How Do You Design “Lolita”?

Designing “Lolita” makes one examine the lust for literature, the lust for design, and the subject of the book itself – which is lust

Making Lolita look right was never going to be an easy task. Perhaps that is what prompted Vladimir Nabokov, the book’s ingenious author, to write to his American publisher, Walter J. Minton at Putnam in 1958.

“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.”

Such explicit instructions alone might have been challenging but what confounded cover designers then, and continues to do almost 65 years since the book’s publication, is getting the context of Lolita right. Who is Lolita? What should “she” and “her story” look like? Are the designers to represent the subject of the book – “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins”, or are they to represent the worldview of the narrator Humbert Humbert who is responsible for both the crime and the confession that is the story?

Copy of my 2011 Penguin Edition. Cover Photography by Monika Manowska

Lolita is a visual baggage and easy to misrepresent as is evidenced by the many covers over the decades that depict the girl at the heart of the story as a scantily-clad seductress who seems to be lying in wait, ready to lure men. The same sexual innuendos are used over and over again across book jackets – lollipops, lipsticks, heart shaped-sunglasses, underwear, and innocuous looking symbols until you look closely and they begin to take the shape of genitals (female and male, both) before your eyes. Somehow, this defeats the very concept of Lolita and introduces, what for designers is not just a design challenge, but a challenge to grasp what the story is truly about.

If there ever were a book whose covers have so reliably gotten it wrong, it is Lolita.

Rachel Arons, The New Yorker

Lolita is about abuse and obsession and rejection. And a ton of other things.

Lolita has never been about sex. It is in the simplest of words – about pedophilia and incest. It is about the destruction of a child’s life. The book has been the center of public debate precisely for these reasons and why it found itself banned in several countries including Britain, France, New Zealand, and Argentina when it was first published.

Lolita is a complex story, featuring a delusional narcissistic narrator who is also in a slightly evil way quite charming, and a stylistically written prose which gives life to a dark plot. The book is also about love, one-sided and cruel. Then there is Lolita herself, an innocent, abused child who is the target of an insane obsession, giving the book its most powerful and shocking quality. None of this is easy to represent visually for how do you take a psychologically dark story and compress it into a single image?

Design by Barbara deWilde

The popular misconception of the title character has been responsible for how Lolita is understood in popular culture and (unfortunately) what the book is known for instead of its powerful prose and vivid imagery. Lolita is often misrepresented as a teen seductress when in fact, in the book, she is only a child of 12 lingering on the edge of puberty. Barbra Churchill, in her book – The Lolita Phenomenon, writes,

The Lolita image has so pervaded popular consciousness that even those who have never read the book usually know what it means to call a girl “Lolita”. The moniker “Lolita,” translated into the language of popular culture, means a sexy little number, a sassy ingénue, a bewitching adolescent siren. “

The discrepancy between what the novel is about and the cover designs couldn’t be more inaccurate. Many of the covers take the liberty of taking the book’s themes selectively and taking them too far. Many covers feature objects that indirectly represented Lolita or her vulnerability, others focus on the theme of obsession, both of which are palatable. But many still, just show Lolita as an alluring sex kitten.

Design by F Gallimard, Paris 1990

Designing a cover for Lolita is something that illustrators have taken up as a challenge. Dieter E. Zimmer, a Nabokov scholar has compiled about 200 covers from across the world that keep coming out every year, in an online gallery. This gallery serves as evidence for the long and strange design history of one of the most important novels of English literature of the 20th century.

Design by Michael Bierut

The cover of a book has the power to influence how we understand the story contained within it. What represents the story can throw light upon, distort or even invent situations that are not consistent with the actual story.

Which brings us to this question.

Do designers have a responsibility to faithfully represent a book?

