Brain Pickings

The Story of a Cover Girl: Leading Designers and Illustrators Reimagine Nabokov’s Lolita

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“Love itself is not selfish, devouring or cruel, but in human beings it suffers a terrible coexistence with those qualities.”

“I am a slave of images,” Vladimir Nabokov declared through his character John Krug, the brilliant philosopher in Bend Sinister. In fact, the author himself — a man of notoriously strong opinions — was both a slave of images himself and an exacting master seeking to enslave them. He famously instructed publishers on how to — and how not to — cover his 1955 masterpiece Lolita, one of literary history’s most controversial classics:

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. And no girls. … Who would be capable of creating a romantic, delicately drawn, non-Freudian and non-juvenile, picture for LOLITA (a dissolving remoteness, a soft American landscape, a nostalgic highway—that sort of thing)? There is one subject which I am emphatically opposed to: any kind of representation of a little girl.

He eventually rescinded his dictum, but it endures as emblematic of Lolita’s demanding complexity and the strain it places on any attempt to synthesize that conflicting intricacy in a static image. That’s precisely what Lolita: The Story of a Cover Girl (public library) addresses through a magnificent collection of concept covers for the Nabokov classic, which editors John Bertram and Yuri Leving describe as planted “firmly in the public consciousness, but more often for its misunderstood subject than for its masterful and dazzling prose,” by eighty of the world’s most celebrated graphic designers and illustrators, including such favorites as Paula Scher, Jessica Hische, and Debbie Millman. Featuring a number of essays on the novel’s cover history, its evolving pop culture interpretations, and the challenging art of cover design, the book presents the most exhaustive and dimensional topography of Lolita’s cultural landscape examined through the lens of design and visual communication.

Jamie Keenan

Linn Olofsdotter

In the preface, celebrated author and Guggenheim Fellow Mary Gaitskill reflects on the appalling blurb Vintage printed on what’s considered the most successful Lolita cover of all time — “The only convincing love story of the century,” taken from a review by Vanity Fair’s Gregor von Rezzori — and reflects on the chronically misunderstood dualities at the heart of the Nabokov classic:

Lolita is not about love, because love is always mutual; Lolita is about obsession, which is never, ever love, and Nabokov himself was so disappointed that people did not understand this and take away the right message… For how could anyone call this feeding frenzy of selfishness, devouring, and destruction “love”?

How vigorously Henry Miller would nod in agreement. But Gaitskill goes on to demonstrate that no one-dimensional interpretation is better than any other, for Lolita is above all about our contradictory multiplicity of selves:

Lolita is about obsession and narcissistic appetite, misogyny and contemptuous rejection, not only of women, but of humanity itself. And yet. It is also about love; if it were not, the book would not be so heart-stoppingly beautiful.

[…]

Purity of feeling must live and breathe in the impure gardens of our confused, compromised, corrupt, and broken hearts. Love itself is not selfish, devouring or cruel, but in human beings it suffers a terrible coexistence with those qualities. . . . In most people, this contradiction will never take the florid form it takes in Humbert Humbert. But such impossible, infernal combinations are there in all of us, and we know it. That Lolita renders this human condition at such an extreme, so truthfully, and yes, as von Rezorri says, convincingly, is the book’s most shocking quality. It is why it will never be forgotten. It is also why no one will ever succeed in describing it fully on a book jacket. But how wonderful that so many have tried.

And try they did. Given no conceptual constraints and liberated from the marketing burden of using the cover as an actual sales tool, the eighty designers — ranging from in-house talent from major publishing houses to notable freelancers — brought to the subject uncommon freedom of thought and bravery of interpretation, with graphics spanning from the unabashedly provocative to the brilliantly subtle. Some intentionally violated Nabokov’s “no girls” injunction, others winked at it irreverently and assaulted it obliquely, while others still paid full heed and went with the expressly metaphorical. (Though, as John Gall thoughtfully admonishes in one of the chapters, “the land of metaphor is filled with furrows and ruts and roads going off into the distance.”)

Michael Bierut

Ellen Lupton

In the introduction, aptly titled “Colorful Misunderstandings, Graphic Misinterpretations,” John Bertram and Yuri Leving consider what it is about both the intricacies of cover design in general and the challenge of the Nabokov classic in particular that rendered Lolita so near-impossible to capture visually:

The book cover is also paratextual material that has the potential to influence the reading of a text: It may distort or illuminate, editorialize, and even invent subjects and situations that do not exist in the text.

[…]

Taken as a whole, the gallery acts as a kind of barometer: a series of likely stories and hypotheses, each of which may be tested by the reader’s own criteria. No single cover stands out as definitive or can be taken as representative; rather, the images and the essays are intended to work in concert instead of providing a unified response. Ultimately, it remains for informed readers to determine how well the designs satisfy the criteria they themselves bring to the book.

The Heads of State

Jessica Hische

Paula Scher

In one of the essays, the inimitable Alice Twemlow, founder and chair of the MFA in Design Criticism at New York’s School of Visual Arts, offers a taxonomy of the four main classes of designs: Those employing objects, spelling out Lolita’s name “as if rebuilding her into a whole from the banal accoutrements of her daily life”; the ones focusing on Humbert’s worldview and the experience of obsession; those primarily based on mood, constructing a foreboding sense of “Humbert’s looming homburg-hat-wearing presence, always in the peripheral vision of Lolita’s life”; and the strictly typographic ones, which embrace Nabokov’s pure prose and, most frequently, Humbert’s opening salvo, “his love letter to language and to Lolita in her kaleidoscopically glimpsed facets.”

Debbie Millman

Andy Pressman

Henry Sene Yee

Lolita: The Story of a Cover Girl is a rare gem at the intersection of lust for literature and lust for design, and a superb addition to these art and design projects inspired by literary classics.

Images courtesy of John Bertram

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