The Lichberg Myth


© by Dieter E. Zimmer

30 May 2016



THERE IS AN URBAN LEGEND rampant among Nabokovians. Its adherents may prefer to call it the Lichberg Theory. I will do away with diplomacy and bluntly call it the Lichberg Myth.

     What is the subject of the Lichberg Myth? That Nabokov's novel Lolita was somehow triggered or inspired by an old and forgotten German short story also titled Lolita, written by a justly forgotten author by the name of Heinz von Lichberg (the pen-name of one Heinz von Eschwege). Lichberg published his Lolita in 1916 in a slender volume of his stories titled Die verfluchte Gioconda (The Cursed Gioconda).

     The phrase "was somehow triggered or inspired" surely lacks precision, but 'somehow' was not just used as a stopgap. It is one of the features of the Lichberg Myth that nobody so far has produced an explanation of how that triggering might have come about. The charm of the Lichberg Myth is that it is a persistent open invitation to think up ways in which the miracle may have happened.

     The adherents of the Lichberg Myth enjoy a lasting advantage they can exploit ad libitum. It is the fact that there is no negative proof. If Nabokov really wrote "under the stimulus of Lichberg," as the originator of the Lichberg Myth once put it, that could in principle be confirmed. If actually no proof has been presented, the adherents can always reply: but it may, and some day it will. However, if Nabokov did not, that is something which in principle can never be proven. Until mankind was able to shoot a lunar rocket up to the moon, there simply was no way of disproving the contention that there is a little imp on the moon's far side hopping around and yelling "Great nobody knows my name is Rumpelstiltskin". All that could be done was to say that, for this or that reason, it seemed unlikely.

     What is certain is that the Lichberg Myth was born on March 19, 2004 when the Berlin critic Michael Maar published an article in the influential daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung telling about a lucky find of his.[1] He had happened to have come across Lichberg's Lolita story and believed Nabokov's novel might have something to do with it. No, he himself never said this might be a case of plagiarism. That's only what some journalists promptly claimed in the ensuing international hubbub.

     But the mere fact that both Lichberg and Nabokov used the common name Lolita as names for their heroines and as titles of their respective works would of course never have made the headlines. It would have been filed away as one of those curious coincidences. Nobody ever saw anything striking or suspicious in the fact that both Jane Austen and Gustave Flaubert called their heroines Emma, and even if it had been shown that Flaubert's choice of Emma had been influenced by Austen, nobody would have paid attention. So there had to be more than a mere coincidence of names, more—what? Coincidences? Resemblances? Correspondences? Influences? Recurrences? Allusions? Parallels? I will here stick with the most neutral term, correspondences.

     Maar's various articles and his book on the matter[2] teem with hints and intimations. It is hard to find an unequivocal statement of his theory. The most concise statement I found in the English Wikipedia: "[Nabokov's] Lolita was most likely based on an until-then little known 1916 short story by German author Heinz von Lichberg, also titled Lolita and featuring an identical theme."

     Indeed, Maar's case does not rest on a pure coincidence of names. "There is more", to use his words. "The correspondence of core plot, narrative perspective and choice of name is … striking."[3] This was followed by a more complete list of correspondences: "1) The title is identical, and the heroine has the same name. 2) She is very young. 3) She is the daughter of a figure who lets a room by the sea (lake), where the narrator wants to take a break. 4) She has an affair with the narrator and seduces him. 5) She is, like the later nymphet, half-demon and half-child. 6) The finale is a grotesque, dream-like murder scene. 7) Nabokov's Lolita dies after giving birth to a daughter; Lichberg's Lola [not Lolita!] is murdered after the birth of her daughter. Each narrator is left alone, brokenhearted, but Lolita makes him a writer."[4] On top of that, he added a few more correspondences outside the realm of Lolita itself which will be discussed in time.

     Maar's point was that such a number of correspondences cannot come about by chance. Nabokov must have been familiar with Lichberg's storyand borrowed from it, consciously or unconsciously.

     Somebody who in the meantime has read Lichberg's defunct Lolita (in the wake of Maar's cannon shot, it has been translated into English, French, Italian and Spanish) may be dumbfounded, not because the two works are so similar but because they are so strikingly dissimilar. Lichberg's is such a short and slapdash story, light years removed from Nabokov's novel, the plot is quite different, the love story proper between Lolita and the narrator takes up meagre four of its seventeen pages, the rest belonging to the paranormal narrative frame intended to be vaguely Gothic or "Hoffmannesque"how can such a light-weight piece of literature have been the Ur-Lolita? Even if somebody would prove what cannot be proved—that Nabokov had borrowed sundry "similarities" from Lichberg—what difference would it make? Shakespeare has intentionally and openly availed himself of the works by his predecessors, and that has not subtracted from his fame, on the contrary, it has only shown how much better a writer he was.


