Wild Games

This story begins and ends with a book, although the book, ultimately, is the least of it. My name, as they used to say back in the days when we still had novels, is not all that important. It will come up when the strategy of this narrative requires it. One winter afternoon at the end of 2009, on the table of new arrivals at St. Mark's Bookshop, in the East Village, I found a copy of a Vladimir Nabokov book whose existence was altogether unknown to me, The Original of Laura. I picked it up, curious, and read on the back cover that it was a novel the Russian author had left unfinished upon his death. Intrigued, I began to leaf through it. It was a set of handwritten index cards riddled with corrections and deletions. I'm not really sure what made me buy the book, but I read it straight through that same night, and by the time I finished I had been possessed by an unease I could not yet quite understand. The novel's text, which was scattered irregularly across the index cards, was posing a challenge to which I felt compelled to respond, except I didn't know how. Despite its imperfect and fragmentary nature and the huge quantity of errors that plagued that attempt at a novel, what I read fascinated me, and I couldn't get it out of my head. I was seized by the idea, not of finishing what Nabokov had left barely begun . . . that would have been lunacy, as well as an impossible undertaking. So what the hell was I planning to do?, I asked myself . . .

After giving it a lot of thought, I managed to understand. I wanted to know what form the text of The Original of Laura might have taken had the author's death not prevented him from finishing it. There was something maddening about the idea. When I finished reading the book it was three in the morning. I couldn't call anybody to tell them about it. I took a sleeping pill and went to bed thinking that the first thing I'd do on waking would be to call Arnold Swift to tell him about the find and my preposterous decision. At eleven in the morning I showed up at the joint where he likes to shut himself away to write, the Café Dada in Brooklyn.

I don't really get what you're saying, David. What is it you're proposing to do exactly?

There's a novel buried in those index cards. It needs to be brought out into the light.

It's an abortion of a text, said Arnold. It should never have been published. It's a very handsome volume, as an object, but there's nothing of value there, from a literary perspective. The critics were not what you'd call exactly crazy about the book, and with good reason.

He was right. Recalcitrant Nabokovians, like Martin Amis, one of his best exegetes, saw no merit in the text, and struggled unsuccessfully to justify its publication in a review he wrote for the New York Times under the title “Nabokov and the Problem from Hell.” Something similar happened to his biographer, Brian Boyd. He couldn't think how to justify the decision by the writer's son Dmitri, who had taken thirty years to decide to publish it. Before his death, Nabokov had left unambiguous instructions, asking for the work to be destroyed. Instead, Véra, his wife, decided to deposit it in the vault of a Swiss bank.

I took the subway back to Manhattan. It was my last day at the magazine. There was hardly anything left in my office now. I was quitting my job with mixed feelings. Nobody had asked me to go, but nor did anybody press me to stay. It was my decision. I don't know to what extent I was lying to myself, but the excuse I gave was that I wanted more time for my own writing. I'd keep working for them, but without having to go to my office in person on a daily basis. Still, it was a tough blow. I found it hard to quit a job I'd been doing for so many years. I put the few things I still had there into a small backpack and headed out. I left the building without saying goodbye to anybody, as if I'd be back in the next day. Next thing I knew, I was at Columbus Circle. I thought about going for a walk in Central Park, but something, I'm not quite sure what, made me think of my friend Nicole Pasternak and I decided to pay her a surprise visit. She's a very special person, Nicole is. A lot of people are shocked she and I get along so well. She's a literary agent, one of the best, and a fierce one at that. She was born in Belarus and she has a very strong personality and a reputation for ruthlessness. It is true that in her professional life as an agent, she is merciless and lacks scruples, perhaps because in her line of work it would not be practical to behave any other way. I really like her. She's very smart and has an odd sense of humor, which not everybody can catch, and she's extremely reserved. There are strange rumors flying around about her past, and there's a halo of mystery surrounding her private life, but I don't give a damn about that, any more than I care about her mysterious habit of disappearing for long periods of time, sometimes whole months, without anybody knowing what she's doing or where she's gone. I like her idea of New York. She says it's a point of arrival, the only one she's managed to find after many years of running away, without quite knowing from what. There are a lot of people in this city who feel like I do, she told me once, individuals who, after years of dragging the weight of their existence around aimlessly, arrive here and immediately understand that there's no place else for them to go. New York is the end of the line for a lot of people with broken lives.

