It’s a subject I seem to find fascinating on a repeated basis: what to do with a writer’s work once the writer is dead. The latest thing to spark my interest on the subject was an article I read recently on Slate: Dmitri’s Choice: Nabokov wanted his final, unfinished work destroyed. Should his son get out the matches? The issue at hand is that Nabokov left behind an unfinished manuscript, The Original of Laura, and requested that it be destroyed after his death. His widow didn’t do it before she died, so now the decision rests with Nabokov’s son Dmitri.
Personally, I think that it’s up to a writer to determine his or her legacy, and if Nabokov wanted Laura destroyed, then that counts for something. It counts for a lot. But of course, this is something written by Nabokov, which pretty much guarantees that even in manuscript form (handwritten on index cards), it’s a fascinating work, so of course people are worried about the loss of a genius’s final work to posterity. It’s understandable.
I’ve asked variations on this question before, and I’ll probably ask it again in some form someday, but at what point does the writer lose control over his or her work? At death? Or does the fact that the writer created it in the first place trump other people’s rights to it?
At the same time, what’s the deal with writers saying they want their works destroyed after they die? If they really want to make sure that their works are not published, why don’t they take care of it themselves? (I’m looking at you, Kafka.) Do they really mean it? Do we have to take their word for it? And if so, doesn’t that mean that the work should be destroyed?
Another facet of the issue at hand is that Dmitri has said that because of interpretations of Nabokov’s work by “Lolitologists” — those who attempt to psychoanalyze the writer through analysis of his writing — he leans towards the manuscript’s destruction if only to save it from the same fate. So here’s another question — does the fact that it’s impossible to control the way readers interpret things once they’re read mean that writing shouldn’t be made public? I mean, isn’t that the nature of having an audience — that once a piece of art is viewed, listened to, read, it’s out of the artist’s hands?
Which, when it comes down to it, is exactly the point. Certainly any artist who has created something and then had an audience interact with the creation knows that the audience is going to interpret that art in ways the artist never thought of or intended, which is, I believe, why some works never see the light of day. Some things are created just for the hell of it, or never quite get perfected enough, or are never completed. And in the end, doesn’t the artist know best which work should be shared and which work shouldn’t?
So many questions, and it all ends with one: should The Original of Laura be destroyed or should it be given to the world?