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the Complete Review
the complete review - literary criticism

The Two Lolitas

Michael Maar

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To purchase The Two Lolitas

Title: The Two Lolitas
Author: Michael Maar
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2005 (Eng. 2005)
Length: 112 pages
Original in: German
Availability: The Two Lolitas - US
The Two Lolitas - UK
The Two Lolitas - Canada
D'une Lolita l'autre - France
Lolita und der deutsche Leutnant - Deutschland
La prima volta di Lolita - Italia
  • German title: Lolita und der deutsche Leutnant
  • Translated by Perry Anderson
  • Includes two stories by Heinz von Lichberg, Lolita and Atomit
  • The Verso re-issue (2017) now includes an Introduction by Daniel Kehlmann, and a Q & A with Maar by Kehlmann

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Our Assessment:

B+ : interesting literary curiosity, nicely presented

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian . 17/12/2005 Steven Poole
Neue Zürcher Zeitung . 3/9/2005 Ulrich M. Schmid
Sunday Telegraph . 13/11/2005 Jeremy Noel-Tod

  From the Reviews:
  • "Rescued from the letters pages of literary journals and remade into a very short book, this is the "controversy" about whether Nabokov might have been partly inspired to write his novel Lolita by a 1916 German short story" - Steven Poole, The Guardian

  • "In seiner knappen Darstellung legt Michael Maar ein Kabinettstück literarischer Spürarbeit vor, die allerdings einen offenen Schluss hat. Der schlagende Beweis einer direkten Verbindung zwischen Lichberg und Nabokov steht noch aus, gleichwohl gelingt es Maar, einen Indizienprozess zu führen, in dem sich das Zufällige in Wahrscheinliches verwandelt." - Ulrich M. Schmid, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "By the end, however, the case is far from closed. Rather, Maar packs it to overflowing with possibilities, then elegantly sits on the lid." - Jeremy Noel-Tod, Sunday Telegraph

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Note:: this review refers to the German edition. The English version is presumably identical, but we have not been able to ascertain that.

       In the spring of 2004 Michael Maar published articles -- first in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and then in the Times Literary Supplement -- pointing out striking similarities betweeen Vladimir Nabokov's classic novel, Lolita, and an earlier forgotten story (first published in 1916) by a largely forgotten German author and journalist, Heinz von Lichberg. Maar did not claim that Nabokov had plagiarised the piece, but suggested that the evidence did suggest some awareness on Nabokov's part of the precursor-story. It was a literary discovery that was widely reported and discussed.
       The Two Lolitas is a brief study, pulling together what Maar has written about the case and fashioning it into a longer essay; there have been some additions and changes to the original newspaper-pieces, and in addition the essay is now heavily (and usefully) annotated (83 endnotes taking up twenty pages in the German edition, while the essay text only runs 41 pages). In addition, the volume includes two stories from von Lichberg's 1916 collection, Die verfluchte Gioconda, Lolita and Atomit. (An English translation, by Carolyn Kunin, of von Lichberg's Lolita was also previously published in the TLS (23 July 2004).)
       It is a fascinating story, and Maar tells it well. Heinz von Lichberg was a not very successful author and more successful journalist in Weimar and then Nazi Germany. He and his work did not make a lasting impression; as Maar notes, the only encyclopaedia that mentions him manages to trim his life by some twenty years (apparently confusing the title of one of his books -- a corporate history covering the period 1897 to 1937 -- with his dates; in fact he lived 1890 to 1951).
       Nevertheless, von Lichberg's short story Lolita shares quite a bit -- including the name of the nymphet who figures in both -- with Nabokov's later novel. The correlation isn't anywhere near exact, but it certainly makes one wonder. And what really makes one wonder is the second von Lichberg story Maar cites (and reprints), from the same collection, Atomit, which in turn reminds one of the beginning of Nabokov's play, The Waltz Invention.
       Names, small details -- and some bits in Nabokov's screenplay version of Lolita as well as Ada: none of it is definitive, but it certainly suggests that there's more than sheer coincidence at work here. Nabokov lived in Berlin for an extended period of time, and it is certainly plausible that he came across von Lichberg's little book. (Maar is also fairly confident that Nabokov -- despite his protestations to the contrary -- had a sound enough command of German to be able to read works in the language, and he feels that if there is a connexion, it must have been first hand: someone merely telling Nabokov about the stories would not have resulted in the specifics that made it into Nabokov's texts.)
       Maar is at pains to point out that, whatever the case, this isn't anything resembling plagiarism. If anything, it is an example of how a true artist (such as Nabokov) takes simple material and, consciously or subconsciously, reworks it into something much greater. That's certainly the most agreeable way of interpreting this case (and seems to be the way Maar leans), but admittedly it isn't the only one.
       Von Lichberg's two stories are an amusing appendix, typical early 20th century Central European froth that one doesn't see much of any more (for fairly good reason). They are valuable companion pieces to the essay, especially since only in the broadest outline (and some small details) do they compare with Nabokov's work; the similarities really are in quite a few bits and pieces that, without Maar's gloss, might be overlooked.

       The Two Lolitas is an enjoyable piece of literary-historical detective work. Thankfully, Maar did not try to pad this entertaining story into a longer, more scholarly text: what he offers is very accessible and gripping (if largely familiar to those that read the FAZ or TLS pieces) study that should be of interest to all Nabokov fans, and anyone interested in the creative process.

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The Two Lolitas: Reviews: Lolita: Lolita under review at the complete review: Other books by Michael Maar under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       German author Michael Maar was born in 1960.

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© 2005-2021 the complete review

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