Penguin Classics £25

The Original of Laura, By Vladimir Nabokov

If only this had been burnt, as the author had ordered

So the merchandising industry has mounted a hostile takeover of the publishing industry. This much we know. Top Gear spin-offs and novels with Katie Price's name on them sell – really sell – while literary fiction barely pays for itself, let alone the infrastructure required to edit, print and sell it. The literary world grumbles, but really, they're grateful for the subsidy. Everyone wins!

So it should come as no surprise – but it still hurts – when a hammer blow of naked merchandising comes from that most literary of places: Penguin. And not just Penguin, but its most revered imprint, Penguin Classics, which has now published some index cards that contained notes towards a story that Vladimir Nabokov didn't write.

Nabokov died in 1977, with instructions that these cards should be burnt, but first his widow and then his son failed to do so. After much dithering, his son persuaded Penguin to sell colour photocopies of them – all 138 cards, front and back – on paper so thick that, from a distance, it looks like a novel. It certainly says "novel" on the cover – admittedly, "in fragments" – but it comes shrink-wrapped, presumably to prevent you from discovering that it's not a novel. Not even close.

There is no plot. Reviewers have risen heroically to the task of writing 1,000 words about a "text" less than 8,000 long. True, there are coherent paragraphs. There's the usual drooling over young flesh – "nates" crops up, his creepy, creepy word for buttocks – and tedious intellectualisations about how much he'd like to cut off his own feet (his son, in the foreword, explains that he was a martyr to ingrown toenails). He alludes to his own previous stories and describes a professor of Russian literature, "a forlorn-looking man bored to extinction by his subject", as Nabokov was at Cornell. When this gets too action-packed, we segue into actual navel-gazing: "I loathe my belly, that trunkful of bowels, which I have to carry around". Write what you know, Vlad!

But that's literally it, there's nothing there. The gimmick is that you can take the index cards out (they're perforated), to shuffle them as if you were the author yourself. The actual purpose, it strikes me, is literally to create the hole that is already metaphorically there. Which is pretty damn Nabokovian, I have to admit, though you should really go the distance and set fire to the index cards as if you were the author's wife. Then you can use the book to smuggle cigarettes into school.

This is a bewildering act of brand dilution. The book was published under the strictest embargo that literary editors had seen in recent years. Early reviewers had to go in to Penguin's offices, which generated a kind of viral excitement – that's certainly how JJ Abrams would release a novel – which persuaded reviewers to be, on the whole, polite: those published so far have called it, variously, a "fascinating document" and "a wink at posterity". John Banville called it "deeply interesting", and Martin Amis wrote an essay longer than the actual book, incidentally acknowledging that any pretence that Nabokov was not himself a paedophile was now gone.

But I'm with Aleksandar Hemon, who wrote: "Not only does it go against his expressed wishes, it goes against his very aesthetic sensibility, against his entire life as an artist." Too right. Plus: "It can't escape the musty air of an estate sale."

Well, there'd be a reason for that, and that's because there was an estate sale at Christie's on 4 December, two weeks after publication, at which these exact index cards had a guide price of $400,000 to $600,000. As it happened, bidding petered out at $280,000 and the lot was withdrawn.

Merchandising industry? Penguin has ventured into the ad business.

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade

Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
    Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

    Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

    Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
    Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

    Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

    Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
    Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

    Join the tequila gold rush

    The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
    12 best statement wallpapers

    12 best statement wallpapers

    Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
    Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

    Paul Scholes column

    Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?