The Coincidence (it is just that) of Nabokov's Ape and Kubrick's Monkey

Go to Table of Contents of the analysis (which has also a statement on purpose and manner of analysis and a disclaimer as to caveat emptor and my knowing anything authoritatively, which I do not, but I do try to not know earnestly, with some discretion, and considerable thought).

In 1946, for a Look magazine article, Kubrick took the picture above of "how people look to monkeys in a cage".


This is pure coincidence, but Nabokov stated, multiple times, that his inspiration for Humbert began with the story of an ape in a cage.

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.

No one has been able to find the above news story related by Nabokov and I believe it's been concluded that the news story Nabokov described doesn't exist. But back in 1998 on NABOKOV-L a wonderful bit of research was posted and god love the person who dug deep and found it, may fate grant them a prime parking space daily. What they found was that on 5 December 1949 in Life magazine there appeared a letter from a person responding to a story in the November 14th edition of Life on an ape named Cookie taking photos from within its cage. The letter took exception to the idea this was a first and referred to an October 11 1942 article in This Week magazine which portrayed the letter writer's own "protegee" ape, Cookie, also taking photos from its cage. Yet another person wrote in to point out that on September 5 1938 Life had published another picture of a chimpanzee in a cage at a zoo and it was holding a camera alongside a photo it had taken.

What makes the above letters something to be taken into consideration is that on the opposite page of the first letter in that 5 December 1949 issue was a letter from Nabokov.

Sirs: It may interest you to learn that the butterfly wings in the third panel of the Bosch triptych belong to a female of the common European species now known as Maniola jurtina, which Linaeus described some 250 years after Bosch knocked it down with his cap in a Flemish meadow to place it in his hell. Vladimir Nabokov

The head spins. There are multiple things of interest going on here in relationship to Lolita, some of which I discuss further on my website, but in this excerpt I'm going to keep as the point of focus Nabokov's interest in the caged ape picturing the bars of its cage, and the coincidence of Kubrick having made, in 1946, photographs from the supposed point of view of a monkey viewing people outside its cage.

Which means Kubrick would have been the monkey. (You know what I mean.) Which is something that's mildly amusing when one considers he later does this film of a book that drew its inspiration (at least Nabokov insisted it did) from just such a caged and self-aware monkey picturing its predicament. No doubt the coincidence wouldn't have bypassed Kubrick.

The sense of the cage, the prison, is not only important to Nabokov in Lolita, but also to Kubrick. Bars, as of a cage, are expressed throughout the film.

My essential (IMHO) excerpt post on the cage/prison in Lolita is on the starling and the cage which discusses Nabokov's referencing Laurence Sterne's reflecting on the horrors of imprisonment in A Sentimental Journey and Kubrick perhaps also doing the same in his choice of a location.

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