When I reached the agency it must have been two in the afternoon. I was met by Abby, Nicole's assistant, a very pleasant girl who has been working with her for many years. I asked if Nicole was busy. She replied with a smile that I was in luck and announced my presence through the intercom. I knocked on her office door before going in. Nicole was reading a manuscript on a tablet. I dropped my backpack into an armchair. My final belongings, I've just cleared out my office, I said, and sat down opposite her.

And how do you feel?

Like I'm the Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland. And for the first time in as long as I can remember, I'm not in a hurry. But that's not what I've come to talk about. Do you know The Original of Laura?

Yes, of course. What's it to you?

I stumbled on a copy yesterday afternoon at St. Mark's. I was leafing through it and decided to buy it. I read it at night in one sitting and when I finished I was so rattled that I needed to take a pill to get myself to sleep.

Everyone says it's meaningless gibberish.

Perhaps, but I'd like to work it out. I saw something in it.

Lighting a cigarette, she asked me to explain to her just what it was I'd seen.

Best thing you could do would be to hire a ghostwriter, she said when I'd finished. I can recommend a very good one.

Who?

Stanley Marlowe.

Marlowe? Like in the Chandler novels?

He's an odd kind of guy, the sort you like. But there's no one better. Trust me. He's undervalued in the profession, because of his personality, but that works out well for you.

She took a card from her desk and scribbled something on the back.

Hellman & Associates, I read aloud. Rings a bell. Isn't that where Swift works?

Right. That's his direct line. Tell him I gave you his number. You guys will get along.

When I arrived home, I went onto the Hellman & Associates website and was impressed by the great range of services they offered. I called the number Nicole had written on the card.

Stanley Marlowe. Who's this?, asked a man's voice.

I was given your number by Nicole Pasternak, I said, and explained that I needed a ghostwriter.

I don't know if I'll be able to help you. I've got something in hand just now that doesn't leave me time for anything else. If you don't mind, the best thing would be for you to fill out the form on the agency's website and get it to me as soon as you can. Let me just have a look at the calendar . . . Yeah . . . I've got to go to Manhattan next week. The job I'm doing is a commission from the wife of one of the main shareholders of Wild Games, the video-game company. They've set me up with an office on the thirty-eighth floor of the Turnham Building, where they're based. You know where the Turnham Building is? Great. How about we meet there on Wednesday at one-thirty? OK, perfect. Just ask for me. Incidentally, how's Nicole doing? I've not had any word from her in a while.

§ § §

The receptionist who came out to meet me looked like a character who'd escaped from a video game. When she saw my bewildered expression, she couldn't help but smile. She was very young, probably not even twenty. She had brown eyes and her hair was coiled into two braids on either side of her head. She was wearing a light blue jacket with gold trim, a short skirt edged with white and soft leather boots with lacing that crisscrossed halfway up her calf. On her lapel she wore a wing-shaped tag on which her name appeared: Theresa McKenzie.

I have an appointment to see Stanley Marlowe, I explained. She consulted her computer, still smiling all the while.

You must be Benjamin Hallux?

Exactly.

Please come with me. Her smile had risen from her lips to her eyes.

She pressed a button on the wall. Very slowly a door-sized opening appeared, allowing access to a tubular passageway. She invited me to step inside. The passageway was very wide and it was in shadow, lit only by a few rectangular panels that hung from the ceiling at wide intervals and gave off an aura of black light. The curved walls had narrow glass openings through which you could make out some cubicles in which groups of very young people were working. I asked my companion if the place had been built recently.

The Turnham was completed a couple of years ago, though we've been here a bit under six months. Wild Games occupies the whole of the thirty-eighth floor, she explained in a teacherly tone. The idea is to replicate the atmosphere of those games that are currently selling the best. We dedicate it to a different theme every week.

At the end of the corridor a metal door opened automatically just as we were about to reach it. On the other side was a very spacious room. A brightly lit bar ran parallel to the back wall, which was entirely covered in glass cabinets filled with bottles.

That reminds me so much of the bar from The Shining, I said.

Well spotted. It's a replica. We're trialing a game based on the Kubrick movie. Incidentally, there's nothing virtual about it. If you'd like a drink, just press that bell, she said, pointing toward the other end of the bar. Please excuse me a minute, she said, taking a telephone handset off the wall.

