And then there were two...

second take

And then there were two...

What is the mystery of the second Lolita? Because there was, you will be surprised to learn, another Lolita before Vladimir Nabokov invented her. In 1916, a book of short stories called The Accursed Giaconda was published. It was written by a man named Heinze Von Lichberg. The 9th story in it was about a cultivated man of middle age who travels abroad, takes a room as a lodger, and falls in love with the daughter of the house. The girl is a child. Just on looking at her he is lost; her charm enslaves him. They become intimate. The story was titled Lolita. And this was 40 years before Nabokov’s famous novel.

How do I explain this? Had Nabokov plagiarised the plot and the title? Was it sheer coincidence? Or, is there a third explanation? In The Two Lolitas, (long out of print here but now available in bookshops) German critic Michael Maar explores this true literary mystery. Lichberg, we learn from Maar, was a German journalist who lived in Berlin.

His book, The Accursed Giaconda, was lost in obscurity. But Nabokov, a very young man at that time, had lived in Berlin for a while and could have chanced on it. Nabokov’s name for her heroine was initially Juanita Dark — how did he come to call her Lolita? When Humbert sees Lo,  he records: ‘the same frail, honey-hued shoulders, same silky supple back, the same chestnut head of hair.’

When Lichberg’s narrator sees his Lolita, he says, ‘her body was boyishly slim and supple, and her voice full and dark,’ 40 or more years before the more famous Lolita!

Maar is forced to ask, ‘Had the author of the imperishable Lolita, the black swan of modern fiction, known of the ugly duckling that was its predecessor?’

The critic offers 3 possibilities: Nabokov had no idea of Lichberg’s Lolita, and it was one of those mysterious coincidences;  or the author had read it but then forgot about it, a case of literary cryptomnesia. And finally, Nabokov knew it, consciously cribbed from it, but in the fashion of a quotation: taking light literature and making deep literature out of it. Maar asks, “Why should it not simply be a splendid, mysterious and even faintly comical example of the way life displays patterns that look deliberate yet are only the caprices of coincidence?” In a certain sense that would be a classic Nabokovian theme, but the critic dismisses it and moves on to the second.

Nabokov could have come across the story, seen that it was very much like what he was fashioning and so, forgot about it entirely. ‘The history of literature’, he notes, ‘is not without examples of this phenomenon called cryptomnesia.’

Apparently, Nabokov would read 2 or 3 books a day and forget them. The plot of Lolita had prefigured in his work several times. There is a pre-Lolita character in his A Nursery Tale (1926). He had created a child-woman here, narrated by an old poet — a prefiguration of Humbert. In his Gift, a secondary character actually discusses the plot of Lolita. And in The Enchanter, the story is fully present, in a shortened form. Thus Lichberg’s story was buried deep in his literary psyche, manifesting itself in various forms until it became the novel we now know so well.

But no. Interesting, but no. What interests Maar is the third tale in the Lolita labyrinth. Nabokov knew the tale well, admired it, and used the plot as a quotation. This wasn’t plagiarism (though Thomas Mann called it ‘higher cribbing’): you take from a lower source and turn it into something else. Maar then takes us through a series of revelations that qualify as top-notch literary detective footnote work. Like some literary Dan Brown, Nabokov had placed several veiled references to the original source. Maar’s literary sleuthing led him to the clues that reveal the way this text and its obscure author pop up in Nabokov’s work.

I’ll leave it to you to discover what those are from The Two Lolitas. What seems of final interest in this twisty literary mystery is that in both cases, the narrators are, by the end of their encounters with their respective Lolitas, initiated into art. So, too, in Lichberg’s story: the professor-narrator becomes a poet in his retelling of his erotic compulsions. Maar reminds us of the novel’s famous ending: ‘he who survives Lolita becomes through her an artist.’


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