Before discussing the imputed correspondences one by one, one question needs to be answered: what should count as a correspondence? A valid correspondence must possess three features, I believe: similarity, specificity, substantiality. First, of course, the two items compared must be really similar in some meaningful way. If in Pale Fire John Shade composes a poem and in Pnin the son of Pnin's ex-wife paints a picture, both characters can be said to have something to do with the arts, but there is no similarity. If in two novels the main character has a Kir Royal at nine o'clock in the evening, this would be a parallel with some specificity. If it is substantial would depend on its importance within the story. If in both the drink and the time lead to the discovery of the villain, the correspondence would be both specific and substantial. If in one he had a Kir Royal on Saturdays and in the other a Bloody Mary on Sundays, that would weaken the specificity, and if it doesn't matter what they have, the correspondence would not be substantial. If in two stories the main characters occasionally have a glass of water and if nothing follows from the fact, the specificity and the substantiality of this similarity would be nil, since all characters in all novels will occasionally drink water. No correspondence in this case, in spite of the similarity.

     It would take a number of high quality correspondences to establish that one work had been derived from another. The ultimate proof would be several passages which are verbatim the same. This might be a case of outright plagiarism. The boundaries between the specific and the unspecific, the substantial and the insubstantial are fluent, and not everybody will agree where they should be drawn. But I trust everybody will agree that for a correspondence to count as one, there has to be a decent degree of similarity, specificity and substantiality. We will have to take the salute of a tedious list of would-be correspondences. But the above agreement will shorten the proceedings.


  "The title is identical, and the heroine has the same name," says Maar. All right, that is a perfect correspondence, but it remains to be seen what import it has. In itself it is a meaningless coincidence.

  "The correspondence of core plot, narrative perspective and choice of name is … striking." If this were so, it would indeed lend relevance to the coincidence of name and title, and we all should congratulate Maar on his discovery. Choice of name and title, granted. But what about narrative perspective? There are only five ways a thwarted love affair can be told: by an omniscient author, by some third party, by the man, by the woman or in a mixture of perspectives. Chosing the man's perspective as Nabokov did had nothing original. There must be hundreds of novels telling the story through the eyes of the man. He could have found this perspective anywhere, if he needed to find it. There was no need for Lichberg's recondite Lolita. So this correspondence lacks all specifity.

  Correspondence of core plot? I contend there is only the weakest correspondence and that both works certainly do not have "an identical theme". Both novel and story tell about the unhappy love affair between an adult male and a young female, true. This is as far as the agreement goes. But this is not the core of Nabokov's plot. The core of Nabokov plot is that it is a pedophiliac's story. His Lolita is not just a "very young" girl like Lichberg's, she is a child. Humbert's emotional ordeal might have been much the same if the author had made her two or three years older, but he expressly made her 12 years and 5 months when Humbert moved into her mother's home in Ramsdale. With 12 and a half, she was absolutely taboo, and Humbert was aware of it as well as everybody else. "Between the age limits of nine and fourteen there occur maidens who, to certain bewitched travelers, twice or many times older than they, reveal their true nature which is not human, but nymphic … Between those age limits, are all girl children nymphets? Of course not. Otherwise, we who are in the know, we lone voyagers, we nympholepts, would have long gone insane … My world was split. I was aware of not one but two sexes, neither of which was mine; both would be termed female by the anatomist." In his mind, nymphets form a kind of third sex. Exploiting a girl's helplessness and entertaining something like a one-sided love affair with her was a criminal offense which must never be known to anybody—"ten years in jail if you only show her you are looking at her."[5]

     As he himself makes abundantly clear, Humbert's predilection for nymphets was pedophilia of a highly special kind. His sexual interests were not directed towards any "young girl", whether before, during or after pubescence. He was attracted solely to a very special set occurring solely during pubescence. For them only he coined the name 'nymphets.' In his mind there was a categorical schasm between normal girls and nymphets. With puberty behind them, they ceased to be nymphets and lost all sex appeal for him. (In the course of their time together, she turned his pedophilia into something like regular one-sided love, but that was when it was much too late for both of them.) To emphasize the correspondence of plots, Maar called Lichberg's Lolita a "nymphet" and a "pre-teenager"[6] That, however, was not warranted by Lichberg's text, and this mistake collapses his argument.

