Lolita follows the travails of an older man obsessed with a young girl, and was first published … in 1916? 42 years before Vladimir Nabokov's novel, a short story by Heinz von Lichberg titled "Lolita" was published in Germany. Was Nabokov a plagiarist? Or did he suffer from cryptomnesia? Brooke talks to New York Observer columnist Ron Rosenbaum about the line between appropriation and regurgitation.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Last Thursday marked the 50th anniversary of Lolita, written by Vladimir Nabokov and rejected by five American publishers before landing at the infamous Olympia Press in Paris. Olympia trafficked in too hot to handle books from Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller to There's a Whip in my Valise by Greta X. Lolita is, of course, the story of a middle aged man's obsession with and abduction of a young girl. There's a lot of speculation as to the inspiration for the story. Alexander Dolinin, a lecturer in Slavic languages at the University of Wisconsin, announced this month that the plot derives from the kidnapping of young Sally Horner in the 1940s, who spent 21 months under the control of a car mechanic. After all, Nabokov mentions the case in his novel. But the most enduring potential antecedent is a German short story titled "Lolita" about an older man obsessed with a young girl, published in 1916. The author was Heinz von Lichberg. Was Nabokov a plagiarist or, as New York Observer columnist Ron Rosenbaum posed in a column last year, did he suffer from cryptomnesia?
RON ROSENBAUM: Well, I didn't invent the term "cryptomnesia" to apply to this particular case. It was a German professor, Michael Maar, who was the one who actually discovered this 1916 story. And cryptomnesia is sort of one of four possible ways to explain what Nabokov did. And the European press and a lot of Nabokovians are all in a tizzy because it's been played up as plagiarism. But it could be entirely coincident. Nabokov never read this story, although Professor Maar seems to have research that shows that Nabokov, in his exile from Russia, lived in the same section of Berlin as the German writer who wrote the uhr "Lolita," the 1916 "Lolita" [OVERTALK] under the pseudonym von Lichberg. So it could be coincidence. It doesn't seem likely. So there are three other explanations. One is that Nabokov did sort of knowingly become inspired by reading von Lichberg's 1916 story but never mentioned it, covered it up, or explanation number three, this phrase/word "cryptomnesia," which Webster's defines as "the appearance in consciousness of memory images which are not regarded as such but which appear as original creations." In other words, one day Nabokov woke up and said I want to do a story about an underaged girl called Lolita and an older man who preys on her." He didn't realize that 10, 20, 30 years before he had read this German story "Lolita." It wasn't conscious.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But what do you think?
RON ROSENBAUM: I can't make up my mind completely. But Maar does tell us that this guy von Lichberg later became a Nazi propagandist. Nabokov was quite anti Nazi. In fact, his brother who was gay, died in a Nazi concentration camp. So perhaps he did take his inspiration, in some way, or at least the name "Lolita" from von Lichberg's story. But he just wasn't going to give this guy
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS]
RON ROSENBAUM: the posthumous satisfaction of any credit. So that's a fourth possible explanation. But the cryptomnesia one is really interesting 'cause when I mentioned this to other writers, or other writers who responded to this story in the Observer said, you know, they, as am I, are haunted by the idea that whenever you think of a phrase that you're really fond of and you put it in a story, I do at least wonder, oh, God, what if I read this phrase somewhere else by someone else and yet didn't consciously know it? And so, I've left a lot of what I think are good phrases out of stories for fear of what I now know as
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS]
RON ROSENBAUM: cryptomnesia.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You know, we've been discussing this literary application of cryptomnesia, but I'm reminded of a musical one. Back in 1971, George Harrison was found guilty of infringing on the use of the melody from "He's So Fine," that old song. [OVERTALK]
RON ROSENBAUM: For "My Sweet Lord." I know.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The judge didn't think he was consciously plagiarizing.
RON ROSENBAUM: I thought he was found guilty and had to give the Chiffons, was it? some [OVERTALK]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Very good!
RON ROSENBAUM: some props and for for that. [OVERTALK]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Yes. The judge didn't think he was consciously plagiarizing, and yet George Harrison was forced to pay the fine.
RON ROSENBAUM: Yeah. And, you know, you wonder like would we be happier if George Harrison didn't do "My Sweet Lord?" Well, maybe.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS]
RON ROSENBAUM: Oh, with that song. But nonetheless [LAUGHING], you know, there are a lot of works of art that depend on other works of art, and a lot of literature is made up of scraps of other literature. And do we want to like be so purist minded that we expect our artists to only utter things that have never been uttered before? What is new is more a way of phrasing what is old than an absolutely brand new thought about the nature of the universe.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well, Ron, thank you very much.
RON ROSENBAUM: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ron Rosenbaum is a columnist for the New York Observer. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
BOB GARFIELD: That's it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Megan Ryan, Tony Field, Jamie York and Mike Vuolo, and edited by Brooke. Dylan Keefe is our technical director and Jennifer Munson our engineer. We had help from Sarah Dalsimer, Andy Lanset and Giselle Foss. Our webmaster is Amy Pearl.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Katya Rogers is our senior producer and John Keefe our executive producer. Bassist/composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. This is On the Media, from WNYC. I'm Brooke Gladstone.