Mr. Marlowe won't be long, she informed me a moment later. He asks if you would wait here a few minutes. I'll be back to fetch you shortly. If you'll excuse me.

I looked around. One of the walls of the bar was a huge glass surface that offered a dizzying view over western Manhattan and a stretch of the Hudson River. I walked over. A cobalt-colored helicopter bearing the name Wild Games in gold letters on its fuselage rattled over toward the windows at my altitude, suspended over the urban grid. It was so close, I could make out the pilot's features. Next to him, a red-haired individual was filming the area around the skyscraper with a video camera. The glass wall trembled to the pulse of the helicopter blades. For a few moments, the camera pointed at me, then swept across the inside of the bar. When he was done, the man waved at me. A storm was brewing over Manhattan. The sky had been darkening till it had become a dense ash-colored mass. Suddenly there was a thunderclap and it began to rain violently. The pilot gestured to the cameraman, urging him to stop filming. The chopper performed a quick turn and disappeared into the clouds. The downpour erased the view of the buildings that leaned over the Hudson. I stood rapt, watching the dramatic changes in the sky, as it was lit intermittently by flashes and bursts of lightning. I'm not sure how long it lasted, but eventually the shower started to abate, to be replaced by a fine drizzle through whose slanting strokes the skyline reemerged. After a while, the storm began to drift off toward New Jersey, leaving an explosion of colors behind it. As if synchronized to the atmospheric phenomena, at the very moment a shard of sun sprouted on the horizon Miss McKenzie reentered the bar.

Come with me, please.

We went into a corridor that resembled the gallery of a prison. Images of an alien attack were being projected onto the walls. Some semihuman figures were dodging a wave of fireballs that fell in quick succession, sweeping the ceiling and sending the bricks of the passageway through which we were walking flying into the air. Through the cracks in the bombed-out wall, an impenetrable jungle could be seen. From there we moved into an ordinary-looking corridor with numbered wooden doors on either side. The last of these was inscribed with the words Screening Room. Miss McKenzie rapped her knuckles on this door, waited a few moments and invited me through to a space in which a dozen leather armchairs were positioned in front of a large screen.

Your visitor, Mr. Marlowe, said my guide, addressing an individual who was sitting at a console. Projected onto the screen, a Google Images page showed photos of an old man in a variety of surroundings: beside a swimming pool, on a golf course, in front of a vineyard, on the porch of a mansion surrounded by palm trees. Marlowe pulled the computer mouse. The cursor arrow was transformed into a fist with the index finger sticking out and one of the photos was enlarged, to occupy the whole screen. Wearing the cap of a ship's skipper, the old man smiled at the camera from the deck of a yacht. Miss McKenzie said goodbye with a silent gesture and left us alone. Marlowe looked at me, opened a small tin he had on top of the desk, and took out a pinch of chewing tobacco.

Sorry to have kept you waiting, he said, standing to offer me his hand. He was thin, not very tall, with a well-trimmed beard. He was wearing a denim jacket, black pants, and metal-framed glasses. The picture of the old man disappeared from the screen.

As I told you the other day when we talked on the phone, I'm very busy and I don't know if I'll be able to agree to your request, even if you are a good friend of Nicole's. The reason for that is the individual you've just seen on the screen, Arthur Laughton. I've got to write his autobiography, a job that will likely take up all my time for several months. It's Gloria's idea, that's his wife. You know who Arthur Laughton is, the tycoon, right? He's one of the senior partners in Wild Games. They've provided me with this viewing room by way of a provisional office so I can organize some of the visual material. I was just watching some home movies, scenes of domestic life, the family on vacation, things like that. I'll try to help you, my dear Hallux, but I can't promise anything. Anyway, tell me what it's about. I'm all ears. Or rather—no. Come to think of it, there's no need to tell me anything . . .

He clicked the left side of the mouse. Onto the screen there burst—magnified—the form that he had asked me to fill in online a few days earlier. In the top right-hand corner was a photo of me, in color, above the name I'd given: Benjamin Hallux.

Hallux, eh? That's a name I'd never heard before, he said, pointing a red laser flashlight onto the screen. The beam slipped swiftly over the lines of the text:

  • Hellman & Associates, Literary Services

  • Please complete all fields in the form.

  • Category: Fiction.

  • Brief description of the project: Decoding the matrix of a posthumous novel left unfinished by its author, one of the 20th century's great writers.

