New Lolita Scandal! Did Nabokov Suffer From Cryptomnesia?

An intriguing development on the Nabokov front, a crypto-scandal widely reported in Europe, but not much here: Lolita is causing trouble again. At least, that’s been the way it’s been portrayed in the European press, which has overheatedly raised the specter of “plagiarism”: Did Vladimir Nabokov lift the controversial plot, indeed the very name of Lolita , from a 1916 German short story called “Lolita”?

But more interestingly, there are fascinating implications for understanding Pale Fire , which followed Lolita seven years later. And then there’s “cryptomnesia.”

When I say the controversy over “the first Lolita,” as it’s been called, is a “crypto-scandal,” I mean two things: first, nothing as pejorative (certainly as conscious) as plagiarism has been proven. It’s not so much a scandal as a literary mystery-a mystery about the mind of one of the great artists of our era. And second, the alleged scandal turns on the question of a literary-psychological term that was new to me, but that has now become one of my favorites: “cryptomnesia.”

Yes, cryptomnesia-not a secret island archipelago, not what they do in the crypt of Skull and Bones-is at the heart, perhaps the solution, of the literary detective story told in the April 2 issue of London’s Times Literary Supplement by the German scholar Michael Maar. (He first published his findings in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung .) Cryptomnesia, in a larger sense, can serve as a key metaphor, a touchstone for our current culture, aesthetic and political.

Let me start from the beginning. Professor Maar, a German literary scholar, the author of a critical study of Thomas Mann ( Bluebeard’s Chamber: Guilt and Confession in Thomas Mann ), tells us in his TLS piece (“Curse of the First Lolita”) that he was alerted to the existence of “the first Lolita” by a certain Herr Rainer Schelling, otherwise unidentified. The “first Lolita” is an 18-page short story called “Lolita” that appeared in 1916 under a pseudonym in an obscure, almost forgotten, out-of-print German short-story collection called Die Verfluchte Gioconda , which Professor Maar translates as The Accursed Gioconda .

The pseudonym of the author of this “Lolita” was “Heinz von Lichberg” (the actual name of the author was Heinz von Eschwege). I will have more to say about that pseudonym “von Lichberg,” but first a brief account of his “Lolita,” the 1916 “Lolita,” as opposed to the 300-page Nabokov novel with the same title first published in America in 1958 (after Olympia Press’ banned 1955 edition).

Perhaps we should call the 18-page story the Ur- Lolita in light of the way the problematic lost “original” Hamlet -the play produced onstage as early as 10 years before the familiar Shakespeare version-is called “the Ur- Hamlet .” Many believe the Ur- Hamlet was written by Thomas Kyd or someone other than Shakespeare; some contend that it may have been Shakespeare’s first draft. It’s become a contentious issue in the debate over the nature of Shakespeare’s creative process. Perhaps a similar contention will develop over the Ur- Lolita . Perhaps someone will make an analogy between what Nabokov may have done with the slender text of the Ur- Lolita and what his Humbert Humbert did with the slender young girl called Lolita in the 1955 novel: “adopted” her and used her.

In any case, the 1916 Ur- Lolita , Professor Maar tells us, begins with an older man fascinated by an underage girl. Here’s his description: “Like Humbert, our narrator is immediately bewitched” upon meeting the nymphet daughter of his new landlord, “and abandons any thought of departure. His Lolita, like Dolores Haze later, is subject to violent changes of moods …. As in the case of the agreeably surprised Humbert Humbert, it is eventually Lolita who seduces the narrator [in the 1916 “Lolita”] not the other way around …. ”

As in the later Lolita , the narrator becomes obsessed with the girl, but unlike Nabokov’s Lolita, she lives under a fatal family curse: Because of the erotically maddening, ultimately fatal behavior of a female ancestor, every woman in her family goes insane and dies shortly after giving birth to a daughter who will suffer the same curse. (Interestingly, in the Nabokov Lolita , the grown-up Lolita dies giving birth to a stillborn child. Was the stillborn child the artifact, the analogue or remnant, of the Ur- Lolita in Nabokov’s unconscious, a crypto-birth?)