No matter how well we know and try to abide by the maxim – “never judge a book by its cover” – we continue to pick up books from shelves because they attract us visually. Any cover that looks different from all the other covers around it, that cover is going to draw your eye (and hopefully, your wallet). Interesting designs, bold, and clever artwork are all bound to make you pick up a book. But even a book that looks bland otherwise, say a book with a white cover with minimal text is going to stand out if it is surrounded by colorful book covers. The point is – book covers need to pop when they compete for a buyer’s attention as against all the other books lined on the shelves.

Design by Peter Mendelsund

Trying to understand why have so many covers over the decades have misrepresented Nabokov’s characters and the novel is a conundrum in itself. Is it because the theme of the book was never properly understood? Or is it because sexualization of the story made it more profitable for the publishing industry? While sex is very much a part of the story, many covers have taken it dramatically out of context and played it up as the more important subject. Was this to ensure book sales continued to drive up?

Designers have tremendous power when they are tasked with designing a cover for a book but it is also a huge responsibility. Today, Lolita signifies something very different from what it’s creator intended, partly because the book’s covers added or changed its meaning. Most designers agree that while creative liberty is at the core of their work they try hard to design a cover that is not in opposition to what the author actually intends to convey.

This calls for a sort of meditation on what it means to create a cover for a complicated book like Lolita.

How is a problem like designing “Lolita” to be solved?

How can Lolita be represented faithfully? What should Lolita look like? Lolita exists only through the voice of Humbert Humbert, the narrator and the very man responsible for her degradation, so how far is he to be believed? What about looking at Lolita from Lolita’s point-of-view? Does she suffer? Does she show agony? Indifference? Fear? What stuff is she made of? The question has dogged designers since 1955.

Cover of the 1955 French edition of Lolita

The cover of the first French edition of Lolita is quite boring and some might also call it ugly. The original green hardback design is hardly meaningful. What is such a blank cover supposed to convey anyway?

Designing covers for difficult books like Lolita call for a new way of thinking visually. This is not just an exercise in reading the literature but also looking at it through the lens of design and visual communication. It demands bravery and openness of interpretation. The way literature is interpreted depends entirely on the reader’s personal style, the point of view of critics and the illustrator’s imagination – which further adds to the challenge of designing Lolita.

In 2013, John Bertram and Yuri Leving published their book – Lolita: The Story of a Cover Girl, Vladimir Nabokov’s Novel in Art and Design which features essays, commentaries and covers designed by illustrators from around the world which try to capture the true essence of Lolita – her lost youth, her dehumanization, and the immensely rich reading experience the book is. It shows just how few designers have been able to covey the complexity and the depth of Lolita. Mary Gaitskill writes in an introductory essay in the book, that no cover could ever succeed in fully expressing the “impossible, infernal combinations” of love and cruelty contained in “Lolita.”

Jamie Keenan’s design is one of the cleverest. A claustrophobic room that on a closer look begins to take the shape of pink thighs and an underwear.

Even though Nabokov eventually rescinded his dictum of not using any representation of a girl on the cover, it hasn’t made the designing of the cover any easier. Synthesizing a brutal, bleak and yet, a structurally perfect story in a static image continues to remain a challenge and no matter how many covers are created, not one of them can be called truly perfect. As Nabokov wrote in a letter to publisher Walter J Minton in 1958 from Ithaca, New York

If we cannot find that kind of artistic and virile painting, let us settle for an immaculate white jacket (rough texture paper instead of the usual glossy kind), with LOLITA in bold black lettering.

For a novel which continues to be up for debate even now, perhaps a blank cover is the most sound interpretation.

Do you have a favorite Lolita book cover? Why do you love it?

By Sanskriti Nagar

I'm a storyteller on a journey - to connect people with places, the past with the present, the contemporary with the traditional. I'm just stepping into the shoes of an explorer, aspiring to be a globetrotter, and someday, a novelist. Follow me through my journeys, and if something does resonate with you, or you'd like me to cover a story for you, I'd love to catch up. (PS: I love coffee!)

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