In the fall of 1976, a newspaper contacted Vladimir Nabokov in his Swiss refuge and asked him which books he had recently read. He responded with three typical titles: Dante’s “Inferno” (in Charles Singleton’s deliciously literal translation), a big, fat book about butterflies and his own work-in-progress, “The Original of Laura.” The latter project had preoccupied him over the summer, despite a serious illness. It was, he told his correspondent, “completed in my mind.” The revisions went on while he was confined to a hospital bed, a febrile process he describes in some detail in his “Selected Letters”: “I must have gone through it some fifty times and in my diurnal delirium kept reading it aloud to a small dream audience in a walled garden. My audience consisted of peacocks, pigeons, my long dead parents, two cypresses, several young nurses crouching around, and a family doctor so old as to be almost invisible.” Here was a description to whet the appetite of every Nabokov fanatic. If that’s how he discussed the book, the actual product had to be beyond imagining. Alas, the author died of congestive bronchitis in July 1977. And although he may have completed “The Original of Laura” in his mind, he had managed to transcribe only a small portion of the book onto index cards.

more from James Marcus at the LAT here.