  "She is very young." We don't know how old Lichberg's Lolita is. What we know is that she is a widower's "blutjung" (very young) slender reddish blond daughter, working as a maid in his hostel. Also that a German like the narrator was apt to think her younger than the locals in her Spanish homeland (the implication is that they did not find her inordinately young). My estimate is that she is between 14 and 17. However that may be, what is important is that she is no child. (In Spain, sexual relations to girls or boys under 13 are punishable as child abuse.) Maar however says she is a "pre-teen", that is under 13. Our differing estimates make all the difference. At more than 14, she would be past pubescence and entitled to have a lover in a pre-modern Mediterranean society. At less than 13, she would be a child and making love to her would be a criminal offense, child abuse, even in the Spain of c. 1900. But neither she herself or her father nor the narrator ever worry about her young age. They don't even note the age difference between her and the narrator. It does not seem a problem for anybody in the story.

     The "curse" on her is that she is supposed to give birth to a girl and afterwards become insane. It is not clear (and it seems Lichberg himself did not know) whether she had become pregnant during the few weeks she shared with the narrator at her father's hostel and in compliance with the curse would become insane. When her father tells the narrator of the curse, the whole affair becomes too eerie for him, and he flees from Alicante, ungallantly leaving her to her curse. When he has left, she all of a sudden dies for no apparent reason, presumably breaking the curse. So it is not Lolita who attempts to flee from her lover, as Nabokov's girl does. Lichberg's whole story will work only past puberty. The core plot of Nabokov's Lolita is child abuse, and the core plot of Lichberg's Lolita is the misfortune of a "cursed" nubile young woman. The basic plots of the two stories do not correspond, and the coincidence of their names is left dangling in the air.

  "She is the daughter of a figure who lets a room by the sea (lake), where the narrator wants to take a break." Humbert rents a room in the home of widow Charlotte Haze in suburban Ramsdale, presumably Western Massachusetts. Lichberg's narrator takes a room by the port of Alicante, Spain, in an inn operated by a widower by the name of Severo Ancosta who has a young daughter by the name of Lolita, working as a chambermaid at her father's hostel. As everybody knows, Alicante is on the Mediterranean coast. In the vicinity of the town where Humbert settles there are a few small forest lakes where people occasionally drive to go swimming. Where else should the narrators have stayed if not in some home or hostel? Wouldn't there be some kind of water nearby, sea or lake or river, almost everywhere in Europe and North America? According to the logic of this argument, the only way for Nabokov to avoid any unwanted reference to Lichberg would have been to make Humbert meet Lolita while camping out in the middle of Death Valley. By the way, the vicinity of water is of no importance in both story and novel. No similarity, no specifity, no substantiality—no correspondence.

  "She has an affair with the narrator and seduces him." We cannot be sure if Lichberg's Lolita really seduces him, but they do hug, so this may count as a correspondence.

  Lichberg's Lolita Ancosta "is, like the later nymphet [that is Nabokov's], half-demon and half-child." Maar has missed one of the vital points of Nabokov's Lolita. Dolores Haze is no demon or half-demon but a perfectly human junior high school kid. The Lolita Humbert raves about is a figment of his fervent imagination. The demon is nothing but a projection of his. "You have to be an artist or a madman, a creature of infinite melancholy, with a bubble of hot poison in your loins and a super-voluptuous flame permanently aglow in your subtle spine … in order to discern at once, by ineffable signs … the little deadly demon among the wholesome children …"[7] By the way, nobody seems to consider Lolita Ancosta a demon or half-demon either. I am no expert in superstition, but to my mind carrying a century old curse does not make one a demon.

  "The finale is a grotesque, dream-like murder scene." The persons being murdered are in a totally different relation to the two Lolitas. In Lichberg's case it is Lola, a great-grandmother five generations back, who is strangled by two disappointed lovers. In Nabokov's case Humbert takes revenge by shooting a former rival. Lola's assassination is all a dream, Quilty's assassination is as real as anything in this novel can be. The similarity is only in the word 'murder'.

