BROOKE GLADSTONE: In 1916, an 18 page short story titled Lolita about an older man obsessed with a young girl, was published in a German short story collection. The author was Heinz Von Litchberg. In 1958, Vladimir Nabokov's 300-page novel Lolita, also about an older man obsessed with a young girl, was published in the United States. Was Nabokov a plagiarist, or as New York Observer columnist Ron Rosenbaum posed in a recent column, did Nabokov suffer from cryptomnesia?
RON ROSENBAUM: Well, I didn't invent the term "cryptomnesia" to apply to this particular case. It was a German professor, Michael Mahr, who was the one who actually discovered this 1916 story. And cryptomnesia is sort of one of four possible ways to explain what Nabokov did, and the European press and a lot of Nabokovians are all in a tizzy because it's been played up as plagiarism. But it could be entirely coincident. Nabokov never read this story, although Professor Mahr seems to have research that shows that Nabokov, in his exile from Russia, lived in the same section of Berlin as the German writer who wrote the Ur Lolita -- the 1916 Lolita--
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ah-ha!
RON ROSENBAUM:-- under the pseudonym Von Lichberg. So it could be coincidence. It doesn't seem likely. So there are three other explanations. One is that Nabokov did sort of knowingly become inspired by reading Von Lichberg's 1916 story but never mentioned it; covered it up. Or, explanation number three -- this phrase --word -- cryptomnesia, which Webster's defines as "the appearance in consciousness of memory images which are not regarded as such but which appear as original creations." In other words, one day Nabokov woke up and said I want to do a story about an under age girl called Lolita and an older man who preys on her. He didn't realize that 10, 20, 30 years before he had read this German story, Lolita. It wasn't conscious.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But what do you think?
RON ROSENBAUM:I can't make up my mind completely, but Mahr does tell us that this guy, Von Lichberg, later became a Nazi propagandist. Nabokov was quite anti-Nazi. In fact, his brother, who was gay, died in a Nazi concentration camp. So perhaps he did take his inspiration in some way, or at least the name Lolita, from Von Lichberg's story, but he just wasn't going to give this guy the posthumous satisfaction of any credit. So that's a, a fourth possible explanation. But the, the cryptomnesia one is really interesting, because when I mention this to other writers or other writers who responded to this story in the Observer said, you know, they, as am I, haunted by the idea that whenever you think of a phrase that you're really fond of and you put it in a story, I do at least wonder oh, God -- what if I read this phrase somewhere else by someone else and yet didn't consciously know it. And so I've left a lot of what I think are good phrases out of stories for fear of what I now know as [LAUGHTER] cryptomnesia.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:You know, we've been discussing this literary application of cryptomnesia, but I'm reminded of a musical one. Back in 1971, George Harrison was found guilty of infringing on the use of the melody from "He's So Fine," an old song--
RON ROSENBAUM: "For My Sweet Lord." I know.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The judge didn't think he was consciously plagiarizing--
RON ROSENBAUM: I thought he was found guilty and had to give the Chiffons, was it, some--
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Very good--
RON ROSENBAUM: --some props for, for that--
BROOKE GLADSTONE: -- yes -- the judge didn't think he was consciously plagiarizing, and yet George Harrison was forced to pay the fine.
RON ROSENBAUM: Yeah. You know, you wonder, like would we be happier if George Harrison didn't do "My Sweet Lord"? Well, maybe - oh, with that song, [LAUGHTER] but nonetheless, you know, there are a lot of works of art that depend on other works of art, and a lot of literature is made up of scraps of other literature and -- do we want to, like, be so purist-minded that we expect our artists to only utter things that have never been uttered before? What is new is more a way of phrasing what is old than an absolutely brand new thought about the nature of the universe.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well, Ron, thank you very much.
RON ROSENBAUM: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Ron Rosenbaum wrote "New Lolita Scandal: Did Nabokov Suffer from Cryptomnesia?" for the New York Observer, and he also edited the forthcoming anthology Those Who Forget the Past: The Question of Anti-Semitism. [THEME MUSIC UP & UNDER]
BOB GARFIELD:That's it for this week's show. On the Media was directed by Katya Rogers and produced by Janeen Price, Megan Ryan and Tony Field, and edited-- by Brooke. Dylan Keefe is our technical director, and Rob Christiansen our engineer; we had help from Derek John. Our webmaster is Amy Pearl.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Arun Rath is our senior producer and Dean Cappello our executive producer. Bassist/composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. You can listen to the program and get free transcripts and MP3 downloads at onthemedia.org, and email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. This is On the Media, from NPR. I'm Brooke Gladstone.