The Inspiration for Lolita

On October 26, 1998, Nabokov bibliographer Michael Juliar posted the note below to NABOKV-L, the online Vladimir Nabokov Forum. It is reprinted here with his permission, accompanied by the images to which he refers.

To touch on an old thread regarding Nabokov's claim for the inspiration of Lolita ("The first little throb of Lolita went through me late in 1939 or early in 1940, in Paris ... somehow prompted by a newspaper story about an ape in the Jardin des Plantes, who, after months of coaxing by a scientist, produced the first drawing ever charcoaled by an animal: this sketch showed the bars of the poor creature's cage."), has anyone pointed out the following?

Life magazine, on page six of its 5 December 1949 issue, published most of a Nabokov letter about butterfly wings in Hieronymus Bosch's Garden of Delights. (See Selected Letters, pp. 93-94.) On the facing page, seven, is a letter from a H. Huber Clark of New York City about the first photograph ever taken by an "ape." Mr. (or Mrs. or Miss) Clark writes, "Photographer Bernard Hoffman's Cookie (Life, Nov. 14) was not the first ape to take a picture. My protegeé, whose name was also Cookie, was an advanced shutterbug more than seven years ago when an article appeared in This Week magazine Oct. 11, 1942…" Accompanying the letter are two photographs, one of the "first Cookie" examining a box camera (a Kodak brownie?), and one of humans looking into Cookie's cage, taken, of course, from Cookie's point of view. The bars of the cage stand out more than the human heads.

On page ten, the letters continue with one from Seaborn Jones Jr. of Jacksonville, FL, pointing out that Life had published similar photos in its "Pictures to the Editors" on 5 September 1938. He says, " showed two pictures taken by a chimpanzee in a Berlin zoo." Life reprints the two photos. If both were actually taken by the chimp, as the letter says, the first photo is of another chimp holding a man-made object (another camera?). The second is of people staring (chimps point of view) into a cage. Again, the bars of the cage are clearly visible.

Is it possible that Nabokov was referring to one of these three sets of photos: one published in 1949, one in 1942, and one in 1938, all published in the US? Could the 1938 set have been published in Europe in the late 30's where Nabokov might have seen it before he wrote Volshebnik? Or was the "initial shiver of inspiration" a reference, not to Volshebnik, but to Lolita? 1949 is after Lolita was begun, but 1942 isn't. Or did Nabokov see the Life photos of 1949 but later misremember them as having been published earlier?

Another idea: I don't know French, but does "jardin des plantes" (or "botanical garden") ever refer to the Garden of Eden, the source of "life"? And "Eden" means delight or pleasure. I don't know the Bosch painting, but I assume from its title that it has some kind of reference to Eden, even though the third panel Nabokov refers to is of Hell.

Many gardens, many paths.

Michael Juliar

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