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.

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