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sighting ~ Who Wrote Lolita First? An Interview with Michael Maar
April 19, 2016 | by Daniel Kehlmann
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http://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2016/04/19/who-wrote-lolita-first-an-interview-with-michael-maar/

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ARTS & CULTURE <http://www.theparisreview.org/blog/category/arts-culture/>
Who Wrote *Lolita* First? An Interview with Michael Maar

April 19, 2016 | by Daniel Kehlmann
<http://www.theparisreview.org/blog/author/dkehlmann/>
[image: Inline image 1]
Nabokov in 1969. Photo: Giuseppe Pino

*In this conversation—first published last month in the German magazine *
Cicero <http://www.cicero.de/>*—Daniel Kehlmann and the Nabokov scholar
Michael Maar discuss one of Maar’s most unlikely discoveries about* Lolita
*.*

*In your book The Two Lolitas
<http://www.amazon.com/Two-Lolitas-Michael-Maar/dp/1844670384/ref=la_B001K6OP4A_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1461009908&sr=1-1>,
you made an intriguing discovery—it started to obsess me a bit. What’s
equally interesting, and kind of outrageous, is that most Nabokov scholars
ignored your finding. Maybe they felt they ought to shield Nabokov from
charges of plagiarism. So let’s get this out of the way first—is this about
plagiarism?*

Of course not. The word came up in the press when I published my first
article about the discovery, but that’s not what this is about at all.

*Let me sum it up. Heinz von Lichberg, a writer who’s completely forgotten
today, and rightly so, published a volume of bad short stories in 1916, The
Cursed Gioconda. In it there’s a story called “Atomit” in which a man
develops a doomsday machine that can destroy the world. Nabokov wrote a
play in 1938, The Waltz Invention—it’s about a man who develops a doomsday
machine with the potential to destroy the world.*

There’s more.

*Lichberg’s “Atomit” begins with a scene in which the inventor meets with
the U.S. Secretary of Defense to pitch his project. Nabokov’s The Waltz
Invention opens in the office of the Minister of Defense of a powerful,
unnamed state, where the inventor proceeds to pitch his doomsday machine.
Coincidence?*

Possibly. But there’s still more.

*Nabokov’s inventor goes by the name of Waltz. He has a cousin whose name
is Waltz, too. In another story from Lichberg’s collection, we also find
two men who are close relatives—in this case, brothers—and their family
name is Walzer, the German word for waltz. The narrator of this story falls
in love with a young girl, the daughter of his landlord. A narrator who
falls in love with his landlady’s daughter—that’s something we know very
well from Nabokov’s Lolita. And what’s the girl’s name in Lichberg’s story?
Lolita. And what’s the name of the story? It’s “Lolita.” Written by Heinz
von Lichberg and published in 1916—exactly a hundred years ago.*

The name alone wouldn’t prove anything, but if you look at all those other
parallels—doomsday machine, inventors, Ministers of Defense, two relatives
called Waltz—it’s safe to assume that Nabokov knew Lichberg’s book.

*It seems to me a rational assumption, but Nabokov scholars are in
near-complete denial. One of the few scholars who bothered to react was
Dieter E. Zimmer, the editor of Nabokov’s Collected Works in German. He
claimed that it’s all pure coincidence—but he only mentions a young girl
named Lolita. He doesn’t mention the Waltz parallels. And Nabokov’s
biographer Brian Boyd, what did he have to say? Well, not a lot. Quite a
while after you made your discovery, he published a book of essays about
new developments in Nabokov studies, which neglects to mention Lichberg at
all. And recently he explained, in a Nabokov forum online, that there’s
nothing unusual about two girls coincidentally having the name Lolita in
the works of two different writers. Again, no mention of the doomsday
machine, the Minister of Defense, the Waltz name. With all due respect, as
a great admirer of Nabokov, I feel cheated. *

We have to assume that these scholars are strictly neutral, with
no personal interest at stake. But through some of the more heated
reactions it became clear that there was one fact about Lichberg that
people found hard to stomach—he was an ardent Nazi. He enthusiastically
praised Hitler on German radio, his voice trembling with emotion. This was
when Hitler became chancellor—you can listen to him on YouTube, if you
really want to. Later Lichberg wrote articles for the Nazi paper *Völkischer
Beobachter*. It may be hard to accept that Nabokov, who fled from the Nazis
with his Jewish wife and whose brother, Sergey, died in the Neuengamme
concentration camp, was linked to that kind of a man.

*Nabokov incessantly teases his readers to decode his references—which is
why it’s clear to me that this isn’t about plagiarism. It’s about a clear
reference, about what Nabokov is trying to signal to us by alluding to the
work of an unimportant German writer—a writer we have every reason to
assume he would have loathed for literary and personal reasons—at the
center of several of his works. And if this isn’t a signal for his readers,
who does he want to signal to? That’s the question I find hard to ignore,
and I find it exasperating that Nabokov scholars keep ignoring it.*

There has to be a missing link. It’s not improbable, for example, that they
knew each other in person. They lived in the same Berlin neighborhood for
about fifteen years. Could Lichberg have been Nabokov’s landlord? Could
they have been in the same tennis club? They were both good tennis players.
I tried to look into that, but the membership lists of the Dahlem tennis
clubs were destroyed in the war. Even if they *had* been in the same club,
that wouldn’t answer your question—What was he trying to signal, and to
whom? It doesn’t stop with the book, either. In his *Lolita *screenplay,
which Kubrick didn’t use, he has someone ask whether the girl is Spanish.
And when Humbert Humbert exclaims, in the same screenplay, that Lolita is
not supposed to be “dancing a Waltz,” or when he gives her “the smile of a
Gioconda.”

