby bankers is a VN collector.

I’ll have more to say.

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Playboy wins. VN’s old stomping ground, the first serial-rights publisher of many of his works, has this time acquired the first serial rights to The Original of Laura. The news was detailed yesterday in The New York Observer.

Knopf will publish the full work in November, on either the 3rd or the 17th, depending on your source. The New Yorker, another magazine VN had a long relationship with, was expected to grab the rights. But, according to the Observer story, the magazine’s fiction department turned it down. I suspect that Andrew Wylie, Nabokov’s agent, was asking for too much money. Or they didn’t want to publish such a fragmentary work as TOoL certainly is. Remember that the novel is subtitled “A novel in fragments”.

The most interesting part of the Observer story is the fact that Playboy plans to run the excerpt in its December issue—which would hit the stands on 10 November, a week before Knopf issues its book—to the length of 5000 words. That’s a big chunk—half of the 10,000-word manuscript.

Mixed in with those 10,000 words are emendations in brackets by the transcribers of the cards, annotations by VN, and notes by his son Dmitri. Of the 138 cards on which VN composed the fragments of his novel, 63 are marked as the first five chapters (Ch. 1, cards 1-20; Ch. 2, 21-38; Ch. 3, 39-49; Ch.4, 50-53; Ch. 5, 54-63). Cards 64-78 and 79-87 are provisionally noted as chapters 6 and 7. Cards 88-92 are headed (by VN? by an editor?) “Medical Intermezzo”. And there is a “[Last Chapter]” comprising cards 93-138. However, after the first two cards of the “Medical Intermezzo” (88 and 89), a provisional ending, based on VN’s annotations, has been constructed from cards 93-94 and 112-114. Apparently because VN annotated cards 112-114 with the letter Z,  it is called chapter 26.

It is clear that TOoL is truly “a novel in fragments”. And the fragments contain only eight chapters (plus an intermezzo) of the supposed 26 chapters of the fully-imagined novel. This assumes, of course, that I haven’t missed the train that this project is travelling on and that the elements I describe haven’t been changed by the editors.


The Original of Laura cover design

The Original of Laura cover design

Knopf has unveiled an outstanding cover for the forthcoming posthumous publication of VN’s The Original of Laura in November. The website doesn’t mention the designer.

Besides the hardcover version, there will a library edition with “nonremovable cards”. That means that the trade edition will include index cards of the printed text in the way VN wrote his later works, or the cards will be facsimiles of the originals. Knopf is also issuing an “eBook” version. says that the book is so far not available for its Kindle reader. I assume this means it will be available for the Sony Reader.

The Knopf website, possibly mistakenly, states that the the trade hardcover and the eBook will be issued on 17 November this year but that the library binding will be issued on 3 November, the date the publisher originally gave and the date that still has.

The latest details:

  • Trade hardcover, 288 pages, on sale 17 November 2009, $35.00, ISBN 978-0-307-27189-1 (0-307-27189-7).
  • eBook, 288 pages, on sale 17 November 2009, $35.00, ISBN 978-0-307-27325-3 (0-307-27325-3).
  • Library edition with nonremovable cards, 288 pages, on sale 3 November 2009, ISBN 978-0-307-59275-0 (0-307-59275-8).

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Penguin is going to publish The Original of Laura on 3 November in the UK, according to an item today on the website, (part of The Bookseller, a British business magazine for the book industry).

Penguin Classics editor Alexis Kirschbaum bought the book, together with continuing rights to the Nabokov backlist, in a six-figure deal through Andrew Wylie [the Nabokov estate’s literary agent]…Penguin Classics will also republish Nabokov’s entire backlist, beginning in November with six of his novels[,]…a collection of Nabokov poems never before published in English (November 2010) and a collection of previously unpublished letters by Nabokov to his wife Vera (November 2011).

It is also being reported today on the blog, The Londoner’s Diary (part of the London Evening Standard). In the U.S., Knopf had already announced that it was going to publish ToOL on 3 November.

I think that the mention of “Nabokov’s poems never before published in English” is a mistake and should be “Nabokov’s prose”. Brian Boyd is the editor and co-translator with Olga Voronina of the book of letters, to be titled, To Véra: Nabokov’s Letters to His Wife.

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The publication of The Original of Laura: (Dying Is Fun) is moving ahead. It’s listed on the Random House/Knopf website for release in November. You can pre-order it from at $23.10 (discounted from $35.00) for November 3rd delivery (ISBN: 0-307-27189-7/978-0-307-27189-1). If you’re in Britain, is asking £22.22 for the same edition.

There is no dust jacket image yet. The Knopf blurb describes the 288-page package:

At last: Vladimir Nabokov’s final and unfinished novel, in print—thirty years after his death, years in which the fate of The Original of Laura was in constant and closely watched question.

When Nabokov died in 1977, he left instructions for his heirs to burn the 138 handwritten index cards that made up the rough draft of The Original of Laura. But Nabokov’s wife, Vera, couldn’t bear to destroy her husband’s last work, and when she died, the fate of the manuscript fell to her son. Dmitri Nabokov, now seventy-four— the Russian novelist’s only surviving heir, and translator of many of his books—has struggled for decades with the decision of whether to honor his father’s wish or preserve for posterity the last piece of writing of one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century. His decision finally to allow publication will be passionately welcomed by both scholars and general readers. And the ingenious format of the book (which includes removable facsimiles of the index cards) will make an even more extraordinary occasion of this publishing event.

In its fragmented narrative—dark yet playful, preoccupied with mortality—we are given one last experience of a writer’s unparalleled creativity, a glimpse of his last days, and a body of work finding its apotheosis.

The book will include a short introduction by Dmitri Nabokov. In addition, Knopf is issuing an “eBook” version (ISBN: 0-307-27325-3/978-0-307-27325-3) at the same price to be released also in November. There’s no mention of the eBook on

I have no information on foreign language rights. I wonder if The New Yorker is going to take on serial rights. The Nabokovian, in a real sense, already has taken the first serial rights (see No. 42/Spring 1999, pp. 34 (#2) & 37 (#5)).

A voice hums in my head: Laura is a wild and florid set of fragments. And then I hear: The book, he answered, is a novel too—at least, after a fashion.