The curse in the 1916 “Lolita” is a crude Gothic device, but, as Professor Maar puts it: “Curse, demonism, repetition, compulsion: these are the undercurrents in the later Lolita too. Nabokov’s child-woman is also a revenant, the reincarnation of an earlier, fatal gamine sans merci . Annabel, his first love … puts [Humbert] under a spell that he can only escape by allowing her to rise again in Lolita.”

Did “Lolita” rise again in Lolita ? Professor Maar’s researches show, he says, that Nabokov lived in the same section of Berlin during the 1920’s and 30’s. Did Nabokov read, remember, adopt the earlier eerily similar story? Did he do so consciously or unconsciously, by way of a hidden, unacknowledged memory, “cryptomnesia”? If he read the earlier “Lolita,” could he really have utterly forgotten it? Or if he remembered it, why refuse to acknowledge it? It’s not as if the astonishing work of art that the 300-page novel named Lolita became is diminished by the act of adoption or adaptation. Shakespeare’s plays aren’t diminished by the often-crude source texts he drew on. It’s not something necessarily shameful, a putative debt to the 1916 “Lolita.”

Still, Nabokov’s son Dmitri-reacting, it seems, more to the European press’ imputation of “plagiarism”-calls the allegation “either a journalistic tempest in a teacup or a deliberate mystification,” and adds that his father, despite living in Berlin for 15 years, spoke “practically no German.” (On the other hand, in a Paris Review interview with Herb Gold, Nabokov said he knew German “to some extent.”)

If it is true he read it, Nabokov acted in a curious way to hide that truth. He didn’t have to name his heroine Lolita. Or did he? Is that name “too closely interwound with the inmost fiber of the book,” as Humbert’s fictional editor tells us on page 4 of Lolita ? In his 1956 afterward to Lolita , Nabokov never mentions the Ur- Lolita . He gives us instead a metaphysical joke as his novel’s origin: “As far as I can recall, the initial shiver of inspiration was somehow prompted by a newspaper story about an ape in the Jardin des Plantes, who, after months of coaxing by a scientist, produced the first drawing ever charcoaled by an animal: this sketch showed the bars of the poor creature’s cage.”

Very cagey: Yes, the aesthetic or philosophical relevance is apparent (we all live in private realities, and what we think is Reality is just the painted bars of our perceptual cages). But then he adds a more convincing detail about “the ensuing train of thought, which resulted, however, in a prototype of my present novel, a short story some thirty pages long,” which he wrote in Russian and then, he says, threw away (it resurfaced after his death as “The Enchanter” in 1986). Then the culminating impulse: “[T]he throbbing, which had never quite ceased, began to plague me again” in 1949, when he’d come to the U.S. and ensconced himself at Cornell.

So that’s his story of the birth of Lolita , and he’s sticking with it-or stuck with it until his death. Part of the reason for the scandale in Europe is that, according to Professor Maar’s research, von Lichberg would later turn up briefly as a pro-Hitler propagandist. Could this be the cause of Nabokov (who was fiercely anti-Nazi) omitting mention of the 1916 “Lolita”? If-and again, it has not been proven that he read the 1916 “Lolita”-he knew of the author’s Nazi enthusiasms, he might not wish to trace his novel’s inspiration to von Lichberg’s 1916 story. He might well want to give us some metaphysical soft-shoe shuffling about apes painting their cages, in the hopes that the obscure von Lichberg “Lolita” would never turn up connected with Nabokov’s Lolita . (By the time Nabokov wrote that 1956 afterward, von Lichberg was five years dead; the author of “Lolita” never lived to see the publication of Lolita .)

But Professor Maar doesn’t speculate on the possibility of such a conscious omission on Nabokov’s part. He tends to believe there was an unconscious elision, an act of (you guessed it) cryptomnesia. Professor Maar examines three possible ways that “Lolita” could be related to Lolita . First-and he does not rule this out-he concedes it’s possible that there is no connection between the two Lolitas, that it was just a coincidence that the 1916 story about an older man and an underage girl named Lolita seemed to anticipate the 1955 novel about an older man and an underage girl named Lolita.

