Guest Post: Why Nabokov Would Have Liked Harry Potter (Michael Maar)

MaarIn yesterday’s post on the intertextual relationship of Vladimir Nabokov’s work and J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels, I all but said that no one has written on this subject. That is not the case. A Nabokov scholar of the first rank, Michael Maar, has written two books on the Hogwarts Saga, one of which is titled Why Nabokov Would Have Liked Harry Potter. Prof. Maar, in fact, offered the first course on Rowling’s work at a major university in 2002 when he was a visiting professor at Stanford.

WarumSo why have you never heard of this Potter Pundit and the Nabokov connection? Michael Maar has two books on Nabokov you can buy at Amazon, Speak, Nabokov and The Two Lolitas, but most of his work, to include his Potter scholarship, is only available auf  Deutsch.  I found an excerpt from Warum Nabokov Harry Potter Gemocht Hatte online, ran it through Google Translate, massaged it using German I discovered in the boxes put away in my mental basement thirty plus years ago from forgotten high school and college classes, and sent it to Maar for his review and permission to post here. He kindly agreed and only pointed out one of the gaffes I’d made.

For your reading pleasure, a flashback to 2003, the middle of the ‘Three Year Summer’ inter librum separating Goblet of Fire and Order of the Phoenix, for the thoughts of an expert on Vladimir Nabokov about J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter.  Enjoy!

Maar1Why Nabokov would have liked Harry Potter

Michael Maar, 2002, an article excerpted from Warum Nabokov Harry Potter Gemocht Hatte, chapter 4

Nabokov the great author was also a great reader and his judgments were harsh. The list of his victims includes legends: Thomas Mann, Dostoyevsky, Sartre, TS Eliot, and Stendhal – all of them were regarded as third-rate writers by Vladimir Vladimirovich. He appreciated Franz Kafka, but this did not prevent the insect expert lepidopterist from explaining that the transformed beetle Gregor chose to transform into could easily have flown out of the window. Not to leave the room, one expects, but to flee from the critic in desperation. Many other authors would have considered self-defenestration, too, if Nabokov’s judgment on their efforts had come to their ears. 

VVN3So then why do I dare suggest the High Bred White Russian emigre intellectual with these Draconian standards would have been charmed by a popular work of children’s literature? He had done little of this kind of reading after fleeing St Petersburg at the time of the Revolution. He described Hemingway, Pasternak, Conrad, and Lampedusa as writers of what we would call YA and juvenile titles and that was by no means meant as a compliment. 

And yet, Nabokov would have found much to his liking in Harry Potter

No one has to remind us or assert with indignation that the master’s own work travels in a higher sphere than what the sorcerer’s apprentice has ever even attempted. But Nabokov had an eye for signs of genuine talent in overlooked places (he famously shared the details and virtues of the ‘Rex Morgan, MD,’ daily comic strip with an overawed American interviewer). The reader was an aristocrat polyglut and Cambridge man but not a snob; he was not only draconian in judgment, but also deeply enthusiastic about books and writing that were not immediately accepted as canon or considered by others to be unworthy of serious attention. If great names could not impress him, even less did the genre boundaries within literature narrow his vision. 

BBC Desert DiscsAnd with Rowling there is more than one sign of talent. 

Unmistakably, the two share a few preferences. Even what Rowling does with her word-play in the Potter stories is not so far from his own. Nabokov left no opportunity for a pun unexplored, and when the possibility for alliteration was also to be seen on the horizon, he lured it into the jungle of his tropical prose.*** Rowling’s use of metaphor can be inept, but her wit is superb, and she cannot turn away from the alley of alliteration, the seduction of sequential sibilants: “in September of that year, a subcommittee of Sardinian sorcerers…” How about a glance at the published works of Prof Gilderoy Lockhart? Break with a Banshee, Gadding with Ghouls, Holidays with Hags, Travels with Trolls, Voyages with Vampires, Wanderings with Werewolves, and Year with the Yeti. This is reminiscent of Nabokov at his most playful. […] 

Maar2***Maar notes: There is a pun in the original version – lockt „in den Dschungel seiner Tropen” which you translate as: “he lured it into the jungle of his tropical prose.” The thing is: “Tropen” in German is the terminus technicus for metaphor. At the same time, of course it makes you think of tropical. Actually, I stole or borrowed the double entendre from Walter Benjamin.

