Over the course of Vladimir Nabokov’s most famous novel, 12-year-old Dolores Haze is orphaned, kidnapped, tormented, and raped by her stepfather. The pathetic, solipsistic maniac who does these things to her calls her Lolita. This is not her name, or even her nickname: The other adults in her life call her Dolly or Lola. “But in my arms,” writes the novel’s repulsive yet strangely charismatic narrator, Humbert Humbert, “she was always Lolita.” It is a name used to dehumanize a victim.
Just as Humbert is haunted by the ghost of a girl he met as a child at the seashore, the distinction between Dolores Haze and Lolita is one that should haunt any reader of the book. Lolita is a phantom in Humbert’s fever dream; the girl, Dolores Haze, whom she resembles, is the frail, vulnerable child Humbert’s obsession burns away. This same distinction has also haunted cover artists. Which do you choose to represent? The imaginary nymphet, the victim, the nymphomaniac, or something in between?
Lolita: The Story of a Cover Girl is a new book that explores this dilemma. The volume contains numerous essays by book designers, artists, and Nabokov scholars discussing the representations and misrepresentations that have graced the cover of Lolita ever since its original publication. The book’s centerpiece is the Lolita Book Cover Project, a spinoff from a popular contest that Los Angeles architect and Nabokov enthusiast John Bertram originally ran on his blog. Bertram commissioned dozens of top designers to come up with new covers for the book.
“As a novel, Lolita is very hard to classify,” Bertram tells Co.Design. “Is it a tragedy, a comedy, or a social satire? Is it about a painful love affair, or the transgression of social mores? There are also the larger ethical considerations of what is really happening in the book. Take that all together and there’s many more restrictions than opportunities to design a compelling cover.”
Because of the intertwining, sometimes contradictory interpretations of the text, and the degree to which Lolita is dehumanized and victimized by Humbert Humbert, there have been many awful covers for Lolita over the years. Whether through sloppiness, a shallow reading of the text, or sheer callousness, many Lolita covers have been complicit with Humbert Humbert in portraying Lolita as a saucy, sexually voracious nymphet, a portrayal only exacerbated by Stanley Kubrick’s 1962 adaptation of the novel.
Bertram found these covers frustrating, and these frustrations bore the project. “Many covers make the mistake of being an almost glamour shot of an older adolescent who is sexually mature,” says Bertram. “It’s a gross misreading of the book that should never be there at all. You need to portray what Lolita has gone through, but there’s not a lot of leeway between the two extremes. It begins to suggest that the girl of Lolita should not be the subject of the cover at all.”
That Lolita might be better off being left off of the cover of the book was something that Nabokov himself was acutely aware of. “I want pure colors, melting clouds, accurately drawn details, a sunburst above a receding road with the light reflected in furrows and ruts, after rain…” wrote Nabokov to his publisher. “There is one subject which I am emphatically opposed to: any kind of representation of a little girl.”
As a result, many of the best covers in Lolita: The Story of a Cover Girl are abstractions. A cover by Matt Dorfman shows phonetic positions of Humbert’s mouth as he slowly, rapturously says Lolita’s name: “the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth.” A design by Andy Pressman is just the word Lolita against a pink backdrop, so blurred and out-of-focus that it can barely be read. Yuku Shimizu’s unforgettable cover shows a wad of pink bubblegum being trod beneath a black shoe heel. Anna Żukowska-Zyśko’s cover is an ambiguous image: a ribboned ponytail hanging down over a girl’s back and a little girl’s legs squeezed shut, both at the same time.
Jamie Keenan’s cover, also an ambiguous image, is even more multifaceted. At first, it looks just like the corner of a bedroom where two walls meet the ceiling. In just that reading alone, Keenan’s design hints at the horrible connotations of what it means to see a first-person view of a ceiling in the context of the novel, but the same perspective abstracted also represents Lolita’s idealized sexuality (a little girl’s legs, clad only in her underwear) and the horrible literary acumen with which Humbert transcribes and makes us complicit in his perversions (a splayed open book, like the one the reader is holding). To me, it is the most thought-provoking design in the entire volume.
As Lolita: The Story of a Cover Girl shows, there is no one right way to design a Lolita cover. However, there is a wrong way, one that countless cover artists have done before. “No matter what else, the cover of Lolita should not collude in her exploitation,” says Bertram. “She has already gone through enough.”
Lolita – The Story Of A Cover Girl is available for purchase on Amazon.