Re-designing Lolita

New book Lolita: The Story of a Cover Girl explores the challenges of creating a cover for Vladimir Nabokov’s 1955 novel and features new interpretations from 80 graphic designers.

New book Lolita: The Story of a Cover Girl explores the challenges of creating a cover for Vladimir Nabokov’s 1955 novel and features new interpretations from 80 graphic designers.

“I want pure colours, melting clouds, accurately drawn details, a sunburst above a receding road with the light reflected in furrows and ruts, after rain. And no girls.”

This is how Russian novelist Vladimir Nabokov imagined the cover of his 1955 novel Lolita, a fictional memoir documenting middle-aged professor Humbert Humbert’s obsession with and lust for his 12-year-old stepdaughter. Nabokov wanted a cover design that was “romantic, delicately drawn, non-Freudian and non-juvenile”. What he got was an avocado rectangle with the novel’s name in black serif type.

When Lolita was first released, it was widely condemned as ‘pornographic filth’ and rejected by US publishers. Since then, it’s become one of the most celebrated novels of the twentieth century, but its controversial subject matter still poses a challenge for cover artists.

Lolita has been re-imagined by hundreds of designers around the world – you can watch Nabokov examining a few examples for a US documentary, below – but few have captured the novel’s complexity and many have wrongly portrayed Lolita as a promiscuous or sexually mature adolescent rather than the freckly, stubborn pre-teen Nabokov describes.

L.A.-based architect John Bertram, co-editor of a new book exploring the challenges of distilling Nabokov’s text into a single, iconic image titled Lolita: The Story of a Cover Girl, says the book is notoriously difficult for designers to “pin down”.

“Lolita transcends typical definitions such as tragedy, comedy, love story and satire while embodying each and all of these. Much has been made of the fact that Humbert Humbert, the imprisoned murderer and child rapist awaiting trial, is a most unreliable narrator, and of course it is through Humbert’s eyes that we see Lolita, which can be most problematic for a designer.

“The fact that Lolita is so abused and victimised, but ultimately also so unknown, makes it difficult to portray her on the cover, and I don’t think any designer has quite succeeded,” he explains.

Bertram’s book, co-edited by Nabokov Online Journal editor Yuri Leving, includes 12 essays on Lolita covers by a selection of authors, critics and designers.

These include John Gall, a creative director at Abrams books and former art director at Vantage; Alice Twemlow, a design writer and educator; and Sian Cook, a senior lecturer at London College of Communications, who worked on a visual essay in partnership with the Royal College of Art’s associate dean, Teal Triggs, as The Women’s Design Research Unit. It also features 80 new covers from an impressive line-up of designers.

The book was inspired by Dieter Zimmer’s online gallery, Covering Lolita, a collection of 185 Lolita cover designs from 36 countries which shows common misinterpretations of the text. Many of the covers featured use the sexualised image of Lolita in heart-shaped sunglasses from Stanley Kubrick’s 1962 film adaptation of the book.

After visiting the site, Bertram launched a competition inviting designers and artists to re-interpret the cover and received more than 100 entries. He was invited by Leving to write an article on the competition, and later decided to publish a book on the subject.

“There was something about seeing [the covers] arrayed en masse that magnified each individual misstep into a monumental failing, by which I mean an egregious misreading of the book. In one sense, the promotional photographs by Bert Stern of the actress Sue Lyon for Kubrick’s film adaptation are the worst thing that could have happened to the novel…this false image of Lolita eclipsed all others, instantly became ubiquitous, and has proved indelible.

“As a result, it has been extremely difficult to break away from this notion of Lolita as an older, more sexually mature, lollipop-loving figure especially as the word ‘Lolita’ has come to mean a promiscuous and sexually predatory girl…I wanted to see what designers would come up with if they were freed from the constraints imposed by publishers and art directors,” he says.

Lolita: The Story of a Cover Girl is a reminder of the monumental challenge that faces cover designers tasked with interpreting classic texts. It’s also a fascinating insight into the impact that graphic design can have on our interpetation or understanding of a book – for those who haven’t read Lolita, and have only glanced at Kubrick-inspired covers, it would appear the text is a racy piece of erotica rather than a dark and difficult novel.

The book is an attempt to re-imagine Lolita without relying on unimaginative text-only designs or images of suspenders and curvy females, and includes some thoughtful, rich and sensitive new designs such as Andy Pressman’s (above) – which features the novel’s name in blurred text on a pink background – and Jamie Keenan’s (below), a suggestive shot of the corner of a room.

“In Andy’s cover I see the tragedy that Lolita was unknown to Humbert and therefore will always and evermore remain unknowable to us. I think the saddest and most beautiful part of the novel is where Humbert writes that “there was in her a garden and a twilight, and a palace gate – dim and adorable regions which happened to be lucidly and absolutely forbidden to me.”

“Jamie’s cover is brilliant, but in a different way. Here is a corner of a room, in all its banality, and yet the perspective is likely Lolita’s own, lying in a bed, and suddenly the whole wretchedness and poignancy of the novel comes flooding in. At the same time, the walls form unmistakably an opened book, and the walls and ceiling abstractly form the legs and underwear of Lolita,” says Bertram.

Lolita: The Story of a Cover Girl is priced at $18 and is available to buy on Amazon.

Images (from top): cover designs by Yuko Shimizu; Matt Dorfman; Jason Polan; Rachel Berger; Ellen Lupton; Michael Bierut; Andy Pressman & Jamie Keenan.

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