  "Nabokov's Lolita dies after giving birth to a daughter; Lichberg's Lola is murdered after the birth of her daughter." True of Dolly Schiller, Lolita's married name. Lola's (!) assassination took place a hundred years ago on another continent and for different reasons. Whether Lola or Lolita Ancosta have given birth, remains unclear. Lola must have, otherwise there would be no descendants to bear a curse. Lolita probably has not; she died because she was afraid she might.

  "Each narrator is left alone, brokenhearted, but Lolita makes him a writer." Not a writer, in Lolita Ancosta's case, but a professor who tells his story to a bad young writer.


Maar discovered a few further correspondences that go beyond the two Lolitas. They don't add to the credibility of his Lolita Theory but are there only to support his belief that Nabokov must have known Lichberg's volume Die verfluchte Gioconda.

     In the narrative frame of Lichberg's Lolita there are two "very old" German innkeepers, twins, with bald heads and long scrubby grey beards. As this is a paranormal story, it is insinuated that back in the remote past they were in Alicante too (that should have been about a hundred years ago). Both of them had been in love with pretty Lola and finally strangled her because she had been mean to them. It is them who supernaturally guide the narrator to Alicante, possibly to relieve her great-granddaughter Lolita Ancosta of her curse. Their name is Walzer, Aloys and Anton. Now in Nabokov's Russian play The Waltz Invention, written in 1938, there are two cousins by the name of Vals. This Russian name may be translated into English as Waltz and into German as Walzer. The insinuation is that Nabokov borrowed the name of the two mad cousins of his play from the bumbling old brothers in Lichberg's Lolita. Now Vals, Waltz and Walzer are rather rare but existing surnames which both authors could have independently taken from anywhere. As in the case of the name 'Lolita', the coincidence of the name 'Walzer' in itself does not prove anything. Moreover, it is of no importance to the story. 'Rezlaw' would have done as well.

     But there is a further correspondence attached to the name of 'Walzer' that indeed is much less childish. Nabokov's 1938 play, originally written for the Russian theater in Paris, is about a lunatic by the name of Waltz who imagines himself in the possession of a doomsday device invented by his cousin, the other Waltz. It works with two intersecting energy rays. Where they meet, devastation occurs. In the opening scene, Waltz is sitting in the waiting room of some Ministry of War to demonstrate his cousin's doomsday device. In Lichberg's Die verfluchte Gioconda, there is a short story titled Atomit which opens with a similar scene: an inventor by the name of Bobby Kennyson sitting in a waiting room of the American Ministry of Defense to sell the USA a new weapon. After that the storylines of Atomit and Waltz Invention diverge. Though the title Atomit seems to point towards an atomic weapon, the new weapon actually is a box with a substance so poisonous that it may kill men by the tens of thousands. Atomit clearly is a reflection of big-scale chemical warfare that the year before Lichberg's story was published had been introduced at Ypres, the Germans using chlorine gas, the French retaliating soon after with phosgene. Phosgene was more poisonous, and it was a pulmonary poison like Lichberg's atomite. So his story imagines that some American had invented something like phosgene but much more potent still, ridiculing him when at the end all test persons kill themselves while the decrepit animals they wanted to try atomite on merrily survive.

     Maar tries to assimilate the two inventions by calling both doomsday machines. But Lichberg's atomite is no doomsday machine but a chemical weapon reflecting the chemical warfare the world had experienced in WWI. Waltz's invention on the other hand is an intimation of nuclear warfare and a true doomsday machine. (The play turns out to be a dream in a dream at the end of which the inventor who believes himself King of the World is taken away to a lunatic asylum.) A doomsday device is a machine capable of annihilating all of mankind. After the beginning of atomic warfare, the possibility and feasibility and actual presence of doomsday devices made them a common topic in the press, in films and in novels. In 1916 and in 1938, however, nobody except perhaps a few secluded scientists thought of doomsday devices. In a later foreword to the play, Nabokov admitted that it sounded "a prophetic, even doubly prophetic forenote … to the later atomystique."[8]

     Nabokov may have devised Waltz's doomsday machine on his own or he may have picked up the idea from some unknown source. Be that as it may, Nabokov cannot have derived Waltz's futuristic weapon from Lichberg who had nothing like a doomsday machine in mind but a box of atomite emanating a dreadfully poisonous gas. I suspect one of Nabokov's sources was the Apocalypse of John: "And he gathered them together into a place called in the Hebrew tongue Armageddon. And the seventh angel poured out his vial into the air, and there came a great voice out of the temple of heaven, from the throne, saying, It is done. And there were voices, and thunders, and lightnings; and there was a great earthquake, such as was not since men were upon the earth, so mighty an earthquake, and so great. And the great city was divided into three parts, and the cities of the nations fell: and great Babylon came in remembrance before God, to give unto her the cup of the wine of the fierceness of his wrath. And every island fled away, and the mountains were not found …"[9] That is much like the wreckages caused by his Telemort weapon which Waltz sets out to demonstrate at the Defense Ministry. The first feat he demonstrates is to whisk away a picturesque mountain nearby.

