Honor your father or publish an important work? - Nabokov's Final Unpublished Work

When Vladimir Nabokov died he left instruction that his final (and unfinished, only about the equivalent 30 typed pages) work should be destroyed. His son, Dmitri, has indicated that he will probably destroy it. The article in Slate linked below goes into the issues involved. Before reading the article my initial reaction was that it should not be destroyed. Now, I am leaning toward thinking that Dmitri should just burn it.

What do you think?


Burn it. Then again, I’m partial to the idea of destroying his other works.

Frankly, and I say this as a literature ‘fan,’ this only truly matters to a very very small number of intellectuals and pseudo-intellectuals.

Yes, it might be interesting to read and analyze. However, I highly doubt that it would in any way change the face of modern literature, nor would it shed light on many significant vagueries that one might feel exist in Nabokov’s extant works.

I’ve got enough works on my metaphorical nightstand that I’m not going to worry about whether or not I ever get a chance to read an unfinished scrap from Nabokov.

Here’s what I think. I’ve only read Lolita. But I was extremely impressed with Nabokov’s style of writing. In fact I loved it. I have got to read more. I think that Dimitri ought to read it. If it is truly not worthy of publishing then he should burn it. If not he should publish it. I’m not sure when Nabokov said that it should be burned. Who knows what his state of mind was. I’m only saying that someone ought to have a look at it.

Didn’t Kafka ask his friend to burn all his papers, but the friend didn’t? Emotionally, at least, I’m for publishing.

I think the desire of the author is more important than some vague desired right of the world to have what they want.

If he were alive, it would be beyond question that he had that right. Out of familial loyalty, Dimitri should burn it.

I would feel the same way about the works of any author.


Tough call. Emily Dickinson preferred her works not be widely published when she was alive, and unpublished work be burned after her death, but her sister couldn’t bring herself to carry out her directions. What was more important, her dead sister’s wish or the benefit the world received from such important work? At what point is the writer’s wish so selfish that it can be dispensed with?

As already noted, Kafka specifically directed in his Will that his works be burned. His friend and executor ignored this direction, in recognition of the work’s importance. As a result, the brilliant output of one of the twentieth century’s most important writers was published.

Definitely a blurred line, but at one end of the spectrum is an author and/or work so important that it is absolutely irresponsible to deny the world the experience of such a masterpiece (or at least a context for other works of genius, the study of which is important, I’ll suggest). The closer to this end of the spectrum, the more comfortable I’d be in ignoring the request.

How’s this for an analogy: suppose your friend had devised a cure for cancer, but wanted his papers burned at his death? Would you permit it? Now, I’ll admit the analogy is imperfect, but if you are one who considers art vitally important (I am), then does the comparison hold any water from your perspective? If we could overrule the researcher’s intentions in recognition of the enormous benefit we’d deny the rest of the world, doesn’t this logic apply to at least some extent for great art or in the interest of studying great art?

Given this axiom, if I were Nabokov’s son, the greater tribute would be to ignore my father’s request. I think.

I disagree with the premise that an unfinished work by Nabokov is likely to be important enough to be published against his will. If Vladimir wanted it destroyed, it was probably not up to his standards. It’s reasonable to respect that.

It’s not just whether or not it’s a work worthy of the rest of his output. It’s also an element of his entire work, and can add insight to other themes and methods detected in the rest of his writing. For writers important enough, any work within their discipline may be significant enough for scholarly review, regardless of whether or not the last in the line is a work of genius.

How about the passage of time, would that matter? If a work of Shakespeare, along with a note asking his heirs to destroy it if it were unfinished and unperformed, were discovered–what should we do? Shakespeare is no more or less dead than Nabokov, his presence has just assumed a more ancient aspect–but so what?

Again, not a slam-dunk answer for Nabokov, I’ll admit…

Publish it. If there is an afterlife, and I ever run into Richard Francis Burton’s wife, I’m going to slap her silly. Nabakov is dead. His wishes no longer matter.

Martha Washington burned hundreds of her letters to and from her husband (only three remain), and the loss to history was incalculable.

I once had the great pleasure of dining alone with Shelby Foote, who among other things told me that he’d decided to burn the manuscript of a novel he’d been working on when he began writing The Civil War. When he returned to the manuscript, many years later, he found he’d changed too much to get back into the mindset he’d been in before, and knew he’d never finish it. I tried half-heartedly to dissuade him, but what the hell, it was his book - he could do what he wished.

