The Original of Lolita

Fifty years after that triple trip of the tongue, Nabokov's nymphet is as mesmerizing as ever

When Nabokov died in 1977, he left behind an unfinished novel entitled The Original of Laura. His express wish was that it be destroyed upon his death. Before him, Virgil and Kafka had left similar instructions; neither was obeyed. Nor was Nabokov. His wife, Véra, found herself unable to carry out her late husband's wishes, and when she passed away in 1991 she bequeathed the decision to their son. The manuscript's location is kept secret.

If Nabokov's wishes are to be respected, The Original of Laura will never be read by any but the few intimates who have already done so. As to the original of Lolita, no such special precautions need be taken. The original of Lolita is not the story of a Hessian aristocrat, just as little as it is the memoir of an anonymous Ukrainian, or the author's improbable molestation at the fumbling hands of his uncle. To search for the experiences leading to a work of art is as natural as not finding them. But ultimately, the original of Lolita is something we do not know and will never know, and is nothing other than the perfectly private movements of the mind of her creator. That the result should have proved so surprising is of the order of things. As a character in Lolita remarks, "A great work of art is of course always original, and thus by its very nature should come as a more or less shocking surprise."

Leland de la Durantaye is an assistant professor of English and American literature and language at Harvard University.

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