VVN2But Rowling’s use of the language and her clever polyvalent names are not the most important reasons why Nabokov might have liked Harry Potter. Those reasons are her detailed and exacting imagination and her art of composition. Nabokov, the most refined artist of the twentieth century, appreciated the chess-like construction of an mystery as much as the attention to detail, which, like gold lacquer, springs out from all the cracks of the Hogwarts building. Her humor, too, would have enchanted him: the Christmas gifts from Privet Drive, which are still shrinking even though they are already twisted on toothpicks, the wit of the Weasley twins, the hairnet that one of the life-size portraits of Gilderoy Lockhart failed to take off, of the Invisible book of Invisibility. He would have liked Rowling’s barely disguised disgust, her daring, and the parody embedded in her fiction. And, if he had written Goblet of Fire, he almost certainly would have locked up the gossip journalist Rita Skeeter in a Mason jar at story’s end with the same satisfaction with which he had earlier surreptitiously disclosed the spying beetle in Hermione’s hair. 

f33609830Nabokov would have greeted another figure with parodied features with a hand kiss: the fortune-telling Sybill Trelawney who prophesies Harry’s death with such persistence. He would have recognized in her a Sybil Vanes, one of the sisters Vane from his eponymous tale. Sybil and her sister have esoteric tendencies that seem to mock Nabokov, just as Joanne Rowling caricatures Professor Trelawney. For both, this mockery is finally turned back on itself to the surprise of the reader: Trelawney, the Divinations imposter, demonstrates a hidden capability for authentic prophecy, just as the Vane sisters surprisingly announce themselves by dictation from the beyond. 

ADAThe magical and miraculous is not foreign to the world of Nabokov’s novels. Parallel and counter-worlds are not the exception there but the rule; scholars speak of his “two-world cosmology.” His Hogwarts is called “Antiterra”, the parallel planet in his late novel Ada. From there, too, one gains the habit-destroying perspective on the world, which is seen anew via ostranenie, as the Russian formalists call it. Chesterton called it the mooreeffoc effect: to perceive the world as alien as the coffeeroom when one is sitting within its very interior. 

VVN4Nabokov did not have to force himself to see this way. Personally, he shared Mr Weasley’s attitude and wondered, albeit fearfully, about the telephone and electricity, as he was astonished about space and time. We know, he said to old age, nothing about all these things. The Muggle post system was not very important to him; one of the reasons he chose to live in the hotel in Montreux, Switzerland, was the fact that there the mail traffic was conveniently and easily monitored. Even more comfortable and satisfying to him would have been a dependable owl. 

PninHarry Potter lives in a fairytale world as do the heroes of Nabokov whose work is full of fairytale motifs. He was particularly familiar with Cinderella’s transformation. Professor Pnin, who takes the wrong train and has visions of his dead parents – Pnin, who teaches as a Russian emigrant in America, where, despite his moral nobility, he is considered a slightly ridiculous figure, does not choose by accident to be holding a glass bowl the same color as Cinderella’s shoes at his “home-heating” party. Harry Potter as Cinderella, who lives as a child in the closet under the stairs and in whom a significant wizard hides, would always be well connected with the mentor Pnin. 

As with Rowling, the telling of the tale does not obscure her lucid observation of reality. Nabokov had little patience for prose which resembles painted colorful glass, through which one can no longer see anything, as he puts it in one of his tales. Such prose was even something he hated: the poet, under whose evil spell his narrator does not fall for long, undeniably has the features of a Voldemort. If his colored glass were shattered, VVN writes, the gloating soul would find itself facing a perfectly black void. This is exactly the opposite of Harry Potter, and that’s exactly what Nabokov would have liked in him: one looks more closely at the world through the fairy-tale prism. 

f192989862The view itself is an ethical one for both authors. Both take their responsibilities to the world seriously, even in a depressing way. In Nabokov’s Laughter in the Dark, the satanic Axel Rex tortures a blind man. In another book, the hero’s son is used as a living punchball and mutilated to death. He becomes the accidental victim of a power in whose portrayal Nabokov presents an allegory similar to what Joanne Rowling gives us with her Death Eater representations of the SS – Nazism and Stalinism, copied one after the other according to Galton’s ‘scientific’ eugenics. Torture is also well represented in Rowling’s children’s book. The parents of Harry’s friend Neville as well as many others lose their minds through the use of the Cruciatus Curse by Pure-Blood fanatics. 

VVN8In a more subtle way, all the deviants and outsiders in Hogwarts are tormented. Here, too, the author of Harry Potter and Nabokov are closely related. No armor of arrogance, no Mandarin attitude could ever conceal its vulnerability to the compassion readers feel with the Neville Longbottoms and Moaning Myrtles of this world. Just as Myrtle is teased for her glasses and dies in the girl’s bathroom, the ugly daughter of the writer Shade walks into the water in Pale Fire and the ever-disturbing third wheel, Lucette, rushes over the rail of a ship in Ada. The brilliant, selfish couple are to blame for their deaths. As with Rowling, the good and the evil are intertwined in Nabokov. The Eden in which Ada takes place has its satanic spots; the meaning of this novel and others is gnostically underpinned. 

