Dmitri Nabokov, opera singer, race car driver, and son of Vladimir Nabokov, has died at age 77. Dmitri, who acted as his father’s literary executor, made headlines a few years back when he agreed to publish Nabokov’s final and unfinished novel, The Original of Laura, against his father’s wishes. The elder Nabokov had ordered the manuscript burned at his death, but Dmitri followed in the distinguished tradition of literary executors who disobey orders. (We would not have much of Kafka, for one thing, if his executor had carried out his wishes.)
I wrote about Dmitri in a piece for Schott’s Almanac, and during my research was fascinated to discover that Dmitri attributed his final decision to the influence of his father’s ghost. At the time, everyone seemed to think this was a little weird. But while researching Rest in Pieces, I’ve come across several examples of literary ghosts meddling in the affairs of the living. In fact, there’s at least one other example of a famous father’s ghost appearing to his son to help out with the publication of a manuscript.
Dante Alighieri, author of the Divine Comedy, died in 1321 before the full text of his masterpiece could be published. According to his first biographer, Boccaccio, after his death his sons were attempting to organize his manuscript when they realized that the final 13 cantos of the Paradiso were missing. Frustrated, they had nearly decided to write the missing portion of the work themselves when Dante appeared to his son Jacopo in a dream.
In the dream, Dante was wearing white clothes and had a strange light emanating from his face. When Jacopo asked if he was still alive, Dante answered, “Yes, but with the true life, and not this of ours.” Then Jacopo asked about the missing parts of the manuscript, and Dante took his son by the hand and led him to the bedroom of the house in which he had died. Pointing to spot on the wall he said, “Here is what you have been looking for.”
When Jacopo awoke, he went to the spot his father had shown him and found the missing cantos hidden inside the wall. They were moldy and crumbling, but salvageable. After some cleaning, the final work was published. A little while longer and the cantos would have been lost to history, just like The Original of Laura would have been if Dmitri had followed his father’s orders.
Of course, Nabokov wanted his work destroyed, while Dante (presumably) wanted his published. And who knows whether either story is “true” in the most literal sense of the word. I’m not sure it matters. Our ideas about ghosts have evolved over the centuries, and ghosts mean different things at different times. However, it seems just possible that occasionally, the spirits of the dead help out with the bookshelves of the living.