Reviewed by C. J. Singh (Berkeley, CA)
In "Two Lolitas," Michael Maar, a leading German literary critic, makes a persuasive case for the likely antecedent of Lolita in a short story by Heinz von Lichberg.
"A cultivated man of middle age recounts the story ....It all starts, when travelling abroad, he takes a room as a lodger. The moment he sees the daughter of the house, he is lost. She is very young, but her charms instantly enslave him. Heedless of her tender age, he becomes intimate with her. In the end she dies, and the narrator - marked by her for ever - remains alone. The name of the girl supplies the title of the story: `Lolita.' It is the ninth of the fifteen tales in the collection 'The Accursed Gioconda,' and it appeared forty years before its famous homonym."
Von Lichberg was a German aristocrat who regularly contributed articles to the "Berliner Lokal-Anzieger" in the 1920s and 30s and his book was widely available. Nabokov lived in Berlin during those two decades and was very likely familiar with his writings.
Nabokov parodies on the name "Lolita" in his postmodernist novel Pale Fire: "It was a year of tempests," and has Charles Kinbote annotate John Shade's lines: `Hurricane/Lolita swept from Florida to Maine' with the comment, "Why our poet chose to give his 1958 hurricane a little-used Spanish name (sometimes given to parrots) instead of Linda or Lois, is not clear." Nabokov also parodies on the name "Lolita" in his novel Ada, or Ardor: A Family Chronicle.
Maar's brief book reads like a gripping detective story. The appendix comprises two short stories by Lichberg: the 13-page "Lolita" short story and 7-page "Atomite." Maar concludes, graciously, that Nabokov's use of the Lichberg's storyline and the name could be a case of "cryptomnesia."
Although Maar was a visiting professor at Stanford in 2002, he makes no mention of Nabokov's teaching there in 1941, as noted in the biography by Andrew Field and in The Annotated Lolita by Alfred Appel, as well as many other sources. The book's brief bibliography comprises mostly German language sources, one scholarly English article "On Lolita and the Problems of Plagiarism," by Elaine Fantham, in the American Philological Association Newsletter, June 2004, and three journalistic articles in English. The latter include "Novel Twist: Nabokov Family Rejects Lolita Plagiarism Claim," published in "The Guardian" issue of 2 April 2004.
During his brief teaching stint at Stanford in 1941, Nabokov regularly played chess with his benefactor, Professor Henry Lanz, who was likely the model for Humbert Humbert. Lanz had at age 28 married a girl of 14 in London. "Over the chessboard, Lanz confided a dark secret that Nabokov told biographer Field: the memorably dapper professor led a double life. On weekends, he drove to the country to participate in orgies with 'nymphets.' He forced his wife to dress as a child. Another prominent Nabokov scholar and biographer, Brian Boyd, also concluded that Lanz was a 'nympholept' after reviewing Nabokov's extensive correspondence in the New York Public Library," writes Cynthia Haven. (I learned this from Haven's detailed article in The Stanford Alumni magazine, May-June 2006 issue -- now readily accessible on the internet with the entries "Stanford Alumni Magazine Lolita.")
Maar's book has been generally well-received by Nabokov scholars.