  • Approximate length: between 60 and 90 pages.

  • Provisional delivery time: 3 months.

  • Name of client: Benjamin Hallux.

  • Age (optional): 46 years old.

  • Occupation: Novelist.

  • Mailing address: 250 Mercer Street, Apartment B-1303, New York, NY 10012.

  • E-mail address:benjamin.hallux@gmail.com.

  • Contact telephone: (646) 251-5619.

Breaking the code, he started to say.

Decoding the matrix, I corrected him.

You couldn't make it any more abstruse?

I beg your pardon?

Forget it. So, a novelist, eh? Now that's a good one. I didn't know there were any of you guys still around . . . But going back to your last name, where the hell did you get this Hallux from?

Well, where did you get your Marlowe?

You're the one who's coming to me for help, not the other way around. Are you going to answer my question or aren't you?

From the book I want you to write.

Aha. Let's see.

Once again Marlowe pointed the red light at the screen and read out loud:

Decoding the matrix of a posthumous novel left unfinished by its author, one of the 20th century's great writers. Tell me something, Hallux. Were you very drunk when you wrote that? Or had you taken something more sophisticated than alcohol?

Marlowe . . .

Which genius is it we're supposed to be talking about?

May I?, I asked, grabbing the mouse from him.

He raised his arms, moving aside. I went onto Google and downloaded a picture onto the screen. Before us, in perfect definition, there appeared the prepubescent face of Sue Lyon. The painted lips were provocatively sucking on a flat lollipop, a circle colored blood-red. Her glasses, two identical hearts that looked like poppies in flames slipping down her nose, which was incredibly delicate in its whiteness and perfection. Peering over the frame, the stylized arches of her eyebrows, above caramel-colored eyes. In the lenses, the reflection of a spark of light.

Very slowly, I moved the red laser pointer over the blue letters that occupied the upper edge of the poster from one side to the other. Reading them one by one, I spelled it out:

L—O—L—I—T—A

Marlowe spun his revolving chair toward the picture and stared at it, rapt.

Ah!, he exclaimed after a few moments. So it's Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov, no less! This smells of litigation before we've even started. He's not my kind of writer, though I guess it's only right to acknowledge he did give the world a few books that weren't bad at all, including a couple masterpieces. I read Pale Fire in my first year at college and it blew my mind. No idea what I'd make of him now. With a click he made the poster of the Kubrick movie disappear. What are you talking about with this thing of poking around in its matrix? Sounds kind of sleazy somehow, when you put it like that.

Look, are we going to talk seriously or aren't we?

You needn't take everything I say to heart. Could you answer my question, please?

I'm not at all clear about it, but I think in the tangle of notes that Nabokov scattered over the index cards of what was to be a novel, there's something hidden that is of some value. It's a question of bringing it out into the light.

And would it have been so hard just to say what you had in mind like that instead of messing around with all those metaphors of questionable taste? You said you're a novelist?

I've brought you the corpus delicti so you can judge for yourself, I replied, ignoring his comment, and handed him a plastic bag I had brought with me.

A gift! What a nice touch. I thank you for this, Hallux, but don't go claiming victory just yet. I still haven't said I'm going to take this on. There's no point your trying to bribe me. He put his hand into the bag and took out the book. What the hell . . . ? The Original of Laura, a novel in fragments, he read slowly. Now I think about it . . . I do remember that when it was published . . .

You're missing the subtitle. Keep reading.

Dying is fun . . . he said very slowly and stroked the cover, running his index finger over the letters of the title, which faded away from left to right. They were all in capitals, the first ones white and neat, but as they moved toward the right-hand margin they lost precision, becoming ever darker until they disappeared against an ash-colored background. On the inside flap of the back cover there was a photo of a septuagenarian Nabokov. He was a very attractive man, even at that age. The ghostwriter pulled the dust jacket away. The book's covers, clothbound, were perfect reproductions of two of the original index cards. On the front cover you could read the following column of words, written in pencil in tremulous strokes:

  • efface

  • expunge

  • erase

  • delete

  • rub out

  • wipe out

  • obliterate

Nabokov had drawn an ellipse around the first word, and crossed out another, now illegible, between rub out and wipe out. Marlowe read the remaining words out loud, allowing a brief gap between each and the next, as if intoning a litany.

A list of synonyms for the verb to destroy, he said. What does it mean?

