Uncategorized30 Jun 2009 02:24 pm
In April 2004, German academic Michael Maar made waves in the literary world with his London Times article, “Curse of the First Lolita,” which presented startling parallels between Vladimir Nabokov’s famous novel, Lolita (1955), and a 1916, 18-page German short story of the same name, penned by journalist Heinz von Eschwege (under the pen name Heinz von Lichberg). The plot similarities uncovered by Maar are startling: both works are about a middle-aged man who rents a room as a lodger and becomes obsessed with the prepubescent girl (Lolita) who lives in the same house. Maar’s also points out that Nabokov lived in the same section of Berlin as Eschwege until 1937, and that the German author’s work was widely available at the time. However, Maar stops short of accusing Nabokov of outright plagiarism; instead, he posits the theory that Nabokov may have experienced cryptomnesia (inadvertent plagiarism), while he was composing Lolita in the 1950s.
Cryptomnesia is a memory bias that occurs when a person mistakenly believes that they have come up with an original thought, idea, song or joke, when it was actually generated by someone else. Thus, the individual is not intentionally plagiarizing the original source; rather, they mistakenly believe their recollection is a new inspiration. The term was first used by psychology professor Theodore Flournoy in his 1901 book, From India to the Planet Mars: A Case of Multiple Personality with Imaginary Languages. Flournoy employs the word to explain the phenomenon of “past life regressions,” which he believed were instances of hypnosis-induced cryptomnesia. In 1905, psychologist Carl Jung expanded on this theory in his article, “Cryptomnesia,” where he lists specific examples of famous artists who have fallen prey to their “concealed recollections” while creating ostensibly original works of art. He cited the example of Friedrich Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1891), which includes an incident almost directly lifted from a book published in 1835. When the original source was discovered, Nietzsche’s sister confirmed that Friedrich had indeed read the book in controversy…when he was 11 years old!
Nabokov never mentioned Eschwege’s story as a source of inspiration for Lolita during his lifetime. Some scholars, skeptical of Maar’s theory, have suggested that Nabokov may have deliberately failed to mention his debt to Eschwege’s short story. One interesting theory holds that Nabokov did not want his work to be associated with the German author, who became a prominent pro-Hitler propagandist in Germany during the Second World War. Nabokov, who was passionately anti-Nazi, may have very well hoped that the parallels between his novel and the since-obscure “Lolita” short story would go unnoticed, especially because the German author had passed away five years prior to the novel’s publication.
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