by Gerard de Vries
“On a Book Entitled Lolita” contains Nabokov’s recollection of his “initial shiver of inspiration” to write this novel, “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: the sketch showed the bars of the poor creature’s cage.”
Many Nabokovians have spent their attention in the hunt of this drawing. A short history of this search, and another candidate for the daubing ape, is presented by Stephen Blackwell, “Lolita’s Ape, Caged at Last!” (The Nabokovian 67 (2011) 14-20).
Nabokov mentions five particulars which make a mistake or an inaccurateness of his recollection unlikely:
- a newspaper story
- an ape in the Jardin des Plantes
- months of coaxing by a scientist
- the first drawing ever
- the bars of the cage.
The many attempts in the modern world to teach apes to imitate activities particular to human beings started with Linneaus who, without having seen an ape, gave it the name of Homo ferus, as belonging to the human race. The Comte de Buffon in his Nomenclature des Singes singled the orangutan out as the ape closest to men. Lord Montboddo marked in his Origin and Progress of Language (1773), referring to De Buffon, the use of speech as the main difference between apes and men (see Peter Raby, Bright Paradise. London: Pimlico, 1988). Inspired by Montboddo, Thomas Love Peacock wrote Melincourt (1817) in which an orangutan, Sir Oran, acquires many human abilities such as playing a flute, and eventually enters the House of Commons. Alexandre Ducamps (1803-1860), a French artist, painted many monkeys performing human tasks, such as daubing.
When only fifteen years old, Gustave Flaubert wrote “Quidquis Volueris”, a tale of horror about a half ape-half man. He claimed that he had written this story for scientific purposes (Enid Starkie, Flaubert, Penguin, 1971). The story was published in Le Colibri, a newspaper that served Rouen and was directed by Alfred Le Poittevin, Flaubert’s close friend. In the preceding year, 1836, several articles had appeared in Le Colibri, dealing with the studying of the ape-man Jack, probably the most celebrated of orangutans. He was brought to the menagerie of the Jardin des Plantes in Paris in 1836 (the London Zoo acquired its first orangutan in 1837). This menagerie “aspired to communicate the scientific value of its exhibits “ (Robert Cribb, Helen Gilbert and Helen Tiffin, Wild man from Borneo: A Cultural History of the Orangutan. University of Hawai’i Press, 2014, 70). Stendhal and Prosper Mérimée wrote about this ape and the sculptor Jean-Pierre Dantan, who also portrayed Victor Hugo and Alexandre Dumas, made a bust titled An Orangutan Called Jack (1836). Jack showed a remarkable talent to imitate human behavior and skills of which many are described (such as warning a baker that the bread in the oven was just cooked, or eating with a spoon). Doubtless he was trained to draw as well.
I suppose that Nabokov, who in 1932 read Madame Bovary “’for the hundredth time’” (VNRY 378), might have come across this ape in writings by or on Flaubert. As Enid Starkie suggested, the 1836 articles in Le Colibri about Jack might have inspired Flaubert to write his story. A drawing by Jack would meet four of the five particulars (listed above) mentioned by Nabokov. Could the drawing possibly have been mentioned in one of these articles?
In the “Matières continues dans les 105 numéros composant la première année du Colibri” (Le Colibri January 29, 1837) I found four articles about Jack. The Bibliothèque Municipale de Rouen most kindly sent me photographs of these articles. They contain many details about Jack, often with a jocular tone (one article is titled “Lettre de l’Orang-Outang au Colibri”) such as his housing, food, illness and his love for a Parisienne, whom he met after escaping from the zoo, donned in a frock coat. But I did not find anything about a drawing. As there are many references to Jack in English-language books published recently, I suppose that much more information about Jack can be found in the libraries in France.
But the question is whether the discovery of the drawing Nabokov had in mind will yield any result regarding the meaning of Nabokov’s source of inspiration. The drawing has to be compared to Jack’s actual housing. His quarters seem to have been quite luxurious and might for example have had a friendly lattice in stead of bars. Moreover, Dieter Zimmer in his annotations to Lolita (Rowohlt 2010) quotes David Premack, who writes that apes are not able to render concrete images on paper, not because of a lack of dexterity, but because a lack of comprehension. As Desmond Morris, who “undertook a scientific investigation into the origin of art” by studying the paintings and drawings by a chimpanzee, concludes: the ape “could innovate but he could not imitate” (“Foreword,” Fierce Friends, by Louise Lippincott and Andreas Blühm, London: Merrell, 2005). This make it unlikely that the bars of Lolita’s ape represented the bars of its cage.