That is the crux of the book, I answered. Ways of disappearing, but executed in an active way: delete, efface, in a word, erase.

Erase what?

Reality, life, writing, everything. That's how the book ends. The words that appear on that card are the last that Nabokov wrote before he died.

Marlowe looked at the front cover again.

As you can see, it's one of those cards like you used to get in catalogue files in libraries. Nabokov took notes for his novels on them. The volume you're holding reproduces the cards the writer was working on when he died. There are 138 in total. The one you've just read is the last.

The ghostwriter opened the book. The pages, thickly textured, were exact replicas of the cards on which the Russian writer had started making notes for the novel. They were perforated around the edge, in such a way that just a slight pressure from your fingers would be enough to tear them out. The amount of text they contained was noticeably uneven. Some cards were practically full; others had only one or two lines of writing. There were copious erasures and deletions. Marlowe opened the book to the end.

270 pages, he said.

He started to leaf through the volume from the start, very slowly. The pages were split into two halves. The upper part was occupied by the handwritten cards. The lower repeated the same text but in typeset form.

That copy's for you. I've got two more.

His slid his middle finger over the lines of dots that marked the edges of the last index card and tore it out.

That's what I did to one of my copies, too, I said; take the cards out and put them away in a box.

Marlowe flipped the pages of the volume till he reached the end, as if he were shuffling a deck of cards. When he had finished, he slammed the book shut.

What do you have in mind, Hallux? Do try to be clear.

I've already told you. Teasing out the novel that's buried in those index cards.

And why the hell do you need someone like me? I'm a ghostwriter, a surrogate, whereas you are presumably a proper writer.

A ghostwriter is exactly what I'm looking for. Why do you talk about your job with such contempt? Don't you like it?

On the contrary, I can't think of a better one.

So what's the problem?

If lacking imagination isn't a problem, no problem at all.

In that case, everything's in order. I need somebody with a talent for writing but who is immune to the virus of imagination. We proper writers—as you put it—are quite incapable of escaping ourselves, and that's a terrible limitation. We're chained, whereas a ghostwriter is able to give a shape to what others can only dream about. You people can be asked to write anything: the biography of a tennis player, of a rapper, of a porn actress, of a tycoon . . . Isn't that what you're doing now with Laughton?

An autobiography, not a biography.

Even better. When I checked out your agency's website I saw that at Hellman & Associates you guys can be commissioned for all kinds of things: thrillers, travel books, cookbooks, romance novels, vampire novels, historical novels, sci-fi. Have you ever written a bestseller, Marlowe?

It's not as easy as it looks. Writing bad books that reach a lot of people isn't a gift you can just pick up. It's something you're born with.

Never mind. I have no intention of commissioning a bad book from you. We're talking about Nabokov. The name doesn't intimidate you, does it? You've edited some first-rate writers.

Yes, but they were alive. What you're proposing is quite different.

By the way, what are all those books you've got there? I pointed at a trolley I'd noticed when I came into the room. Are they anything to do with you?

Marlowe laughed.

Is that why you asked me that thing about bestsellers? They're here because of Gloria Laughton. She had the Hellman & Associates secretary send over the star titles written with the help of the agency's ghostwriters.

Did you write any of them yourself?

He laughed again. I helped edit a couple.

I went over to the trolley and started to read titles out loud: A Temple on the Sea Bed; The Auschwitz Pajamas; The Swordsman's Sadness; The Language of the Mind; The Pillars of the Universe; The Shadow of the Hurricane; What Do Seamstresses Dream About?; Portrait of a Teenage Vampire; The Lesbian of Stockholm; The Arthurian Code; Secrets of a TV Anchor; The Devil's Spy . . . What has any of this got to do with literature? Aren't you ashamed to be contributing to the massive deception of millions of people?

It's a swindle, I know that, but it's what sells.

I moved to pick up another book, but he stopped me.

That's enough, Hallux.

I need you to help me, Marlowe. Nicole said we'd get along well.

The ghostwriter picked up The Original of Laura and his eyes bored into the front cover as if this might allow him to read what was inside.

Why don't you tell me everything, right from the very beginning?, he said.

Butterflies of North America

Marlowe put the Nabokov novel into an explorer bag of sorts, threw it over his shoulder, and we left the screening room together. When we reached the bar decorated with motifs from The Shining, I was once again awed by the stunning view of Manhattan that the place commanded. As before, there was nobody there. Marlowe walked to the end of the amber-lit bar, rang the bell, and an impeccably uniformed waiter appeared.

