The dilemmas parents place on their children may be unintentional, but they gnaw away the child’s conscience and torment him even in ripe old age. Dmitri Nabokov is the septuagenarian son of Vladimir, the lepidopterist and writer, who left him with note cards which form the basis of a novel called The Original of Laura. If we go by Dmitri’s word, it is the finest distillation of his father’s creativity.
There is a catch. The father told his son to burn the cards. Should he follow his father’s last wishes, or should he get it published? Burning what could be a great novel seems like a victimless crime, since nobody has read it, but it is not the same as burning Nabokov’s telephone bills. This is art. Should it be burnt?
History recommends publication. Franz Kafka had told his friend Max Brod to burn his unfinished manuscripts; Brod ignored the plea, and as a result we have the full oeuvre—of the rich world of the metamorphosis of Gregor Samsa, the trial of Josef K. and other works, all ranking among the finest expositions of totalitarianism and its impact on modernity. More than two millennia ago, Virgil wanted Aeneid burnt, but he was ignored. However, Emily Dickinson chose to have her correspondence burnt, but did not say anything about other notebooks and manuscripts; after an intra-familial dispute, we got a clearer glimpse of her art. Hope was that thing with feathers, and we were no longer without feathers.
Burning a book is different from burning minutiae of our quotidian lives. Books are often burnt in anger, and when they are, they presage evil. On my first visit to Berlin, I walked away from the Brandenburg Gate, along the avenue of imperial grandeur, Unter den Linden. To my right, I came across an open quadrangle. There, a part of the floor was made of glass. Inside, you could see stacks of bookshelves, all white, glowing in a yellow light. The bookshelves were empty. There was a palpable stillness around that quaint monument which was eerie. It was meant to be: It was the monument to the ritual book-burning the Nazis performed once they seized power in Germany in the 1930s. They targeted troublesome authors: Jews, homosexuals, anti-fascists, or those otherwise sympathetic to communism or leftist ideas.
The German playwright Heinrich Heine wrote in his 1821 play, Almansor: “Dort, wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man am Ende auch Menschen.” (Where they burn books, in the end they will also burn people.) In less than a decade, in towns such as Buchenwald and Auschwitz, the Nazis burnt people by the millions.
The link of creativity between the written word on a printed page, the thought that goes behind it, the imagination of a mind that gives it shape, is what makes us human, and it is what expression and humanity are all about. Destroy the work, and you destroy the thought behind it—and the thinker.
In early 1989, British Muslims (many of Pakistani origin) in Bradford had not given much thought to such philosophical impulses, but they were driven by the same angry passion which was to ultimately turn the Nazis into beasts, when they held aloft copies of Salman Rushdie’s novel, The Satanic Verses, burning them to ashes. Rushdie was stunned. Books were holy in his childhood home; in an early essay, he writes about his grandfather kissing a book that accidentally falls on the ground.
This does not mean every written word is sacrosanct. Telephone directories get pulped; junk mail gets thrown away; why, if unread, I hope this column will at least hold the bhelpuri someone might eat some day. But the responsibility of destroying the original rests with the creator. If you forget to destroy it, too bad. Do it yourself; don’t pass the burden onto others. Sometimes destroying things yourself might even be good: Ernest Hemingway’s Dangerous Summer, The Garden of Eden and True at First Light did not enhance his reputation. But the posthumously published A Moveable Feast ranks as one of the finest evocations of Paris of the 1920s, even if some dispute the events and characterization, particularly of the Fitzgeralds, and whether James Joyce drank Swiss white wine.
The novel I had always wanted to read was the one the adult Apu casts away in a valley, the pages disappearing, flying away randomly, carried by the wind, towards the end of Satyajit Ray’s Apur Sansar. He loses the novel but regains his son. The sight of Apu carrying his estranged son on his shoulders at the end of the film is one of the most beautiful endings of all time. But we know that end because of the way Ray interpreted Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyaya’s narrative, reinforcing hope in the face of Apu’s unbearable loss—his wife. Even if Apu released his story to the elements, Ray captured it for us. In his absence, we must turn to the original—of Virgil, of Kafka, of Nabokov. And, of Laura.
Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London. Your comments are welcome at email@example.com