Professor Maar then explores two possible ways in which Nabokov could have read and been influenced by the von Lichberg “Lolita.” “The second possibility,” he says, “is that Nabokov knew of Lichberg’s tale, and half-revealing, half-covering his tracks, lent himself to that art of quotation which Thomas Mann, himself a master of it, called the ‘higher cribbing.’ Plagiarism?” Professor Maar asks, striving to sound incredulous at such a naïve question. “Nonsense,” he answers. “After all, literature has always been a huge melting pot of motives, and always consisted, in part, of literature ” (italics mine). Nonetheless, if this were true, Nabokov’s failure to mention it could amount to a conscious covering-up.

But Professor Maar rejects a conscious elision for a third possibility: cryptomnesia. The previous explanation is unlikely, he says, because “Nabokov had no need to crib, nor would he have ennobled a von Lichberg by citing the name of his heroine.” Professor Maar believes that Nabokov did read the 1916 Ur- Lolita . But he didn’t crib from it, Professor Maar seems to imply, because he didn’t consciously remember it: It was a story line, a name that floated to the surface of his mind dissociated from any specific memory of reading the von Lichberg “Lolita.” Thus, cryptomnesia: Not amnesia , which would mean no memory, but cryptomnesia, because it was a disguised memory-disguised even from Nabokov himself. (Does the strange pale amnesiac who shows up, and disappears, in the latter stages of Lolita have any relevance?) Professor Maar takes the position that The Accursed Gioconda , the collection that contained the Ur- Lolita , probably “fell into [Nabokov’s] hands. Leafing through it, he could have come upon the story of the nymphet and so the theme that had already begun to dawdle in his mind” was re-awakened.

Note for a moment that Professor Maar, apparently seeking to give Nabokov every benefit of the doubt, of creative primacy, has him “dawdle” over the theme first . This previous dawdling makes Nabokov not someone who cribbed wholesale from the 1916 “Lolita,” but rather someone who, whenever he read it, found it fuel for a fire that had already been lit and then incorporated it into his already developing vision.

But isn’t this more conscious than cryptomnesia? Not according to Professor Maar’s reconstruction of Nabokov’s creative process: “Nabokov forgot the tale completely or thought he had forgotten it. Of this phenomenon too, cryptomnesia, the history of art offers enough examples.” But Professor Maar doesn’t cite any of these examples in his TLS essay, and he doesn’t leave it as clear as one might wish how Nabokov “forgot the tale completely, or thought he had forgotten it.”

How does one think one had forgotten it except by remembering it again? Is this cryptomnesia? What is cryptomnesia? Fortunately, I was able to reach Professor Maar by e-mail in Germany and ask him for a clarification, and for one of those examples of cryptomnesia in “the history of art,” which he was kind enough to supply:

“I promised at least one exact example for cryptomnesia, and here I have it,” he wrote me. “In 1936 Robert Musil marks in his diaries that reading Jens Peter Jacobsen’s ‘Niels Lyhne’ for the third time he remarked that he was influenced by it while composing a conversation between Agathe and Ulrich in the second volume of his Man Without Qualities . He adds: without knowing it, this scene was the Vorbild [the model].”

In other words, he’s suggesting that Nabokov lost track of the 1916 short story’s influence on him, but never had the experience that Musil did of coming upon some journal entry or other artifact that would have made him conscious afterward of the source.

I’m not completely convinced that Nabokov could have completely forgotten a short story about an older man’s infatuation with an underage girl called Lolita, but we may never know.

The fact that he named his Lolita “Lolita” and so did the Ur- Lolita author, von Lichberg, could point either way. One thing that Professor Maar does not do is raise explicitly the possibility of Nabokov covering up the origin of Lolita -whether because of von Lichberg’s later Nazi proclivities, or from a desire to make himself the “only begetter” of Lolita and not have to share her with another. Was von Lichberg akin to Humbert’s rival and nemesis in Lolita , Clare Quilty?

Professor Maar addresses Nabokov’s choice of the name by asking why, if Nabokov was covering up the connection, would he name his heroine Lolita? Perhaps, one can speculate, just so we would ask that question.

