The Times, 16 February 2008


Now, don’t pity me, but the last time I went on holiday, it was the 90s. And that was a school trip. I haven’t gone away once this millennium – even I’m embarrassed by how tragic that sounds. It isn’t even because I’m so wedded to my work that I can’t leave my desk, or because I’m so skint that I have to choose between a loaf of bread and jet-skiing in Barbados. At least, not lately. It’s because my boyfriend and I are not a powerful force when it comes to holiday decisions. I don’t want to go to a beach, because I only have long black clothes, and they’ll look weird near sand. He doesn’t want to walk the length of Hadrian’s Wall, because he can’t see a good time when it’s wearing hiking boots and eating squashed sandwiches from a rucksack. We’d both like to go to New York, but I don’t really know if the visa waiver thing is still happening, or if the FBI will take my fingerprints, and then frame me for a murder committed by a one-armed man. And that’s before I’ve worried about what might happen to the house in our absence. There’s more than one one-armed man, bent on a life of crime, you know.

So it’s reassuring to read this week that Dmitri Nabokov, asked to burn his father’s last book, Laura, thirty years ago, has still not quite managed to decide whether filial piety or artistic imperative is the stronger motivation in his life. Thirty years of procrastination is pretty impressive – it makes those of us who leave their tax returns until the last week of January look positively efficient. What can he have been waiting for, for all this time? It doesn’t take thirty years to find a book of matches and a grate. Or if burning seemed a bit melodramatic, the price of shredders has really bucked the inflation trend. You can get one for less than twenty quid at Rymans. Or if you’d like to splash out, for £39.99 they have one that eats staples, credit cards and CDs. Which pathologically paranoid person wouldn’t want one of those? If it can julienne vegetables as well, I might get one. It’s hard to imagine I’d ever need any other kitchen or office appliance.

Artists are surprisingly keen to see their work go up in flames. Kafka didn’t want his unpublished work to see the light of day, and Virgil spent ten years working on the Aeneid, which he still considered unfinished when he died, demanding it be consigned to a fiery grave. Lucky Augustus ignored him, or my A-Levels would have been terribly boring. I suppose I’d have had to do the Georgics, Virgil’s farming treatise, instead. And really, would you rather read about the fall of Troy, the doomed love affair with Dido, and Aeneas’ descent into the underworld? Or advice on how to keep bees? Even if you’re not afraid of bees, which I am.

I think writing a book is probably a lot like having a child – you mostly love your creation with a demented passion, but one afternoon in, say, a hundred, you would willingly hand it to social services and tell them to keep it. Nabokov wanted most of his work destroyed at one point or another, even Lolita. And that would have been a genuine tragedy. Quite aside from the loss to literature, if the world hadn’t had Lolitac, what would Woolworths call their children’s bed range?

Neither authors nor parents are always right, about their offspring or anything else. If I’d followed my parents’ advice I’d be a lawyer by now. And although that would have been better for me in the long-term financial sense, it would have been worse for me in the short-term ocular sense. I think I’d have lasted less than a week before applying a finely-sharpened HB pencil to each eye.

So, how should Dmitri resolve his quandary? One enterprising Times reader has suggested that he could photocopy the originals, then burn them. It’s hard to argue with that kind of pragmatism. I was once at school with an orthodox Jewish girl who would cheerily travel on Saturdays, because her bus pass meant she wasn’t technically spending money. The Talmud, obviously, had little to say on the subject of the bus pass (although, conversely, it does mention Oysters – forbidden, alas), so she gave herself the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps Dmitri could do the same kind of thing. After all, what difference could it possibly make to Nabokov’s reputation, if his final work is fragmentary, or not especially great? He’s Nabokov. His name appears in a song by the Police, even though it’s really hard to rhyme. When you’re so much more successful than your critics, let them say what they want.