Nabokov’s counter-foundation is an underived morality, principles as bare and hard as a rock. He would find its equivalent and counterpart in Harry Potter if he were reading today. Already in VVN’s early drama The Pole about Scott the polar explorer who refused to leave his whining comrades alone in the tent, the Cambridge student showed himself impressed by the British virtues. England is the last word of the play, its motto ends with the word “gentleman.” Such British virtues are taught at Hogwarts for seven years, too, although their main object is not transformation of students on a conveyor belt as dictated by a timetable. 

VVN7Quidditch is not the least of it; here is a sport that the former boxing coach would have liked if he could have played Keeper rather than Seeker. Nabokov like Rowling saw courage as the highest virtue. Harry, who refuses to kneel before Voldemort in the cemetery duel, would be a “a fellow after my heart,” as Nabokov says on another occasion. 

The young hero’s certain death in that one-on-one combat, however, was avoided. Once someone is revived even upon what seemed to have been an execution. This scene from Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, the apparent execution of the Hippogriff Buckbeak, would have reminded Nabokov of his own work. In his Invitation to a Beheading, too, the ax of the executioner falls down on the target block and the victim still manages to escape into a parallel dimension or otherworldly existence. The mystery of that other reality, in light of the possible return or unseen presence of the deceased, drives Nabokov’s works as urgently as it affects the thinking of the orphan child Harry. 

ROWLINGThere is one more reason why Nabokov would have liked Harry Potter. Admittedly, it is a bad reason, but even a Nabokov would not be immune to flattery. “The writer I really love,” says Rowling in an interview with Thomas Bodmer, “the one I really love is Nabokov. Lolita is probably my favorite novel of the twentieth century: he has everything, he is comical, tragic… There are two books whose last page makes me cry even if I haven’t re-read the previous pages. One of them is Lolita. It always works.” 

This brings up the question of what kind of literature shaped the writing of Harry Potter. Blyton’s Hanni und Nanni are definitely innocent. We are told at the end of Goblet of Fire, the most recently published Potter adventure, that Professor Trelawney has made two successful prophecies. We have witnessed one. We are naturally curious about the other. What would be the second novel whose finale never fails to make Joanne Rowling weep? It is The Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens.

f38820198The Nabokovian sighs with relief; Rowling does not admire a writer VVN despised. Dickens has the blessing of the master. In one of Nabokov’s lectures at Cornell he called the author of Two Cities a “super magician.” A rare picture this is, in an era of thick-headed folk, the picture of two literary wizards united in applause for a third. Even at Hogwarts, this does not happen every day. 

Thanks to Michael Maar for his permission to post this fifteen year old piece in rough translation. Your comments and corrections, dear reader, to include of my translation efforts, are welcome!


  1. David Llewellyn Dodds says

    Wow – ‘Maar’ – I though, is Paul Maar a literary scholar,too? – but no, this is the son of Paul Maar! I can imagine J.K. Rowling might well enjoy Paul Maar’s novels – but why do they seem never to have been translated into English? Is their playfulness with words just too elusive…?

  2. David Llewellyn Dodds says

    The things I don’t know – do ‘we’ know how good J.K. Rowling’s knowledge of German is? – maybe she has already read various of Paul Maar’s books (and Michael Maar’s study) in the original!

  3. David Llewellyn Dodds says

    Hmm… one of Paul Maar’s most famous comical fantastic novels (for young people), has a seven-day structural element: Eine Woche voller Samstage [which we might render ‘A Week Full of Saturdays’, but with wordplay as the titular character is a mysterious, exceedingly lively – and disruptive – Being (or Creature) called ‘the Sams’] (1973). And it proved the first of a series, with subsequent installments in 1980, 1992, 1996, 2002, 2009, 2011, and 2015. Now, assuming she reads German, the first three of these could have been read by J.K. Rowling while at work on Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, and each series could be seen as appearing, and so variously available for reading, contrapuntally thereafter.

    It may be that a not unusual sort of Intertextual Mania is seizing upon me, but… it would be interesting, or at least entertaining, matter for intertextual – or comparative – brooding, I suspect.

    (IMDB tells us that the first Sams movie for theatrical release is known World-wide by the English title, The Slurb, while the English “Paul Maar” Wikipedia article states, “Two films, called Das Sams and Sams in Gefahr (English name My Magical Friend Sams), have been made of the Sams books.” The German Wikipedia article on the book series has an interesting section with attention to the Dutch, Swedish, Japanese, and Russian translations – leaving me wondering if there are really no sufficiently enterprising English translators – or should that be a question about publishers?)

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