But Vladimir Nabokov never got around to destroying the index cards for Laura, and his wishes are not now controlling. I’d suggest that Dmitri permit a half-dozen Nabokov scholars of impeccable credentials access to the notes, under a mighty oath of confidentiality, and then after a year or so, release Laura with annotations by the scholars, with proceeds to go to a charity of his choice. It seems a shame for the work to be lost forever to Nabokov fans, even if it’s not absolutely perfect.

What if it’s something that is damning to his legacy - say, Spock/McCoy 'fic. What if publishing the last hot, forbidden man-love scribblings from an obviously fevered brain actually bring down the legacy of his work, and he knew this before the end. Shouldn’t we respect that? Who should be the best judge of what counts as an author’s work, if not the author?

Nabokov is dead. Who the hell cares what he wants anymore? Publish the damned thing.

Just about anyone, I’d wager. The last person I trust to give a good account of a work’s value is the artist himself. They’re too close to it to see it properly.

I’m inclined to agree that we shouldn’t give a damn what dead artists want done with their art, as such. I also tend to think that burning this manuscript makes no sense. However, just to play devil’s advocate:

What about future writers? If a norm emerges in the literary world that, even if authors ask that their works be destroyed after their death, such wishes will be ignored - might that discourage some gifted literary writers from setting pen to paper towards the ends of their lives? I think that’s unlikely, but it’s a possibility that it would be troubling to ignore.

It’s 30 pages. Maybe a tenth of a finished book. Maybe more. Maybe less.

If he wants to publish it, that’s his right as the Nabokov’s son. But if he chooses to burn it, I can’t imagine those 30 pages would hold the key to some great questions of life or even be more than a slight introduction to a story that will never be finished.

Burn baby burn.

As a person with utilitarian leanings, I’d have to say that this work should be published.

The happiness that publishing this could bring to thousands has to outweigh the happiness that the son would get from honoring his father’s wishes. Simply put, a dead man having his wishes honored can’t accomplish anything for the dead dude (he’s not in a position to be offended, notions of him “rolling in his grave” notwithstanding), and basically just screws over the rest of the world.

I disagree -and I’m not talking about the value so much as ownership. If an author doesn’t want to acknowledge ownership, why deny him that right?

Exceptions for overtly political stuff here like KKK pamphlets etc, but we are talking literature here.

Of course, I agree that once the author is dead, he’s not in a position to have a say anymore or to be affected by any “legacy”. This doesn’t mean his stated wishes never happened, and if we are to override an author’s wishes on this, by what logic are we then to still claim any legitimacy for wills, living wills, estate trust funds, estate scholarships, organ donor choices, etc.?

Heh–there is already a “literary norm”-- things will be published after death despite contrary instructions if the author is well-known–add Vergil to the other examples. It is almost as if those who don’t actually do the burning themselves wish to modestly excuse any flaws in their work with a disclaimer of imperfection, incompleteness, no intent to publish. Any acclaim is then twice as sweet. But we would never dare attribute that kind of ego to V. Nabokov. [Sarcasm. Nabokov had a fully developed ego, mostly deserved.]

Nabokov IMHO is the best novelist of the 20th century; I’ve read every word (available in English).

Dislike the cult of the author that has developed for him, and empathize with Dmitri’s horror of critics who think they can analyze the personal Nabokov through his work. Don’t think there is anything that could “damn his legacy”–his published books already use pedophilia and incest–and as indicated above Nabokov was dismayed when critics read his fiction in any direct autobiographical way.

Would like to read The Original of Laura because it would probably be an interesting well-written read–don’t think it is likely to change views of the author or be a key to his work.

Part of me says that Dmitri should pass the buck- hand it off to his heir. It solves the problem of not wanting to publish it but also not wanting to destroy something of meaning.

The other part of me says- publish it. The concerns of someone who doesn’t even exist anymore are not something that outweighs the horror of destroying something meaningful. We have few enough true pieces of art in this world and we need every scrap we can get.

I say publish while making it widely known that the author wanted the work destroyed. That protects the reputation for quality that the author might have desired to keep in his legacy.