     After this excursion into Waltz' invention, we are left with a single valid correspondence: the opening scene with both inventors waiting to present their destructive gadgets to the War Ministry. Some may accept this as sufficient proof that Nabokov had read Lichberg's book. As for myself, I don't want to exclude the possibility, but given all the odds against it, I don't believe so. The waiting room scene is not such a singular achievement that not both authors might have come up with it independently. It is the obvious way to begin a story or play about an inventor who wants to impress the authorities with a new weapon of his own making.

     This much about the Lichberg Myth itself. It shrinks down to saying that there are two or three valid correspondences between Lichberg's story and Nabokov's Lolita, mainly the coincidence of the name and the fact that both Lolitas are young, have an affair with the narrator and seduce him; and that there is a further correspondence between the play The Waltz Invention and the story Atomit which may, or may not, suggest that Nabokov was familiar with Lichberg's short story collection. These correspondences are far from proving that Nabokov's Lolita must have been written "under the stimulus" of Lichberg's.


Most ado, however, was not about the correspondences between the two Lolitas and what they may mean but about two questions which did not need discussion at all: How could Nabokov have come across Lichberg's book, and would »his German have been up to the task of reading it? In his Berlin years, 1921 to 1937, he could have found it in any bookstore or lending library, for Lichberg had become a Nazi and was not on the index, and if Nabokov had wanted to, his German would have been good enough to at least skim it. Yet Maar kept producing theories of how details from Lichberg's book might have leaked into Nabokov's works. In this respect the Lichberg Myth blossomed. Yet everybody might have known full well that there would be just one definite proof of the alleged relation. It would be the discovery of some first-hand document like a letter or a diary entry or a conversation or lecture note recording that Nabokov had actually read his supposed precursor. This proof so far has eluded everybody and probably always will.


The first reason Maar gave and still seems to give twelve years later was this: "[Nabokov] could easily have crossed its author’s path. Heinz von Lichberg lived for fifteen years in the south-west of Berlin, practically in the same neighbourhood as did Nabokov." (The Süddeutsche Zeitung quickly turned that into the observation that Nabokov and Lichberg had "lived together" in Berlin, the implication being that he could easily have stolen Lolita from his roommate.) Now please ponder for a moment how likely it is that you will meet a certain unknown person by crossing his path in a teeming city of four million. And just crossing his path would not be enough. You would have to identify him, approach him, make his acquaintance, talk with him about the books he had written. Even if the two had lived in adjacent apartments this might never have happened. As things stood, Nabokov from 1929 to 1932 lived in the borough of Schöneberg, Luitpoldstrasse 27, and Lichberg lived on Südwestkorso 20 in the borough of Wilmersdorf, about four kilometers away.[10] To foist another of my bad jokes on Maar which he thinks a disgrace for German humour: He himself lives only 500 metres away from where Lichberg once lived. Isn't that a coincidence something could be made of? Perhaps Lichberg's ghost, in the spirit of Gogol's Overcoat, stopped him in the street one night, complaining that Nabokov had robbed him of his Lolita, and that's why he is propagating the Lichberg Myth so diligently. So much for the vicinity argument.

     Or not quite yet. In 2016, in an appendix to his interview with Daniel Kehlmann[11], Maar came up with a supplementary discovery. It is so beautiful that I would like to quote it at length. When reading Nabokov’s Letters to Véra, said Maar, "I 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." That much was known for a long time. In his foreword to the English version of his novel Glory, written in 1971, Nabokov remembered, "My wife and I … rented a parlor and bedroom on Luitpoldstrasse, Berlin West, in the vast and gloomy apartment of the one-legged General von Bardeleben [really a retired Lieutenant Colonel], an old gentleman solely occupied in working out his family tree; his large brow had a somewhat Nabokovian cast, and indeed, he was related to the well known chessplayer Bardeleben, whose manner of death resembled that of my Luzhin."[12] Among themselves, VN and Véra called his evidently stout wife "The Walrus". But now comes Maar's discovery: "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 know one another and occasionally to meet. Heinz von Eschwege might have been a regular or sporadic guest at the von Bardelebens; 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."

