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Judging Lolita by Her Cover
February 19, 2010 9:06 AM   Subscribe

As Dieter Zimmer’s online exhibit "Covering Lolita" shows, it started with a plain green jacket. [Note: Some links include images which may be NSFW.]

Cover art for Vladimir Nabokov's controversial work Lolita then falls into two primary categories: non-representational or abstract, and titillating sexual imagery (here, and others), including now-familiar enduring film images.

This presentation of Nabokov's work, and the implication of Lolita-as-temptress, incurred the ire of architect, photographer and blogger John Bertram. Bertram issued a challenge for a redesign of covers for Lolita. The entries are in, and a winner of the $350 first prize has been chosen. In reviewing the results and talking about the judging process, Bertram explained that he received but avoided the "lingerie, lollipops, roses, hearts, lipstick prints, butterflies, heart shaped sunglasses, and overtly sexual poses" that have become culturally linked with our conception of this book. Winner Lyuba Haleva, a freelance graphic designer from Bulgaria, has explained her inspiration.
posted by bunnycup (40 comments total) 28 users marked this as a favorite

 
This cover is ridiculous. She looks 21!
posted by milestogo at 9:13 AM on February 19, 2010


I think this one is probably the best for my tastes, because IMO it sets up a nice contrast to all the sexualization that Dolores gets in Humbert's narration. Any time you're reading the novel and thinking 'Gee, what a swell couple! I sure am glad they found each other and got rid of that old bat that was keeping them apart!' you could simply flip back to the cover and go 'OHCHRIST SHE'S A CHILD.'
posted by shakespeherian at 9:20 AM on February 19, 2010 [5 favorites]


Wow ... those covers take a huge leap forward in creepiness whenever they put a photo (or even a realistic drawing/painting) of a young girl's face. It's saying "THIS is Lolita" and, I don't know about you, but I can do well without that information. The most successful covers are, in my eyes, the ones that evoke that girl without making anything too specific: the one that was used in Kubrick movie poster and then the waist-down shot of the girl in the patent leather shoes: they seem sweet and innocent ... well, until you read the book anyway.
posted by rattenweiler at 9:26 AM on February 19, 2010


He doesn't have my 2002 EKSMO-Press Russian edition. which uses this gorgeous Klimt for the cover.
posted by languagehat at 9:29 AM on February 19, 2010


Awful lot of licking going on in these covers. I'm just saying.
posted by rusty at 9:30 AM on February 19, 2010


I actually sort of like that "non-representational one," which to me cleverly represents the a parcel in plain brown wrapping paper. It's missing an earlier Yugoslav one, which was kind of nice as I remember it - a photo of a girl with sad eyes.

This cover is ridiculous. She looks 21!

That's interesting, because I can see your point. But in my part of the world (and that one is from Turkey so it counts), that would definitely have been a mod young teenager's haircut in 1959 and few would have mistaken anyone with a haircut like that for anything but a young teenaged girl (or more specifically, a young teenaged girl trying to look a little more mature than she probably was. I'd put her at 15, given the times.)

I count Lolita as one of the most hysterically funny books I've ever read. I read it every few years to make sure I'm correct in thinking that. But when I mention it to people, they think I'm odd!
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 9:35 AM on February 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


I agree with rattenweiler about the realistic/photo covers. They just don't work for me.

H. Humbert doesn't see Lolita as a real person. She's a sexualized object or emblem. That's why I prefer the more abstract covers.
posted by mmmbacon at 9:36 AM on February 19, 2010 [3 favorites]


Maybe the "Virgin Killer" cover could be repurposed here.
posted by kafziel at 9:52 AM on February 19, 2010 [2 favorites]


Any time you're reading the novel and thinking 'Gee, what a swell couple! I sure am glad they found each other and got rid of that old bat that was keeping them apart!' ...

Wait, what Lolita are you talking about?
posted by zoomorphic at 9:53 AM on February 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


Before I clicked any of the links, I saw, "Covering Lolita," and "plain green jacket," on the front page and thought this post must be about some religious nut thinking young girls were dressing like sluts and forcibly putting jackets around them.

Turns out this is more interesting than that.
posted by The Potate at 9:56 AM on February 19, 2010


Among the contest entries, this cover really misses the point.
posted by The Potate at 10:00 AM on February 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


I would have liked the winner a lot better if it weren't for the drop shadow.

But aside from that, I think this is really interesting, and ties into a problem a lot of fiction has. The covers have only a peripheral relationship to the actual content and themes of the interior of the book. Maybe I notice this more because of my preference for speculative fiction, but... I've read a number of fairly feminist books where the publisher elected to put a nearly-naked woman on the cover, which has always disturbed me. And to a lesser degree, a lot of books where the person on the cover does not bear the slightest representation to the character they're supposed to be--wrong age, wrong skin color, whatever.