Good evening, gentlemen, can I get you something?

Good evening, Phil, answered Marlowe. What'll you have, Hallux?

Whatever you're having.

Bring us two Blanton's, Phil.

We sat facing the large windows, looking out over the Hudson. The waiter returned with a tray. At that moment Marlowe's cell phone rang. After excusing himself, the ghostwriter moved a few steps away, spoke for just a moment, and then returned to my side.

Gloria Laughton's plane has just touched down at La Guardia. She'll be coming by here once she's left her things at home. We have plenty of time, he said, raising his glass. I copied his gesture and began to talk.

§ § §

1976. Nabokov suffers a fall from which he will never recover. A year later he dies in a hospital in Geneva. Among the papers he leaves on his death is a set of library cards containing the embryo of a novel whose provisional title is The Original of Laura. When he realizes that he will not be able to finish it, he gives strict orders for the cards to be destroyed. He is terrified by the possibility that he might bequeath some imperfect fruit of his imagination to posterity. Only amateurs, he wrote once, keep drafts. In The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, his first novel written in English, Nabokov states tersely that no writing should be allowed to survive that does not have the definitive form of the published book. Upon his death the question is left in the hands of his son Dmitri. When the moment of truth arrives, and they see that what he really has in his hands is the responsibility to decide the fate of a book that does not actually belong to him or to his mother, the heirs of Nabokov feel unable to destroy it. If you ask me, Marlowe, they did the right thing. The moment an author writes a novel, it ceases to belong to him. There's no law can change that. I know he didn't finish this one, but that doesn't invalidate my argument. If anything it strengthens it, given that the author no longer belongs in the realm of the living. In any case, unsure how to act and postponing any definitive decision for later, the Nabokovs deposit the index cards containing the text of The Original of Laura in the vault of a Swiss bank. Véra dies in 1991, leaving the decision to Dmitri.

Just a brief moment to take a sip of my drink, which is still almost untouched. The ghostwriter's glass, meanwhile, is empty.

It's a proven fact that Blanton's possesses properties that help to sustain the highest degree of auditory sensitivity, said the ghostwriter. Emerging from the shadows, the waiter approached and refilled his glass.

If I may, Marlowe, I'm going to shift the narrative into the past tense.

Why's that?

So I can concentrate more on the details of what happened.

As you wish. It's like we're already editing the manuscript.

As he began to give shape to The Original of Laura, Nabokov was organizing a book of short stories, while at the same time checking over the French translation of Ada, or Ardor. His idea was to complete the novel within a year. He told a friend in a letter that he was having a great deal of fun writing it. It's an extraordinary book, believe me. It's steeped in mystery and in it Nabokov peers into previously unimagined areas of desire, going even further than he had dared in Lolita . . . To tell you the truth, I don't really understand how little interest there's been in this book. When it fell into my hands I went crazy. Up until that point, Nabokov had not been a particular hero of mine. It bothered me that he'd spoken scornfully about writers who to me are untouchable: Conrad, Mann, Dostoevsky, Cervantes. But my opinion's changed. I find the story of his life fascinating: his aesthetic and intellectual aristocracy, his flight from the Russian Revolution; the mansions and hotels he lived in; the expeditions on which he traveled hundreds of thousands of miles in search of uncommonly rare butterflies. I'm overwhelmed by the tragic dimension of the losses he suffered: of his fortune, his country, his language. He witnessed the killing of his father, who was brought down by a gunshot during a political rally in Berlin. It astonishes me that he stopped writing in his mother tongue to start from scratch in another, with no possibility of return. The fact that he never again set foot in his native Russia gives me chills. He was reborn in America, which is the ultimate meaning of coming to this continent, and after reaching the greatest possible renown a writer could ever aspire to in a country as resistant to anything that comes from outside as the United States is, he quit the New World never to return. He spent his final years confined to a luxury hotel on the banks of Lake Leman, with the Alps always in view. And that was where he tried to compose this mysterious text, the legitimate child of Lolita.

What do you mean by that?

