Literary Fathers and Sons

Dmitri Nabokov, the son of Vladimar of Lolita fame, has been dithering in public again about whether he should publish his father’s last “novel”–actually 50 index cards with notes that Nabokov ordered destroyed upon his death. The Times calls it “a story about a son caught between a powerful urge to go against his late father’s wishes and an equally powerful urge to carry them out”.

This reminds me of another literary father and son. In an emotional slump, years before he became a priest, John Donne wrote Biathanatos, in which he defended suicide, admitting that “I have often such a sickly inclination” because he came from a Catholic family, “hungry of an imagined martyrdom”.  Years later, he entrusted his only MS to a friend, calling it “a book written by Jack Donne, and not by Dr Donne. Reserve it for me if I live, and if I die, I only forbid it the press and the fire; publish it not, but yet burn it not, and between those do what you will with it.” After Donne’s death, his son took it upon himself to be his literary executor, with mixed results.  When his study was raided twice by the Commonwealth army, John Donne Jr gave in to the urge to publish his father’s book, reasoning, with more than a little sophistry, that if it was not safely in print, the soldiers might return to consign it to the flames.