*Lichberg’s story is set in Spain, and the title of his book is The Cursed
Gioconda.*

Exactly. It does seem like a wink.

*But to whom? Lichberg died in 1951, and anyway, it’s very hard to imagine
the two of them as friends. Also, some Nabokov scholars have been quite
steadfast in their claim that the great man didn’t speak German, and if
that’s true, he couldn’t have read Lichberg. But you just need to ask
around a bit and you find out that’s not true.*

Who did you ask?

*Gerhard Bronner, a famous Austrian comedian and nightclub owner who died
in 2007, told me how, years ago, the Austrian writer Friedrich Torberg
brought Nabokov and his cousin Nicolai to Gerhard’s bar in the center of
Vienna. Gerhard remembered Vladimir speaking very decent German, albeit
with a heavy accent. But I really don’t think we even need this kind of
anecdotal evidence. In my opinion, the parallels between Nabokov’s and
Lichberg’s works would be enough in themselves to conclude that he must
have known those stories—and that it’s likely he had some knowledge of
German.*

And let’s not forget that by his own admission he read Thomas Mann and
Freud in the original—hating them fiercely, of course. And he did translate
Heinrich Heine and Goethe into Russian. If you can do that, reading
Lichberg shouldn’t be too hard.

*The thing I just can’t get over here is that Nabokov keeps asking his
readers to decode his references. But the Lichberg reference is something
he couldn’t have assumed would ever get discovered, let alone decoded.*

It’s certainly puzzling. He liked private jokes, though.

*But of course he’s famously unforgiving when it comes to his judgment of
literary or moral quality—and Lichberg was a bad writer and a Nazi! So why
in the world would Nabokov reference him like this? What could have been
his intention?*

Anybody who offers me a good theory can have my first edition of *The
Cursed Cioconda*. Which is a rare book! My personal guess would be that a
good private eye could find out. Sorry, I’m just a modest literary critic.

*Translated from the German by Daniel Kehlmann*.

*Postscript by Michael Maar*

Only a few weeks after this talk—and one day before *The* *Paris
Review* published
it—I was reading Nabokov’s *Letters to Véra
<http://www.amazon.com/Letters-V%C3%A9ra-Vladimir-Nabokov/dp/0307593363/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1461076796&sr=1-1&keywords=letters+to+vera>*
and
discovered what seems to be the missing link, if not the smoking gun. The
copiously annotated letters show that Nabokov and Véra were lodgers at a
certain Frau von Bardeleben, in Luitpoldstraße, where they remained
from 1929 to 1932—a relatively long period of time, given Nabokov’s lodging
habits. Vladimir used to call his landlady “Mrs. Walrus.” She was married
to Albrecht von Bardeleben. The Nabokovs seemed to be quite familiar with
the von Bardelebens. Even years later, in April 1937, Vladimir responds in
a letter to Véra about some funny chat she must have reported: “How
amusing—about Bardelebeness.” Evidently they stayed in touch with their
ex-landlords somehow. Otherwise, why would they exchange news about these
people five years after they’d moved out?

There’s one genealogical detail the rich annotations in *Letters to Véra* do
not reveal. Remember that Heinz von Lichberg, who wrote the first *Lolita*, was
the pen name of Heinz von Eschwege. Well, it turns out the Nabokovs’
landlords, the von Bardelebens, are related to the von Eschweges—Charlotte
von Bardeleben, born in 1766, was married in 1787 to Johann Friedrich
Ludwig von Eschwege. In other words: for at least three years Nabokov
lived under one roof with the family of his infamous predecessor.

It doesn’t take much to imagine the rest. The von Bardelebens and the
von Eschweges both belonged to the Hessian high nobility, and nobility
weaves a meticulous web: everyone seems to knows one another and
occasionally to meet. Heinz von Eschwege might have been a regular or
sporadic guest at the von Bardenlebens; Mrs. Walrus might have clued in
Nabokov to von Eschwege’s books. Or maybe it was the other way around, and
Nabokov became a lodger at the von Bardelebens because he was already an
acquaintance of Heinz von Eschwege. Research, as they say, is ongoing.

*Daniel Kehlmann is the author, most recently, of the novel *F*.*

TAGS Die verfluchte Gioconda
<http://www.theparisreview.org/blog/tag/die-verfluchte-gioconda/>, Germany
<http://www.theparisreview.org/blog/tag/germany/>, Heinz von Lichberg
<http://www.theparisreview.org/blog/tag/heinz-von-lichberg/>, influences
<http://www.theparisreview.org/blog/tag/influences/>, landladies
<http://www.theparisreview.org/blog/tag/landladies/>, language
<http://www.theparisreview.org/blog/tag/language/>, Lolita
<http://www.theparisreview.org/blog/tag/lolita/>,Michael Maar
<http://www.theparisreview.org/blog/tag/michael-maar/>, mysteries
<http://www.theparisreview.org/blog/tag/mysteries/>, plagiarism
<http://www.theparisreview.org/blog/tag/plagiarism/>, scholarship
<http://www.theparisreview.org/blog/tag/scholarship/>, The Cursed Giaconda
<http://www.theparisreview.org/blog/tag/the-cursed-giaconda/>, The Two
Lolitas <http://www.theparisreview.org/blog/tag/the-two-lolitas/>, The
Waltz Invention
<http://www.theparisreview.org/blog/tag/the-waltz-invention/>, Vera Nabokov
<http://www.theparisreview.org/blog/tag/vera-nabokov/>, Vladimir Nabokov
<http://www.theparisreview.org/blog/tag/vladimir-nabokov/>

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