ESSAYS & REVIEWS
Review: Michael Maar’s The Two Lolitas
Octpber 27, 2005

The Two Lolitas, Verso Books, 2005, 107 pp., hardback.

Against the backdrop of the twentieth century’s traumatic narratives of displacement, exile and absurdity, the stories and life of Vladimir Nabokov are massive and emblematic, respectively.  Born and raised in one of the century’s major sites of catastrophe (Russia) and passing through another (Germany), the author conquered the exilic state of the European intellectual by spinning it into indigenously American literature in works such as Pnin and Lolita; the latter considered by many to be the greatest English-language novel of the century, despite (or perhaps because of) being written by a non-native speaker.  Nabokov’s position at the intersection of language granted his prose a hyper-linguistic quality, layering multi-lingual puns, cross-cultural allusions, anagrams, and complex wordplay decades before the Atlantic Monthly and its allies launched their insipid assault on the ‘cult of the sentence’ and experimental authors more interested in playful aesthetic than plot mechanics.

In his short, dynamic and fascinating new book, The Two Lolitas, German literary critic Michael Maar has potentially unearthed a meta-allusion at the heart of Nabokov’s infamous meditation on obsession, paedophilia, lost love and the American Dream:

A cultivated man of middle age recounts the story of his coup de foudre.  It all starts when, traveling 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 forever – 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 Giocanda, and it appeared forty years before its famous homonym. (page 11)

The collection of short stories to which Maar (and, he argues, Nabokov) alludes is written by the aristocratic Heinz Von Lichberg (né Eschwege), a man whose mediocrity as an author is later in life mirrored by his lackluster performance as a Nazi.  Lichberg’s Lolita (included as an appendix to Maar’s work, along with another story bearing strong parallels to other work by Nabokov) is a largely uninspiring ghost story, completely unlike Humbert Humbert’s tale in tone and execution.  Nevertheless, the staggering similarities between the plots of the two stories demand an explanation.

Maar offers three hypotheses for the enigmatic likenesses between the two works, favouring and elaborating convincingly upon the third: coincidence, cryptomnesia (the unconscious borrowing of forgotten work) or Thomas Mann’s “higher cribbing” – “The stress lies on ‘higher’.  Of course, this possibility would have as little to do with plagiarism as it did in the case of Mann, who was quite self-conscious about what he was doing…[page 58]”

Advancing arguments bound up with an intimate knowledge and understanding of Nabokov’s work and the biographical details of his life, Maar effectively explodes the possibilities of miraculous coincidence as well as cryptomnesia by outlining further analogs between the oeuvres of the two writers (beyond the two Lolitas) as well as cryptic references written by Nabokov into his screen adaptation of Lolita for Stanley Kubrick.

Maar wisely avoids what would have amounted to silly and trivial accusations of outright plagiarism, opting instead to meditate on the cross-pollination of and “interplay between high and light literature [page 76].”  Readers who take the time to read Lichberg’s schlocky campfire story will remain confident that Humbert’s story belongs to Nabokov outright.  Maar’s exploration does, though, raise interesting – if less than earth-shaking – questions about a great author’s seeming fixation with a lesser writer and “his art of controlling and sometimes misleading his admirers” [also page 76].

Maar’s essay is a fascinating read for anyone interested in discovering new depths to what is already generally acknowledged to be among the most intricately-embroidered prose ever written.

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