To return to the question of cryptomnesia, I spoke to my friend Jesse Sheidlower, the principal North American editor of the Oxford English Dictionary , about “cryptomnesia” and, searching the OED data base, he traced its earliest reported use to the early 1900’s and found references to it in Freud and Jung, all the way up to an X-Files episode in which someone was shown a movie under hypnosis and later “recalled” fragments of the movie’s plot as if it were a real memory. “It’s a condition called cryptomnesia,” someone says. Actually, this is a kind of negative or crypto-cryptomnesia-a fake (rather than real) experience surfacing as a real (rather than fictional) memory.

But cryptomnesia in its broadest definition seems to be a signature of our time, from the “recovered-memory” scandals of the 1980’s and early 1990’s to Jayson Blair, Stephen Glass and other fabulists, faking memories of reporting they never did. Note how often plagiarists say, “It must have been unconscious”-that they read something by someone else, entered it into their computer notes, and then later forgot that they read it and assumed it was their own formulation.

I know the specter of cryptomnesia haunts many writers. Whenever I come up with a phrase I’m particularly pleased with, one of my first thoughts is: “Could I be remembering something someone else wrote that I once read?” In fact, I’ve refused to use many brilliant witticisms for precisely this reason (you’ll just have to take my word for it).

But let me move now from Nabokov’s most famous work to what I consider his greatest work, the novel that surpassed Lolita , Pale Fire . Pale Fire is not easy to summarize without sounding as mad as its narrator: It’s the story of a madman academic who calls himself Charles Kinbote, who is convinced that the last work by a great American poet who happened to be his neighbor-a long poem called “Pale Fire”- is really about him , about Kinbote and his elaborate, demented fantasy that he is the exiled king of a “northern land” named Zembla.

Kinbote has run off with the manuscript of “Pale Fire,” and the bulk of the novel called Pale Fire consists of Kinbote’s brilliantly ridiculous discursive footnotes on the poem-comically self-subverting footnotes that read into the poem the “buried” story of his Zemblan kingdom and exile.

One could make a case that there’s an analogy here to the case of the Ur- Lolita and Lolita . Had von Lichberg, the author of “Lolita,” lived to see the astonishing success of Nabokov’s Lolita , might he not have become a Kinbote-like figure, claiming that Nabokov had used his story as the nucleus of his great work? Might not Nabokov have been haunted, consciously or in a cryptomnesia’d way, by the possibility that the author of the Ur- Lolita might make some similar claims? Isn’t Pale Fire the story of someone claiming that he had an unacknowledged but profound influence on a famous man’s work?

Could it be that in Pale Fire , in Kinbote, Nabokov is giving voice to the writer-figure he occluded from a role in the creation of Lolita ? That he has made the complex story of the creative process that produced Lolita the buried plot of Pale Fire ? Kinbote as von Lichberg as Quilty?

I know it sounds far-fetched. But consider the name von Lichberg a little further. Consider that licht is the German word for “light.” Which brings us, of course, to Pale Fire , the novel whose title comes from Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens , from a line about moonlight and theft: “The moon’s an arrant thief, / And her pale fire she snatches from the sun.” It’s a line that compresses within it an entire dialogue about the nature of creativity: Is there any such thing as “originality,” or is all creativity “reflected” from a more primal source, the way the moonlight of art is ultimately reflected and refracted from a hidden original? Could Nabokov-known for his delight in word play-have begun to think about the moon’s pale fire while meditating on the reflected influence of that glowing rock, “Lichberg”?

According to Professor Maar, the author of the 1916 “Lolita” took his pseudonym, von Lichberg, “as one of the ancient aristocratic names of his family, connected to a [nearby] hill … called the ‘Leuchtberg’ … [a hill] so named because it once, as the scene of battles, glowed with blood.” Glowed with blood-the glow is there in “lichberg.” Is it the glow that illuminates Pale Fire -which, in fact, comes to a bloody end?

I’ll leave it to Nabokov scholars to consider further the possibility, the relationship between the two Lolitas and Pale Fire ‘s meditation on the theft at the heart of the creative process. Just make sure you give me credit. No cryptomnesia excuses allowed!