Vladimir Nabokov wanted it burned on his death, but "The Original of Laura" survived and now, 32 years later, the unfinished novel is about to be published for the first time.
Despite Nabokov's dying wish, publication of the manuscript, which was compiled on index cards, is set for November 17 in New York and London, giving what many hope will be an unexpected glimpse of his genius.
The Russian-born writer's widow Vera had already saved his most famous work, "Lolita," from the flames, and their son Dmitry, 75, followed suit by preserving "Laura."
Yet the family hesitated for 30 years before finally going to literary agent Andrew Wylie who negotiated a deal with Knopf/Random House in the United States and Penguin in Britain.
The manuscript -- 138 index cards -- until now has been locked in a bank vault in Montreux, Switzerland, where Nabokov died in 1977.
Like "Lolita", "The Original of Laura" is in English. The author was born in Saint Petersburg and emigrated with his family at the time of the 1917 revolution, but began to write in English from 1941.
The contents of the book are known only to a highly restricted circle including the family, but debate has raged for three decades over whether or not the author's wishes should be respected.
"Dmitry made the right decision. Had his father wanted it destroyed, he would have done so himself," Gavriel Shapiro, Russian literature professor at Cornell University and an author of several books on Nabokov, told AFP.
Shapiro noted that Nabokov, who taught at Cornell between 1948 and 1959, had also wanted to burn "Lolita," the book that made him world famous in 1955.
"At one point, Nabokov wanted to destroy Lolita. He was on his way to the incinerator, but Vera stopped him."
Nabokov's wish to have his work destroyed was not the only case of literary self-sabotage. Franz Kafka asked his friend Max Brod to destroy all his unpublished work, including "The Trial."
But instead the book was published posthumously.
There has been huge speculation about the contents of "The Original of Laura" and its quality.
Shapiro, who met Dmitry Nabokov several times, is one of the few who have had a glimpse.
"I happened to read that book several years ago, with Dmitry's kind permission. I don't remember the details," Shapiro said, "but had Nabokov had the time to complete the novel, it could have been his crowning achievement."
Dmitry Nabokov has also alluded to the potential greatness of the book.
In a BBC television interview in 2008, he said, "My father told me what his most important books were. He alluded to Laura as one of them. One doesn't refer to (a) book one intends to destroy.
"He would have reacted in a sober and less dramatic way if he didn't see death staring him in the face," Dmitry Nabokov told the BBC. "He certainly would not have wanted it destroyed. He would have finished it."
What is not clear is how polished the unfinished book is or whether it could fail to meet the high standards of already published Nabokov novels.
In an interview with the BBC, Vladimir Nabokov himself discussed his unusual writing methods and perhaps gave ammunition to those who say the text is not ready for publication.
"I use these index cards, and I don't write consecutively, from the beginning to the next chapter, till the end," he said. "I just sort of fill in the gaps."
The speculation is that the novel contains even more sex than "Lolita," the story of an elderly, literary pedophile and a manipulative young girl.
Dmitry Nabokov says only that the story concerns a neurologist who has great intellect, but is physically unappealing, and contemplates suicide after becoming oppressed by his much younger wife's infidelity.
"Sex? Not much, that's not the point," he said.
Readers won't have to wait entirely until November 17. An extract is to be published on November 10 -- in Playboy magazine.Reuse content