As with most novels, Lolita’s roots are multiple and tangled, and Nabokov did little to untangle them. Nabokov scholar Carl Proffer suggests the inspiration came from the character Boris Ivanovich Shchyogolev in Nabokov’s 1930s novel Dar. Nabokov, flourishing a red herring, claimed, “the first little throb of Lolita went through me in late 1939 or early 1940 . . . somehow prompted by a newspaper story about an ape in the Jardin des Plantes. . . . “
Michael Maar, recently a visiting professor at Stanford, has charged that the idea was taken from a 1916 short story called “Lolita” by an obscure Berlin writer, Heinz von Lichberg. Nabokov could have seen it in one of the bookstores he frequented for free reading during his impoverished days (and would likely disavow it, given Lichberg’s later association with an infamous Nazi publication).
Biographer Field notes that the theme of nympholepsy dates from 1928 in Nabokov’s poetry and 1938 in his prose. Nabokov confirmed writing a 30-page short story, “The Enchanter,” in which a Central European man marries a French woman so that he can get his hands on her teenage daughter. After sharing it in a “blue-papered, wartime reading,” Nabokov said he destroyed it—yet the 54-page story was found among his papers after his death.
Going farther back, Nabokov loved Dante. Significantly, Dante’s characters in paradise and purgatory commit the same sins—but the former have accepted their sins; the latter are still blaming others and justifying themselves. Lolita consists of a mesmerizing series of self-justifications that continues for nearly 300 pages. “I still dwelled deep in my elected paradise—a paradise whose skies were the color of hell-flames—but still a paradise,” says Humbert.
Then there is the question of the author’s nomenclature. The protagonist of Vladimir Sirin’s 1936 novel, Despair, has a similar name, Hermann Hermann. But why did Nabokov repeat a bumpety name in his English novel, so many years later?
In a 1964 Playboy interview, Nabokov called Humbert Humbert “a hateful name for a hateful person,” yet, almost in the same breath, said it is a “kingly name with a kingly vibration.” Proffer suggests that it derives from the wordplay surrounding Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker in James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake.
Hoover Institution archivist emerita Elena Danielson, MA ’70, PhD ’75, offers a more whimsical analysis. When Nabokov arrived at Stanford in 1941, workmen were in a feverish heat to complete Hoover Tower in time for Stanford’s 50th anniversary; Nabokov would have taken in the hustle and bustle on his daily walks to campus. Herbert Hoover, a name ubiquitous at Stanford, has an alliterative, comical sound in English, but it’s even funnier in Russian, which has no “h.” (The Hoover Institution still gets letters misaddressed due to the confusion the name causes the Russian ear.) Danielson speculates that the forever tongue-in-cheek Nabokov might have made his own deathless tribute to Herbert Hoover—how far is it from that to Humbert Humbert?
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