     I invite everybody to visualize the circumstances of that pivotal meeting. One Sunday afternoon, the Walrus knocked at the door of their stand-offish lodgers, inviting them over for a cup of coffee, promising them an interesting guest, an albeit quite distant relative of her husband who was a writer too. While the old Lieutenant Colonel hardly looked up from his family trees, they were presented to that relative. In one hand a smoking gun, in the other his cursed Gioconda, Lichberg handed Nabokov a copy of his book—as a fellow writer, wouldn't he want to peruse it? Nabokov politely took it along to his room, skimmed it, saw that there was a supernatural story titled Lolita, took it to a second-hand bookdealer and forgot it. But this disdain took revenge on him. When twenty or thirty years later he began to work on Lolita, he was forced to proceed "under the stimulus" of Lichberg's story. The first thing he did was to rename his girl, who so far had been Juanita, to … guess what.

     Maar offered two more theories about how Lichberg might have influenced Nabokov. One suggested that Nabokov had consciously borrowed from Lichberg and painstakingly withheld his name. Nobody was to catch the Lichberg references he had carefully planted. (Until a literary sleuth like Maar came and unravelled them.) But what would have been the purpose of planting references to a forgotten and worthless story that nobody was supposed to detect? Well, he might have wanted to signal something to somebody. But what and to whom? Don't know. Research ongoing.

     The other two theories are either regular memory or cryptomnesia. Cryptomnesia is not a New Age phenomenon nor is it a psychiatric disorder. It is something real. "Cryptomnesia is, literally, hidden memory. The term was coined by psychology professor Théodore Flournoy (1854-1921) and is used to explain the origin of experiences that people believe to be original but which are actually based on memories of events they've forgotten."[13] A case of cryptomnesia sometimes cited is George Harrison's inadvertently reinventing The Chiffons' He's So Fine from 1963 when he wrote his My Sweet Lord in 1970.

     So Nabokov read Lichberg's Lolita in the 1920s, remembered it and willingly reproduced some selected elements from it when he began work on his Lolita in 1947. Or he read it, forgot all about it, and from 1957 on began to reinvent the forgotten story that had been preserved in his unconscious mind. That's an explanation which would at least make some sense. But the trouble with it is that Nabokov's Lolita is not an unwanted reconstruction of Lichberg's story but a totally different story. To call that cryptomnesia would require a redefinition of the term. It would imply that Nabokov when one day he began to work on a new novel he tentatively called The Kingdom by the Sea, he was occasionally interrupted by his unconscious (whatever that is) making him sundry suggestions, for instance "Do not call the girl Juanita Dark or Joaneta Darc as you intend to but Dolores so her pet name could be Lolita, and that would make a much better title than The Kingdom by the Sea." And when he subsequently parted with Juanita and The Kingdom by the Sea, his unconscious intervened again: "But the sea is indispensable. If it disappears from the title, make Lolita at least live near some body of water." Nabokov argued, "Would a bathtub do?" No, said his unconscious, and they settled on a New England forest lake. These changes in the course of composition incidentally prove that Nabokov cannot have worked from an actual conscious memory either. He cannot have remembered Lolita as Juanita.

     That is, Nabokov's cryptomnesia would have had to be of a very special kind, a psychiatric disorder where isolated scraps of memory crop up from time to time, forcing the patient to insert into his fiction elements he had not intended to be there.

     That is why I resent the Lichberg Myth. It would not annoy me nor would it diminish my appreciation of Nabokov in the least if he had avowedly or unavowedly borrowed from minor writers like Lichberg. But I would hate it if I had to imagine him cretinously constructing his stories around words and phrases dictated to him by some forgotten piece of trash.