This seems in a way to boil down to the same thing. The marketing department thinks something titillating will boost sales, but titillation is directly contrary to the message of the book. Unfortunately, when marketing and literature come into conflict, it's usually marketing that wins.
posted by larkspur at 10:02 AM on February 19, 2010


Ugh - as a huge fan of Lolita and an illustrator some of these are just ..awful. I wish I still had one of my student works, It was a cover for Lolita which showed a motel in a rear-view mirror and the faint outline of a girl's head beside it done in (what I thought was) a good copy of a 50s line-art style.

Maybe I should re do it ....
posted by The Whelk at 10:11 AM on February 19, 2010 [2 favorites]


Yeah, some of the contest entries were horrible, like straight-out-of-Intro-to-Pagemaker horrible.

And yeah, Dee Xtrovert, Lolita and Humbert are hilarious (although I know I didn't get half the multi-language puns and whatnot), but that doesn't mean that Humbert isn't a slimeball.
posted by infinitewindow at 10:20 AM on February 19, 2010


Yeah, the titillating covers completely miss the point. Nabokov played with genre in Lolita, and he made sure to undermine all the traditional story arcs: a pornographic work whose sex scene is consummated without detail (some vague sentence about pinning down the elusive magic of nymphs), a whodunit mystery where the killer is given away in the foreword, a "romance" that ends with a stillbirth rather than a happy family, a comedy that is deeply, deeply sad. The genre-reversals parody and thwart the concept of climax, both literar..ily and sexually.

Also, Lolita had auburn hair, people.
posted by zoomorphic at 10:23 AM on February 19, 2010


I thought this one from Amsterdam captured the tone of the book really well--I like the look on Lolita's face.
posted by not that girl at 10:29 AM on February 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


“Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita is masterpiece of human frailty and inspiration. In my design I attempted to convey the duality of Humbert’s image of perfection. The reality and idealization of his obsession form a pair of wings which take the imagination to soaring heights and abysmal lows. Desire, intellect, sexuality and innocence mix to create an intoxicating cocktail. Love, even in its unorthodox form has the power to elevate and enlighten us.”

Dosen't look anything like this at all. There is no contrast between the "reality" and "idealization". Which is which? It's the same image.

This cover is also in no way a contrast to the "implication of Lolita-as-temptress that incurred the ire" of Bertram. The child love object is just as sexualized and seductively posed as in any other cover. In fact it's close to the extreme of this.

Dissonance in art critique is a red flag to me.
posted by clarknova at 10:30 AM on February 19, 2010


also these.
posted by Lutoslawski at 10:34 AM on February 19, 2010


This one strikes me as the freshest take on the subject. Lolita's sexual content is too often over emphasized. And granted, that's how you sell books, but the real story is violence: physical, emotional, psychological, imposed, self-imposed, etc. And of course, Humbert would never have even composed his text if not for a gun . . . . Clearly, this should have won.

Heh.
posted by barrett caulk at 10:44 AM on February 19, 2010 [4 favorites]


This is a really interesting idea (the collection, that is) and post. I'd like to see it done for other books. I imagine that designing book covers is, well, hard. You have to serve a lot of masters: the content, the marketing department, the Communist Party, etc. A lot of these designers seem to have done pretty well.
posted by MarshallPoe at 11:01 AM on February 19, 2010


That's interesting, because I can see your point. But in my part of the world (and that one is from Turkey so it counts), that would definitely have been a mod young teenager's haircut in 1959 and few would have mistaken anyone with a haircut like that for anything but a young teenaged girl (or more specifically, a young teenaged girl trying to look a little more mature than she probably was. I'd put her at 15, given the times.)

People seem to forget — even if they read it every few years! — but Dolores Haze is twelve when Humbert and she meet, and still twelve when she comes home from camp and Humbert and she start having sex. (And still only 14 when she runs off with Quilty.) She's not a young teenager trying to look mature; Lolita is a "nymphet" just entering puberty, and only "an artist and a madman" like Humbert "can see the deadly little demon among the wholesome children". Depicting her as a visibly sexually mature young woman (as they have to in the movies to get them made) rather than a child misses the point completely; Humbert isn't just a creep, he's a deranged pervert. I think this one gets it.
posted by nicwolff at 11:20 AM on February 19, 2010 [4 favorites]


Humbert isn't just a creep, he's a deranged pervert.

This gets +5 on getting the age right and a big -20 for being the
creepiest cover that gets right to the point.
posted by geoff. at 11:59 AM on February 19, 2010


Nicwolff, that Chen one is really good, very evocative of the passage where Humbert is looking at the school photo of Dolores' class, making lists, etc.
posted by The Whelk at 12:13 PM on February 19, 2010


I like this one; it's very unsettling.
posted by fancyoats at 1:02 PM on February 19, 2010 [2 favorites]


And this one misses in the other direction — Humbert is just 36 or 37 when he meets Lolita, not an old bald fat man.

