Discovering ‘Lolita’ in its book covers

<i>This post has been corrected. See the note below for details.</i>

In his 1955 novel “Lolita,” Vladimir Nabokov gave us some of the most vivid and visual prose writing that the English language has ever known. It comes as little surprise, therefore, to learn that he had some very precise ideas about what the cover of his novel should look like.

“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,” Nabokov wrote, in a letter quoted in a new book out this month, “Lolita -- The Story of a Cover Girl: Vladimir Nabokov’s Novel in Art and Design,” edited by John Bertram and Yuri Leving, for Print Books.

Nabokov continued: “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.”


Funny thing: The very first cover of “Lolita,” a book written in English but first published in France by Olympia Press, was a simple, avocado-green rectangle. Every U.S. publisher had rejected the novel for its scandalous content, and the Olympia version looked (not entirely unwittingly) like the kind of plain package in which racy magazines were once mailed. (The house specialized in erotic literature.) Now a copy of one of those rare, first-edition soft-cover books will cost you as much as $9,500. Three years later, the first U.S. edition, from Putnam, was little more than a white square.

And, in the years that followed, many images of girls graced the covers of “Lolita” in its many editions. You can see many of them -- and some 185 works of “Lolita” graphic art in all -- at the website “Covering Lolita,” assembled by Nabokov scholar and translator Dieter E. Zimmer.

But even if a designer had followed Nabokov’s instructions to the letter, the book designer, the finished product wouldn’t have made a great book cover, says book designer John Gall in one of several interviews and essays in “Lolita -- The Story of a Cover Girl.”

Nabokov’s description of what he would like “reads beautifully but would be a complete yawner as a cover,” Gall said in a passage of the book that’s excerpted at length this week at the literary website the Millions. “It is so non-specific that it could be the cover of almost any novel ever written. A question I like to ask myself when designing a cover is: ‘Can this be the cover for any other book?’ The closer you get to a ‘yes,’ the worse off you are.”

Gall says that, especially after Stanley Kubrick’s movie adaptation of the novel, readers and editors came to expect a girl on the cover. Throughout its beautiful 258 pages, “Lolita -- The Story of a Cover Girl” reproduces many of these covers, many of which feature nudity, women’s lingerie (e.g., a Dutch language edition from the 1970s) and girls in skirts with Oxford shoes (the 1997 Vintage paperback edition and many others). A Brazilian edition juxtaposes a close-up of a young woman’s bathing suit with an image of an older man who looks a lot like Nabokov.

The more sexualized images of Lolita perpetuated by popular culture, Rachel Arons wrote in the New Yorker this week, have “very little to do with the text of Nabokov’s novel, in which Lolita is not a teen-aged seductress but a sexually abused twelve-year-old girl.”


Before “Lolita -- The Story of a Cover Girl,” Bertram held a design contest for Lolita covers (the collection can be seen in this Flickr gallery), and later commissioned several artists to create Lolita covers to be included in the book.

[For the Record, 11:25 a.m. PDT Aug. 15: An earlier version of this post stated that Bertram and Leving’s invitation to artists was displayed in a Flickr gallery, which in fact was an earlier contest.]


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