Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

Did she have a precursor? She did, indeed she did. In point of fact, there might have been no Lolita at all had I not loved, one summer, a certain initial girl-child.’
— Lolita

Lolita is one of those novels in which the protagonist-narrator is so coruscatingly brilliant that we are ready to forgive him almost anything. Twelve-year olds? Well, she did seduce him. And she’d already had that boy at summer camp. For prose this dazzling, this ardent, this clever...tout comprendre c’est tout pardonner...

But plagiarism?

This is the most recent charge against Nabokov’s notorious book, explored notably in Michael Maar’s The Two Lolitas (2005). The facts are these. In 1916 a German journalist, Heinz von Eschwege, writing under the name of Heinz von Lichberg, published a collection of stories called The Accursed Gioconda. Buried about half-way through the collection was a little story — only twelve pages long — called ‘Lolita’. It is a ghost story in a sub-Poe vein, perhaps with a dash of Thomas Mann thrown in. The narrator, a student living in Southern Germany, stays at a hotel and meets the daughter of the household, Lolita, a young girl (he does not say how young, but ‘by our northern standards she was terribly young‘), and is smitten by an unholy lust. One night his dirty young man’s dreams come true:

Lolita sat on my balcony and sang softly, as she often did. But this time she came to me with halting steps on the landing, the guitar discarded precipitously onto the floor. And while her eyes sought out the image of the flickering moon in the water, like a pleading child she flung her trembling little arms around my neck, leaned her head on my chest, and began sobbing. There were tears in her eyes, but her sweet mouth was laughing. The miracle had happened. ‘You are so strong,' she whispered.

After a few weeks of passion (no details are given) the student discovers that Lolita has died in the night. Lolita’s father, who takes the news quite phlegmatically, reveals to the student that her death is the result of a family curse.

The story is short, silly and uninvolving. The book as a whole did not sell particularly well. But the similarities with Nabokov’s Lolita seem too many to discount. In Nabokov’s novel, the narrator, Humbert Humbert, who recounts his ‘Confession of a White Widowed Male’ while in prison for murder, tells how, having recently arrived in the USA from France, he stays at a small boarding-house in a small town and is smitten with unholy lust for the landlady’s 12-year-old daughter, Lolita. He marries Lolita’s mother, Charlotte Haze, who dies conveniently in a car accident leaving him free to ‘look after’ Lolita. Finally Lolita dies (a few weeks after giving birth, though not to his child) and he kills her lover, Quilty.

The main similarities of plot and construction, then, are these: both have a first person narrator who turns up at a boarding-house; Lolita in both cases is the daughter of the house; she ‘seduces’ him; sex and death are presented as different aspects of the same violence, or as cause and effect; and finally the book/story’s title is ‘Lolita’.

Of course, Nabokov would probably not have read those twelve pages in an obscure, untranslated book by a minor German writer, published when he (Nabokov) was 17 and still living in Russia. Or would he? Nabokov left Russia with his family in 1919, and after three years studying at Cambridge, settled in Berlin in 1922. He remained there for fifteen years — until 1937 — married there, had a son, wrote several novels, and made his pre-Lolita reputation. These were fifteen years in which von Lichberg was a fellow Berliner, even living in the same part of Berlin. The book was still in the shops, and Nabokov spoke German quite adequately. Lichberg, meanwhile, was becoming quite prominent as a public figure. He was one of the commentators in a well-known German newsreel of 1933, on the occasion of the torchlight parade celebrating Hitler’s accession to the Reichs-Chancellorship. After serving in the military police of the Abwehr in Poland during the Second World War, von Lichberg retired with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel, and died in 1951.

What can we make of the similarities between the two stories? Coincidence? Theft? Unconscious borrowing? Or deliberate quotation? This last of the four possible options is perhaps the most convincing. Nabokov was certainly not above sly references, nor a stranger to obscure ones. One of the subtlest involves the quotation given above: ‘Did she have a precursor? She did, indeed she did.’ These are among the opening words of the novel Lolita, in which Humbert explains that his thirst for nymphets is an amatory hangover from his childhood, when he had loved, although never to the point of consummation, a girl called Annabel Leigh:

She would try to relieve the pain of love by first roughly rubbing her dry lips against mine; then my darling would draw away with a nervous toss of her hair, and then again come darkly near and let me feed on her open mouth, while with a generosity that was ready to offer her everything, my heart, my throat, my entrails, I gave her to hold in her awkward fist the scepter of my passion [...]
But that mimosa grove — the haze of stars, the tingle, the flame, the honeydew, and the ache remained with me, and that little girl with her seaside limbs and ardent tongue haunted me ever since — until at last, twenty-four years later, I broke her spell by incarnating her in another.

But ‘Annabel Lee’ is the heroine of a poem by Edgar Allan Poe (whose own child-bride was 14 when he married her):

I was a child and she was a child,
In this kingdom by the sea;
But we loved with a love that was more than love
I and my Annabel Lee.

So Lolita did have a precursor, one whom ‘he loved, one summer.’ But it was a literary precursor. Replace the word ‘loved’ with the word ‘read’ (not such a gigantic shift for Nabokov, for whom the pleasure of the text was the most exquisite of all) and we get, possibly, a truer reflection of the state of affairs. Nabokov’s nymphets were literary nymphets. ‘Annabel Leigh’ had her true origins in a work of the imagination. Was the inclusion of this ‘certain initial girl-child’ Nabokov’s way of telling us that the same was true of her sister Lolita, and that lurking behind Lolita was a Nazi called Heinz von Lichberg?

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