Anecdotally, I remember reading this edition on the beach at the Cape some years ago and realizing only later why nearby families were giving me the stink-eye.
posted by nicwolff at 1:06 PM on February 19, 2010


It's sooo frustrating how wrong you all are about this. ARGH!
posted by barrett caulk at 1:20 PM on February 19, 2010


This cover is also in no way a contrast to the "implication of Lolita-as-temptress that incurred the ire" of Bertram. The child love object is just as sexualized and seductively posed as in any other cover.

I see a distinction between a cover like this or this, in which a sexualized, adultified Lolita is apparently caught in the act of some sort of physical tease, where she's portrayed as active in her own sexualization, versus depictions more like the winner's. In the winner's, her sexualization seems to me to be passive, the result of Humbert's (perverted, distorted) views rather than her own activity.
posted by bunnycup at 1:44 PM on February 19, 2010


I can't tell if you're joking, nicwolff, but that's a picture of Nabokov.
posted by seventyfour at 1:53 PM on February 19, 2010


Tangentially, has anyone else here seen Adrian Lyne's vile 1997 film version? DON'T. It's like being hit with truncheons. I'm convinced it was that movie that drove Jeremy Irons insane and he started doing things like The Time Machine and Dungeons and Dragons and murdering prostitutes.
posted by Skot at 1:53 PM on February 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


I actually liked Lyne's film better than the utter piece of crap that Stanley Kubrick made of it. It baffles me that his version is apparently considered a masterpiece.
posted by kyrademon at 3:31 PM on February 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


The winning entry might be ok without the drop shadow on the wings. I can't tell.

Some of my favorites: disturbing scrunchie, first line, jezebel's favorite, shoes, only good lollipop one, and paint-by-numbers.

As you might guess from my user name, I'm a huge Nabokov fan. Love this post.
posted by Dolores Haze at 6:27 PM on February 19, 2010


That scrunchie is so disturbing.
posted by The Whelk at 6:32 PM on February 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


Issue 4, I think, of McSweeney's had a piece on the various paperback covers that Lolita has appeared under. The author was Paul Maliszewski; I could look that up online but I don't have the actual book (or box of pamphlets, I think this issue was) in front of me. It included a big collection of cover images, perhaps bigger than Zimmer's.

Anyway, I remember that the main theme of the piece was Nabokov's discontent with the art on covers of paperback editions of his work, especially Lolita. He hated anything with an actual image of a girl on it, and asked his publisher to use images of butterflies instead. Probably a specific species, but, again, I don't have it in front of me right now...
posted by mr_roboto at 7:05 PM on February 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


What a fine line it is between art and pornography. I keep feeling like I should look over my shoulder to ensure the cp police aren't about to knock down my door.

I think this one is probably the best for my tastes, because IMO it sets up a nice contrast to all the sexualization that Dolores gets in Humbert's narration. . . . 'OHCHRIST SHE'S A CHILD.'

I guess it's an issue of over-exposure to lolicon, but for me, there isn't that much contrast. That is exactly what it is, although most of the girls I've known who dress so simply and childishly are in or near their majority. It's intriguing for me, and I am continually wrapping and rewrapping my mind around it.
posted by rubah at 7:50 PM on February 19, 2010


Well the big thing for me is that Dolores is a real defined character that Humbert refuses to see, he sees only Dolores, and only in a few, feverish mythical moments, the more she becomes a real person the less he wants to do with her, she even tries to pimp out her more "mature" friend to him to get him off her back while he's constantly measuring her growth and weight and development. Humbert knows he's a creep, knows he's chasing a corrupt fantasy but he cloaks himself in his wit and intellect and aristocratic airs so he can mock himself while still doing whatever he wants. Quilty is his mirror image as a decadent, the stubby professor with his chocolates of "real liquor" is him stripped of pretense in a pathetic setting - Humbert stands in the middle, mocking his desire and perusing it with vigor. Lolita consumes his thoughts but he never thinks about Dolores.

Pity poor Charloette, who loves Humbert completely and without pretense, who couldn't see the monster behind the mask and fell completely, as all her Women's Magazines and radio shows told her, for a big strong educated man, a European at that! to come and sweep her off her feet. Even Humbert couldn't be so cruel as to shatter her fantasy, just like he refuses, until the very end, to shatter his own.
posted by The Whelk at 8:12 PM on February 19, 2010 [3 favorites]


"he only sees Loltia, and only" grar
posted by The Whelk at 8:13 PM on February 19, 2010


Holy shit.
posted by ferdinand.bardamu at 9:59 PM on February 19, 2010


That scrunchie is so disturbing.

It is. And then I saw this cover.
posted by crossoverman at 3:08 AM on February 20, 2010


It is. And then I saw this cover.

Whoa. That cover is....whoa.
posted by Lutoslawski at 9:32 AM on February 22, 2010


I thought Kubrick's version was faithful to the tone of the novel; Lynes' faithful to the details.

Jeremy Irons gave me the creeps long before Lolita was released.
posted by brujita at 12:57 AM on February 23, 2010


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