In The Original of Laura he returns to the thorny subject of nymphets in a way that's if anything even bolder. Although there is a touch of irony in it, in this novel the enigma of the forbidden opens up into unexpected dimensions, but now isn't the moment to reveal how. Nabokov takes us into dangerous areas, which respectable people pretend to shy away from in terror, precisely because they can feel their attraction. He drags us into the abyss, except that he does it with the innocence of a child. Sorry to be switching around so much, but I do need to revert to the present tense. It's a problem I've always had as a writer.

Are you out of your mind, Hallux? What you ought to be doing is switching professions. Come to think about it, maybe I should do the same.

What are you talking about now?

Or perhaps we could exchange roles.

I don't follow.

You could be the ghostwriter and I'd try my luck with creative writing. Have a swig from your glass, man, you're going to end up with your gullet dry from all that chatter.

I took a gulp of my drink and went on talking.

A year before his fall, in 1975, Nabokov feels a vast energy bubbling up inside him, even though physically he is in poor health. He starts to experience a series of ailments that remind him that his time on earth is drawing to an end. The list of infirmities he's suffering from is endless: insomnia, pneumonia, lumbago, deliria, fevers. On the brink of being deserted by his soul, his body begins to fail. He is taken from hospital to hospital, from room to room, from bed to bed. Occasionally he loses his clarity of mind. The way I imagine it, he has the idea for the novel with which he intends to bid farewell to life complete in his head, but lacks the strength to transfer it to paper. With great difficulty, he starts as best he can to fill the index cards on which he wants to give it shape. In late October 1976, he is interviewed for the New York Times Book Review. The interviewer is curious to know what he has read lately. He answers that over that summer, during his convalescence in a Lausanne hospital, he's read Dante's Inferno, William H. Howe's The Butterflies of North America, and The Original of Laura, he adds, confusing reading and writing. In his delirium, he describes himself reciting the novel to a group of spectral admirers, his ghost readers of the future. In the correspondence collected by his son Dmitri there's a letter where he describes how he read the text aloud to a chorus of imaginary listeners, among whom were peacocks, pigeons, his late parents, two cypress trees, a few young nurses constantly crouching around him, and a family doctor who was so ancient that he was practically invisible. This last image is perfect for him. The old writer, almost invisible, would be unable to complete the book. He would die erased by his own writing. He talks of this obsessively in the novel, as you were able to see for yourself when you read that last card a little while ago. What he describes in the letter is part of a wild fantasy, a reflection of his imagination, which is no longer any more than a shattered mirror. Life has begun to escape him, filling his head with fog, pushing him down some corridors that take him to a place he resists entering until in 1977 he finally dies.

I picked up the copy of The Original of Laura that Marlowe had put on the table and read aloud that enigmatic final card: efface, expunge, erase, delete, rub out, wipe out, obliterate . . .

Not create, but destroy, I went on. Destroy as the final stage of the creative process, its apotheosis. When I stumbled upon the book by chance, I had a revelation. It's hard to think of anybody who exercised a more steely control over his own writing. There's nothing spontaneous in Nabokov. His interviews were fakes. He seemed to be answering naturally, when in reality he was reading responses prepared in advance on cards he kept hidden behind a barricade of books. That's not the way with The Original of Laura. For the first time, the writer is naked, defenseless in front of critics and readers, at the mercy of his enemies, without a mask. Nothing like this had ever happened to him before, but that isn't all. As Nicole Pasternak likes to say, we've all got something to hide, and Nabokov is no exception. Despite the precarious state in which he left it, the text of the novel is full of signs. And therein lies the challenge that these index cards are setting us, Marlowe. Everything is in them: the paths he takes and finds himself obliged to give up because he lacks the strength, the places he glimpses that he doesn't manage to reach. But the traces he leaves are unmistakable. Beneath the cracks and chinks in his notes there throbs a living text that's crying out for somebody to give it birth; anyone who goes inside can hear how the voice of its creator is torn apart, first starting to go crazy, then becoming gradually subdued until it finally falls silent. As I pointed out before, the text of The Original of Laura is a letter in code addressed to the readers of the future.

At that moment the waiter came over.

Mrs. Laughton is waiting for you in the screening room, he announced curtly.

Marlowe drained his bourbon and got up.

On Friday I leave for California, he said, holding out his hand. I'll take the book with me. When I've had a chance to glance over it more calmly, I'll give you a call.

Note

“Through a Glass, Darkly” is the title of the first chapter of Siempre supe que volvería a verte, Aurora Lee, my last novel, published by Malpaso in 2013. I have revised the original for Common Knowledge.