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Behold my father, part 2

Posted by David Mehegan  April 24, 2008 11:24 AM

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Vladimir Nabokov in 1958
(Carl Mydans/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images)

I wrote below about Honor Moore's decision to divulge details of the gay sex life of her late father, Bishop Paul Moore, which set off a public quarrel with her siblings. The quesion I asked was whether the dead have any privacy rights, indeed any rights at all, which their children are bound to respect.

The latest avatar of this quesion arises with novelist Vladimir Nabokov, who on his deathbed ordered his son Dimitri, now 73, to destroy the author's last novel, "The Original of Laura." Dmitri had long suggested that he would burn the work, but now has announced that he will publish it after all. According to the Guardian, Dimitri told the German magazine Der Spiegel that his father, who died in 1977, had "appeared before me and said, with an ironic grin, 'You're stuck in a right old mess -- just go ahead and publish.'"

The fragmentary work is said to exist on a stack of 50 index cards (clearly a short novel) in a Swiss bank. The fact that Dimitri has not destroyed it by now, and that he long ago revealed the existence of the work, which set up a critical appetite for its publication, suggests that he never intended to honor his father's wishes.

But the question remains: If a writer has the right to decide in his lifetime that a work is not up to his standard and should not be published, does he have the right to expect his executor to respect that wish? Put another way: When a writer dies, does he automatically become part of the public domain?

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