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

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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 H. Humber Clark responding to a story in the November 14th edition of Life on an ape named Cookie taking photos from within its cage. Humber wrote, "Photographer Bernard Hoffman's Cookie was not the first ape to take a picture. My protogree, 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." With the letter were a couple of photos: one of the first "Cookie" holding a Kodak, another of Cookie's supposed picture out of the bars of the cage. Yet another person, Seaborn Jones Jr., 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 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 in my analysis, 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. 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.

Nabokov was likely aware of H. Humber's letter to Life, as in another novel of his, The Original of Laura, Humbert is instead a Hubert H. Hubert, which would seem a play on H. Huber who had written the letter referring to the "first Cookie" (H. Huber Clark is in the 1940 census, so we can be confident he wasn't a playful conjuration of Nabakov's). It may be that Humbert Humbert's name was inspired by H. Humber Clark.

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 a number of times in the film. We see them most severely in the stark, dark shadows that rule the hotel room the night when Humbert first tries to slip into bed with Lolita. They are again severe, dominating the scene, when an ill Humbert receives a phone call from Quilty after Lolita has left the hospital, giving Humbert the slip. There are diminutive suggestions of bars in the wallpaper of the second floor landing in the Haze household. And from place to place we see white picket fences that I think are also intended to be suggestive of bars.

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 referencing the same in his choice of Dover, New Hampshire as a location.

March 2016 transferred to html from a post originally on Tumblr. Approx 947 words or 2 single-spaced pages. A 7 minute read at 130 wpm.

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