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The stories behind some of literature's best-known novels

Would 'Catch-22' still be a masterpiece if it was called 'Catch-18'? Why did T S Eliot change the name of 'He Do the Police in Different Voices' to 'The Waste Land'? Gary Dexter tells the stories behind some of literature's best-known novels

Published: 26 November 2007

Lolita (1955)
Lolita is one of those novels in which the protagonist-narrator is so coruscatingly brilliant that we are ready to forgive him almost anything. Twelve-year-olds? Well, she did seduce him. And she'd already had that boy at summer camp. For prose this dazzling, this ardent, this clever... tout comprendre c'est tout pardonner... But plagiarism?
In 1916 a German journalist, Heinz von Eschwege, writing under the name of Heinz von Lichberg, published a collection of stories, The Accursed Gioconda. One only 12 pages long was called "Lolita".
The story is short, silly and uninvolving. But the similarities with Nabokov's Lolita seem too many to discount. The main ones are these: both have a first person narrator who turns up at a boarding house; Lolita in both cases is the daughter of the house; she "seduces" him; sex and death (and death after birth) are presented as different aspects of the same violence, or as cause and effect; and finally, the title.
Of course, Nabokov would probably not have read those 12 pages in an obscure, untranslated book by a minor German writer, published when he (Nabokov) was 17 and still in Russia. Or would he? Nabokov left Russia with his family in 1919, and after three years studying at Cambridge, settled in Berlin in 1922. He remained there for 15 years, married there, had a son, wrote several novels, and made his reputation. These were 15 years in which Von Lichberg was a fellow Berliner, living in the same part of Berlin. The book was still in the shops, and Nabokov read German quite adequately. Von Lichberg became a quite prominent public figure.
It is common for authors to forget they have not invented phrases or situations which they then regurgitate in their own work. But to reproduce, unconsciously, something with this number of matches surely strains credulity.
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2007 Gary Dexter
Why Not Catch-21? by Gary Dexter (9.99) is published by Frances Lincoln (
To order a copy (free P&P) call Independent Books Direct on 0870 079 8897 or visit

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