Among the problems Nabokov’s Lolita poses for the book designer, probably the thorniest is the popular misconception of the title character. She’s chronically miscast as a teenage sexpot—just witness the dozens of soft-core covers over the years. “We are talking about a novel which has child rape at its core,” says John Bertram, an architect and blogger who, three years ago, sponsored a Lolita cover competition asking designers to do better.
Now the contest is being turned into a book, due out in June and coedited by Yuri Leving, with essays on historical cover treatments along with new versions by 60 well-known designers, two-thirds of them women: Barbara deWilde, Jessica Helfand, Peter Mendelsund, and Jennifer Daniel, to name a few. They don’t shy away from frank sexuality, but they add layers of darkness and complication. And like Jamie Keenan’s cover—a claustrophobic room that morphs into a girl in her underwear—they provoke without asking readers to abdicate their responsibility.
I talked to Bertram about contending with Lolita's complexity and ethical baggage, and why the novel is cited by so many female designers as their favorite book.
What makes Lolita such rich source material for designers?
As Alice Twemlow notes in her essay about the covers, Lolita is an “embarrassment of riches”: complex, stylistically brilliant, structurally perfect, with an insidiously charming, delusional, psychopathic narrator and a dreadfully cruel and terribly bleak plot (“a threnody for the destruction of a child’s life,” as Ellen Pifer puts it) that also manages somehow to be deeply amusing. For obvious reasons, of course, it remains as controversial a novel as it was a half century ago, if not more so. And, probably helped along by Kubrick’s breezy film, and many very terrible covers, the term "Lolita" has come to popularly mean something quite the opposite of the novel’s namesake, so a designer has that to contend with as well. On the one hand, then, designers face the very real challenge of communicating some of that complexity in a cover, which can easily become overwhelming. (When John Gall weighed in on the competition, he was quick to say that he “wouldn’t give this as an assignment in a million years” to his cover design class.) On the other hand, I think there are also important ethical considerations that require careful negotiation since, whatever people may think, we are talking about a novel which has child rape at its core. Peter Mendelsund, in his wonderful blog Jacket Mechanical, discusses quite eloquently the ins and outs of designing a Lolita cover and addresses many of the pitfalls to be avoided as well.
Print Magazine: Recovering Lolita