The Original of Laura – Vladimir Nabokov

I was very pleased to receive Nabokov’s “the Original of Laura” as a present by some of my trainees after a course, after I had used words and a passage from Speak, Memory as examples of very difficult language, which I could teach them as something new.

The book is Nabokov’s last work and was unfinished. It is presented as photographs of his index cards, upon which he drafted his later novels. This helps bump it up to a full length volume, as the text is sparse, consisting of only a few fairly complete chapters followed by increasingly fragmentary notes.

The book concerns a young woman who has married an older, rich academic. It is told partly by a seemingly neutral narrator, describing the woman’s encounters with past, and present lovers, and partly as the autobiography of the academic, who has an obsession with trying to make his body slowly die, through meditation.

There are some interesting episodes, and some of Nabokov’s trademark wit, irony, and carefully crafted sentences using unusual words are there, as well as the unreliable narrator, which seems to be a theme running through Lolita, Pnin and Pale Fire, the other fictional works of his that I have read. Being unfinished, it fails to come together to be more than the sum of its parts, and certainly would do nothing for someone who was not already interested in Nabokov’s works. On the other hand, it would have been a pity if his wife or son had followed his instructions to burn it.

As before, I looked up words I didn’t know or was not sure of, which may include some which you consider easy. The sources are various, including the google dictionary, Wiktionary and anything else I could find. I’ve given the line from the book for context. I was also given the Russian-language version, which I will attempt to read. I fear there will be rather more words I don’t know there.



“displaying the little hand in febrile motion”

characterised by nervous excitement or energy (also: feverish)



“the distal edge of the slipper lost its grip and had to be pried at the grateful heel with a finger for shoeing-horn”

situated away from the centre of the body



“prefactory contemplation”

seems to be the same as “prefatory”: introductory



“the mobile omoplates of a child being tubbed”

(obsolete) shoulderblades



“Auroral rumbles and bangs had begun jolting the cold misty city”

of the dawn



“whose pyjamas…were changing…from heliotrope to a sickly gray”

light purple, similar to heliotrope flowers



“The position of her head, its trustful poximity”

possibly the same as ‘proximity’?



“the local magazine Pitch, which specialized in soccer and diabolical faits-divers”

brief news stories with sensational themes in French papers



“Mr Hubert, who constantly ‘prowled’ (rodait) around her

French: third-person singular imperfect indicative of ‘rôder’ – to prowl


boutique d’éventails

“She had just opened a boutique d’éventails”

French: boutique selling fans



“Such fixed details as her trick of opening her mouth when toweling her inguen”

the crease at the junction of the inner part of the thigh with the trunk together with the adjacent region and often including the external genitals.



“care must be taken to eliminate the hypnagogic gargoyles…”

relating to the state immediately before falling asleep



“… and entoptic swarms which plague tired vision”

(of visual images) occurring or originating inside the eye



“getting rid of my toes (as represented by the white pedicule I was erasing…”

(also ‘pedicel’): something resembling a stalk



(definition given without context)

an ancient Greek concept of an ideal of excellence of character and soundness of mind, which when combined in one well-balanced individual leads to other qualities, such as temperance, moderation, prudence, purity, and self-control.



“The extermination of my ten toes had been accompanied with the usual volupty”

(= voluptuousness): pleasure



“I palpated warily the hallux and the four other digits of my right foot”

big toe



“At worst I was ready to face an anatomical preparation of ten bare phalanges sticking out of my feet like a skeleton’s claws.”

(= phalanx) a bone of the finger or toe.



“He showed A.N.D. one of the dark grim urograms that had been taken of A.N.D.’s rear anatomy.”

A radiograph of the urinary tract.



“I wish to add that this was no homosexual manifestation but a splendid example of terminal gynandrism.”

deformity of female genitals to resemble those of opposite sex


roman à clef

“a bestseller which the blurb describes as ‘a romana novel in which real people or events appear with invented names. clef with the clef lost forever’”

a novel in which real people or events appear with invented names.


un air enjoué

“she was brimming with religious fervour and yet miserably, desperately fearful, despite bright smiles and un air enjoué, of my insulting her by some mocking remark”

(French) a cheerful demeanour



“The only help I can provide is not even paradigmatic.”

an example serving as a model; pattern



“an envahissement of delicious dissolution (what a miraculous appropriate noun!)”

(French) invasion/encroachment


About icfematerials

I am an EFL teacher in Moscow, Russia. I'm blogging about ICFE materials. I am in no way affiliated with Cambridge ESOL. My views are not those of my school or of Cambridge ESOL.
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