|Posted on Wed, Oct. 26, 2005|
'Lolita' at 50: Did Nabokov take literary liberties?
Inquirer Book Critic
Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul... . Is it possible I stole your name and tale from another writer?
Vladimir Nabokov, so far as we know, never asked himself that question about his most notorious character. But others are asking.
Sept. 15 marked the 50th anniversary of the first Paris publication of the Russian emigre's most famous novel. (In case you've been living on Mars or are 9 years old, it's about a dirty old man and a nymphet.) American publishers paid due attention.
Vintage released a special anniversary edition. Columbia University held a symposium. The New York Times and Washington Post published musings.
Yet neither the Post nor the Times paid any attention to the biggest news connected to the anniversary: the Nov. 10 publication of The Two Lolitas by Michael Maar (Verso, $23), a book-length investigation of the alleged lifting, from the enterprising German literary scholar who broke the story last year.
In an article for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Maar reported discovering a 1916 short story by the aristocratic German writer Heinz von Eschwege (1890-1951), a German newspaper journalist (and descendant of the Grimm Brothers) who wrote under the pen name Heinz von Lichberg and later became a Nazi Party propagandist.
The story involved a cultivated middle-aged man bewitched by a preteen beauty named Lolita. It appeared as one of a collection of 15 tales published by Falken Verlag in Darmstadt under the title, The Accursed Giocanda.
Von Lichberg's older man is, like Nabokov's Humbert Humbert, a lodger who succumbs to Class-A erotic fixation after his first fatal glance at the daughter of the house - in his case, a pension in Spain. He also becomes intimate with Lolita, who, like Nabokov's temptress, 12-year-old Dolores "Lolita" Haze, suffers from mood swings and dies before him.
According to Maar, The Accursed Giocanda would have been "quite generally available" in Berlin in the 1920s and '30s. Nabokov's family moved to Berlin in 1919 and Vladimir lived and wrote his Russian-language novels there from 1922 till 1937. He resided, it turns out, in the same southwest Berlin neighborhood as Lichberg, a prominent feuilletonist for the Berliner Lokal-Anzeiger newspaper. Maar offers intriguing evidence that they may have been aware of each other personally.
Maar also puts forth examples of coincidences, allusions to Spain, a second case in which Nabokov may have borrowed a Lichberg plot, and a huge amount of circumstantial evidence from name-games in Nabokov's other writings, to one purpose. He believes that Nabokov - guiltily or playfully, but certainly characteristically - wanted to tease readers with hidden allusions to Lichberg's work. Nabokov, Maar reminds us, was "not just an incalculable genius, but a genius of deception..."
At the same time, acknowledges Maar, wryly paraphrasing Nabokov's character Van Veen in the novel Ada, that no logical law tells us when a given number of coincidences ceases to be accidental. With no smoking gun, Maar sees three possibilities.
One is that Nabokov was "completely unaware of Lichberg's tale" and it's a matter of "fortuitous coincidence." The second is that Nabokov experienced what Maar dubs "cryptomnesia": a forgetting of material he once read, followed by a "resurgence" that he considered his own creation.
Hypothesis three - the one Maar favors - is that Nabokov knew Lichberg's tale and, "half-inserting, half-blurring its traces, set himself to that art of quotation which Thomas Mann, himself a master of it, called 'higher cribbing.' "
When Maar's research broke in Europe last year, Nabokov's son, Dmitri, the executor of his father's estate, described the allegations as "either a journalistic tempest in a teacup or a deliberate mystification."
Dmitri, responding to requests from both the Guardian of London and Nabokov's German translator, Dieter Zimmer, for his views, pointed out that Lichberg's story takes place in Spain, where the name "Lolita" is "hardly a rarity." He described Lichberg's story as a "short piece written by a journalist" that "also appears to be junk."
Nabokov's son added that his father spoke "practically no German." Angry about the floating plagiarism charges, he wrote to the Guardian, "I have seen many of the newspaper articles, whose writers range from the stolid proprietary Germans, to the unethical Norwegians whose headlines blatantly announce forgery... ."
"Contrary to what a lot of the hacks are saying, there are no similarities of name except for Lolita. The plot is one of a handful of basic plots on which all literature is based."
But Maar, who has done some hard digging, counters that Vladimir Nabokov, despite boasting of his disdain for German culture, and failure to master German to the extent he did French and English, nonetheless asserted "a fair knowledge of German" in his 1947 application for a Guggenheim Fellowship. Nabokov also wrote to Princeton University Press in 1975 that he could read German, but not write in it.
Does any of this matter to literary history? Maar stresses that even if Nabokov did crib from Lindberg, the word "plagiarism" does not apply.
"Literature has always been a huge crucible," Maar writes, "in which familiar themes are continually recast... . Nothing of what we admire in Lolita is already to be found in the tale; the former is in no way deducible from the latter."
Still, we'd say - don't try this on your final paper.