Most beguiling work of literary criticism

I read the piece yesterday, and was thinking of leaving a note here; but, with all the end semester exams, correction of answer scripts and grading (tentative — to be finalised after the students go through their answer scripts and agree with me on the marks), I totally forgot. Hat tip to, the Literary Saloon pointer for reminding me — and, here is the piece by Pradeep Sebastian:

The critic offers three possibilities: 1) N had no idea of Lichberg’s Lolita, and it was one of those mysterious coincidences. 2) N had read it but then forgot about it, a case of literary ‘cryptoamnesia’ (Maar will tell us more about that soon). And 3) N knew it, consciously cribbed from it, but in the fashion of a quotation: taking light literature and making deep literature out of it. Now, the first possibility of pure contingency. Maar asks: “Why should it not simply be a splendid, mysterious and even faintly comical example of the way life displays patterns that look deliberate yet are only the caprices of coincidence? In a certain sense that would be a classic Nabokovian theme,’ But the critic dismisses it and moves on to the second.

2. N could have come across the story, seen that it was very much like what he was fashioning and so forgot about it entirely. ‘The history of literature’, he notes, ‘is not without examples of this phenomenon called ‘cryptomnesia.’ Apparently Nabokov would read two or three books a day and forget them. The plot of Lolita had prefigured in his work several times. There is a pre-Lolita character in his ‘A Nursery Tale’ (1926). He had created a child-woman here, narrated by an old poet – a prefiguration of Humbert. In his Gift, a secondary character actually discusses the plot of Lolita. And in The Enchanter, the story is fully present, in a shortened form. Thus Lichberg’s story was buried deep in his literary psyche, manifesting itself in various forms until it became the novel we know now so well.

But no. Interesting, but no. What interests Michael Maar is the third tale in the Lolita labyrinth. N knew the tale well, admired it and used the plot as a quotation. This wasn’t plagiarism (though Thomas Mann called it ‘higher cribbing’): you take from a lower source and turn it into something else. Maar then takes us through a series of revelations that qualify as top-notch literary detective footnote work. Like some literary Dan Brown, Nabokov had placed several veiled references to the original source – what Maar terms as the Ur- Lolita- in his life and work. Maar’s literary sleuthing led him to the clues that reveal the way this Ur-text and its obscure author pop up in N’s work.

I’ll leave it to you to discover for yourself what those are from The Two Lolitas. What seems of final interest in this twisty literary mystery is that in both cases, the narrators are, by the end of their encounters with their respective Lolitas, initiated into art. ‘The great novel’s famous ending: he who survives Lolita becomes through her an artist’, Maar reminds us. So, too, in Lichberg’s story: the professor-narrator becomes a poet in his retelling of his erotic compulsions with ‘this immortal daemon disguised as a female child’. Michael Maar’s The Two Lolitas is the most beguiling work of literary criticism I have read in a long, long time.

Looks like a book that I would like!


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