Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins, and—hello!—title of Heinz von Lichberg’s 1916 story of a man enthralled by a girl? The German avatar preceded by decades its more famous namesake. Michael Maar’s “Curse of the First Lolita,” in the April 2 TLS, uncovers points of contact between the two Lolitas and traces the theme in VN’s oeuvre. “How did it come to me?” Nabokov asked in 1966. “How did it exist in my mind before I thought of it?” Far from accusing him of cribbing, Maar makes a nuanced case for unconscious influence.
Fans of VN’s “The Vane Sisters,” written in 1951 and distinguished by a final paragraph that is (spoiler alert!) an acrostical message from the beyond, should seek out Harry Stephen Keeler’s Y. Cheung, Business Detective, a 1939 mystery published by Dutton a year before Nabokov’s U.S. arrival. The titular “yellow man” is trying to uncover the details of a death encoded in a long SF tale. (Spoiler #2: The first letter of each paragraph holds the answer.) If it seems unlikely that VN would have read HSK, ponder the tinge of yellow in “Vane” ‘s brief last graf, as well as this seemingly fanciful aside: “And I wish I could recollect that novel or short story (by some contemporary author, I believe) in which, unknown to its author, the first letters of the words in its last paragraph formed . . . a message from his dead mother.” But perhaps there was a contemporary author; perhaps his name was Harry Stephen Keeler.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on April 6, 2004