The following is an excerpt from Lolita - The Story of a Cover Girl: Vladimir Nabokov's Novel in Art and Design, edited by John Bertram and Yuri Leving. In it, 80 graphic designers reimagine the iconic cover of Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita. There are also multiple essays by Nabokov scholars on the difficulty of visually representing the themes of the classic.
Fifty-eight years after Lolita was first published, Vladimir Nabokov’s most famous novel remains firmly in the public consciousness, but more often for its misunderstood subject than for its masterful and dazzling prose. The character of Lolita, in her innumerable pop-cultural refractions (Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation is primary among them, but there are also a failed 1971 musical; a 1992 Russian-language opera; a second film, from 1997; a 1999 ‘retelling’ from Lolita’s point of view; and a recent one-man show), has come to signify something very different from what Nabokov presumably intended. Though she has acquired this misleading advance guard, the novel itself remains as potent as ever. At turns sad and hilarious, deeply disturbing and insanely clever, Lolita is an immensely rich reading experience. Still, if there ever were a book whose covers have so reliably gotten it wrong, it isLolita. This book explores why this is so.
Lolita—The Story of a Cover Girl has its genesis in “Covering Lolita,” Dieter E. Zimmer’s online gallery of close to 200 covers, spanning nearly six decades of the novel’s international publishing history. Though it is intriguing to see them arrayed together, and amusing to follow the choices made by the designers, illustrators, and publishers, it is apparent how few of them ultimately succeeded at communicating the depth and complexity of the novel. Overflowing with powerful, finely wrought imagery, Lolita also strikes with darkness and brutality. Ellen Pifer, editor of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita: A Casebook (Oxford University Press, 2003), describes it starkly as “a threnody for the destruction of a child’s life.” It is difficult to think of another book whose cover design has been as fraught with peril.
There are several factors that make Lolita such an instructive case for investigating the art of cover design. First, dozens of existing covers are available for study. Furthermore, Nabokov was not only interested generally in the covers of his books but, in particular, voiced strong opinions about how Lolita’s cover should and shouldn’t appear. (Although as Zimmer notes in his essay, included in this collection, Nabokov’s opinions evolved over time.) Nabokov wrote with great care and specificity, believing that what may appear to be textual minutiae are often crucial to a full understanding and appreciation. The publisher that chooses for its cover of Lolita a girl with long blond hair or a woman of 21 may not care about such matters. After all, “fidelity to the novel’s narrative has not been high on the list of publishers’ concerns.” This is one reason why misunderstandings and misinterpretations of Lolita still persist. It’s easy to see why a prospective reader, even at this late date, would assume that the titular character is the precocious seductress that her name has popularly and unfortunately come to signify.
Duncan White writes that “Lolita has been repeatedly misread on the cover of Lolita, and frequently in a way to make her seem a more palatable subject of sexual desire.” Kubrick’s 1962 film, with its maddeningly indelible image of Lolita (played by the actress Sue Lyon), is arguably the primary source of this interpretation. Ellen Pifer calls it “a blatant misrepresentation of Nabokov’s novel, its characters and themes. Not only does it betray the nature of the child featured in its pages; it disregards the way that the narrator, Humbert Humbert, comes to terms with his role in ruining her life.” But however misleading it was, the movie—and Adrian Lyne’s 1997 film adaption—influence our understanding of the novel to this day, especially since their images have been used unsparingly for decades to promote the book.
Is a cover responsible for fairly representing the book? Taking it a step further, can a cover even be said to have a responsibility to a fictional character, particularly one who has been abused and victimized as Lolita has? When might a cover incorporate images that are not supported by the text, and what problems could arise with such an approach?
These questions are complicated because what we know of Lolita comes from Humbert, the epitome of the unreliable narrator, charming and devious in the masterful subterfuge that is his “confession.” Many have noted that Humbert, preferring the idealization of his obsession, is largely oblivious to Lolita’s qualities as an autonomous human being—and, since she is a child, these are qualities that are still being formed. We, in turn, dependent on Humbert’s words, ultimately learn little about Lolita. Perhaps the alternate title—“Confession of a White Widowed Male”—mentioned in the fictional John Ray, Jr.’s, foreword should have been the title of the book. Or perhaps there is no woman in the text at all. One sophisticated response would be to create a cipher instead of depicting a girl, which is what Hilary Drummond has done—a synaesthetic translation of cover text into color, based on the chromatic alphabet that Nabokov described in Speak, Memory and the colors that Jean Holabird assigned them in Vladimir Nabokov: Alphabet in Color (Berkeley: Gingko Press, 2005). In Drummond’s design, the colors (placed against a flesh-tone background) spell out “Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov.”