In the April 2 issue of TLS, Michael Marr conducts an extended analysis of the similarities between Nabokov's Lolita and the recently re-discovered 1916 short story of the same name by the German author Heinz von Lichberg (a pen name). This has become something of a mini-scandal, according to which, at least implicitly, Nabokov appropriated the early work as the basis of his own novel. If Nabokov has not exactly been accused of plagiarism, he has been charged with some kind of dishonesty.
I frankly don't understand why anyone would care about this supposed controversy, even if the worst were assumed and we concluded Nabokov just stole Lichberg's idea outright.
Who would deny that literary history is in many ways a grand procession of such theft, Nabokov's just the latest in a long line of literary larceny? Did Homer "invent" the Iliad and the Odyssey? Are the Greek tragedies to be judged by the "originality" of their plots? (Aristophanes is another story.) We all know Shakespeare pilfered his own plots (and many of his characters) from preexisting sources. Do we consider him less accomplished as a writer because of it? Did Milton "steal" Paradise Lost from the Bible?
It's hard to think of many writers who could be judged primarily on the evidence of originality in story, theme, or character, at least before the 19th century. As many scholars have established, "originality" is itself a concept that arises from the "individualism" of the Romantic movement of that century, although not all of the Romantic writers could be measured by it. Of the Romantic poets, Blake seems the most wholly original, Shelley perhaps the least; in my opinion, however, Shelley is a better writer. (It seems more appropriate to judge Blake as some kind of "visionary" rather than as a writer per se.) As F.O. Matthiessen points out in American Renaissance, Melville's Moby Dick is a rewriting of King Lear, Pierre of Hamlet.
It is really only with the rise of the novel as the predominant literary form that originality becomes a criterion by which it seems appropriate to assess a work of literature--or through the use of which one might say something useful about a particular work. Yet here again we all know that what seems original at first glance often enough isn't and that writers are frequently quite willing to foreground the sources of their inspiration. (And even when they're not, there's always Harold Bloom's "anxiety of influence"--and if you actually bother to read Bloom, you discover that his analysis is overwhelmingly compelling.) Ulysses is a rewriting of the Odyssey; the Biblical echoes in Faulkner are deafening; some readers might think Henry James stole from himself and wrote the same few stories over and over again.
If we take the postmodern notion of "intertextuality" seriously (I actually do), we really only come back to T.S. Eliot's claim that "what happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art which preceded it. The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves. . . ." Eliot doesn't really mean that nothing new is ever seen under the sun, but that what he called the "really new" has a unseverable link to that which came before--at least as long as the artist is perpetuating an artistic form that emerged from the past.
The "literary" occurs entirely in the presentation of the work of literature, in its manipulation of form, in the details of character, in the manifestation of a distinctive style. Surely no one believes that in a comparison of the "original" story to Nabokov's novel the former would be judged superior simply because Lichberg's thought up a similar story and the same name. (And no one who has read the first "Lolita" has suggested this.) If Nabokov had appended an acknowledgment of Lichberg's story, would anyone now care?
Marr does a pretty good job of demonstrating why the similarities between "Lolita" and Lolita really don't much matter, but he comes up short of admitting that Nabokov did essentially steal from Lichberg. I'm willing to stipulate he might have. He might have read the story, judged it to be aesthetically inferior but also to be based on an interesting idea, one he (Nabokov) might come back to. In my opinion, Nabokov wrote some of the most exquisitely shaped and almost perfect prose in the history of the novel in English. (And he was Russian.) If, among other things, he had to steal from Heinz von Lichberg in order to give us this prose style, good for us!