     There is not a shred of positive evidence that Nabokov borrowed anything from Lichberg. It cannot be proven he did, but neither can it be proven that he did not. What we are left with to untangle the riddle of the two Lolitas is a weighing of probabilities. It is not impossible that he encountered Lichberg's book and that he read it. But it is highly unlikely. He spent sixteen years in Berlin but associated with Germans as little as possible, with a few exceptions did not look into German books or the German press, did not attend German plays and lectures. In the letters he wrote to his wife in those years, he mentions hundreds of friends and contacts, for at that time he was an ardent networker. There are Russians, Poles, Balts, Czechs, French, Belgians, Englishmen, Americans—but no Germans except for a few landlords and an occasional official he could not avoid. There are not even his German translators. There was no German author or artist he recommended to his wife. If he had known Lichberg, there most likely would have been a mention, though not a favorable one. But he simply did not consort with Germans and did not read German print. Why? He was not interested. He disliked Berlin, Germans and Germany from the very beginning and, in a most disgraceful period of German history, came to downright hate everything German. He even disliked the language as he did the sausage. This is what he wrote as early as 1926, after only five years in the country: "My darling, among the little side-wishes I can mention this one—an old one: to leave Berlin, and Germany, to move to Southern Europe with you. The thought of yet another winter here fills me with horror. German speech makes me feel sick … there’s also all the squalid vileness, the coarse tiresomeness of Berlin, the aftertaste of rotten sausage, and the smug ugliness. You understand all this as well as I do. I’d prefer the remotest province in any other country to Berlin."[14] Mind, these were the so-called Golden Twenties, from 1924 to 1929, "which enjoyed a healthy economic growth and a liberal, creative and experimental phase in society and arts" (Wikipedia) and when Nabokov's first two novels were being translated for the first time, into German.

     That is why it is likely Nabokov never knew anything of Lichberg.


PS. I have  no personal axe to grind, and I do not enjoy polemizing against Michael Maar. I admire his rhetoric, I appreciate his high esteem for Nabokov, I think respectfully of his detective zeal though it runs in a different direction from mine. When he published his Lichberg Theory in 2004, I found it misguided and had my say several times, hoping it would be a fad that disappeared by itself and I would never have to say a word about it again. But since, his method had become a sport for some time: finding Lichbergisms in all of Nabokov's works, and extending the search for correspondences to other books he did not know, a sort of parlor game that seems to be still en vogue. And twelve years later Daniel Kehlmann's Cicero interview with him showed that the Lichberg Myth is fully alive and sprouting new fanciful fabrications. It is so well positioned on the Internet that wherever you are googling in the vicinity (Lichberg, Eschwege, Maar, Lolita, Nabokov) you will rarely find an item that does not endorse it. Also, Kehlmann said he felt cheated by Nabokov people like Boyd or me who keep ignoring Maar's theory which he obviously considers fascinating and convincing. Sorry. This is a commentary that does not ignore it.


[1] Maar, Michael: Was wußte Nabokov?, Frankfurt/Main: Frankfurter Allgemeine, No. 67, 19 March 2004, p. 37.

[2] Maar, Michael: Lolita und der deutsche Leutnant, Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp, 2005. English: The Two Lolitas, New York: Verso, 2005. French: D'une Lolita à l'autre, Genève: Droz, 2006. Italian: La prima volta di Lolita, Padova: Alet, 2005.

[3] Maar, Michael: Curse of the First Lolita, London: Times Literary Supplement, 2 April 2004, p.13-15.

[4] Maar, Michael: Lolita's Spanish Friend, London: Times Literay Supplement, 7 May 2004, p. 17.

[5] Nabokov, Vladimir: Lolita, New York: Vintage Books, 1989, pp. 16-20.

[6] Maar, Michael: Curse of the First Lolita. London: Times Literary Supplement, 2 April 2004, p. 13-15.

[7] Nabokov, Vladimir: Lolita, New York: Vintage International, 1989, p. 17.

[8] Nabokov, Vladimir: The Waltz Invention, New York: Phaedra, 1966, p. v.

[9] Book of Revelation, 16:16-21, King James Bible.

[10] cf. Berliner Adressbuch 1930, Berlin: Verlag August Scherl, 1930.

[11] Daniel Kehlmann: Who Wrote Lolita First? An Interview with Michael Maar, The Paris Review/ Blog The Daily, 19 April 2016, www.theparisreview.org/blog/2016/04/19/who-wrote-lolita-first-an-interview-with-michael-maar/

[12] Nabokov, Vladimir: Glory, New York: Vintage, 1971, p. x.

[13] Caroll, Robert Todd: The Skeptic's Dictionary, 1994, http://skepdic.com/cryptomn.html

[14] Nabokov, Vladimir: Letters to Véra, ed. and tr. by Olga Voronina and Brian Boyd, New York: Knopf, 2016, p. 117 (letter of 4 July 1926).