Revisioning Nabokov’s Lolita

March 9, 2012 by · Leave a Comment 

Since its publication in 1955, Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, one of Western literature’s undisputed masterpieces, has provoked no end of controversy, veneration, outrage, and analysis. On an interpretive level, the novel appears virtually inexhaustible; it is perhaps no wonder that it also serves as a bountiful fount of inspiration for graphic designers. (The image at left is from the 2011 Finnish edition, with cover art by Jenni Noponen.) The online Covering Lolita project gathers together “185 book and media covers from 37 countries and 56 years,” along with information about each edition’s country of origin, publication date, publisher, and translator(s).

After viewing this gallery in 2009, architect and blogger John Bertram, author of the blog Venus Febrisculosa, issued an open challenge to designers to come up with their own covers for the iconic work. Bertram received 155 entries from 105 designers spread out across thirty-four countries. Judging the submissions, Bertram writes, was “an extremely difficult exercise”:

In judging the submissions I tended to avoid lingerie, lollipops, roses, hearts, lipstick prints, butterflies, heart shaped sunglasses, and overtly sexual poses (as well as the unexpected recurring themes of swings and Rorschach blots) which by now have been indelibly linked to the cultural concept “Lolita” if not the novel itself. It’s important to keep in mind that the novel may be considered a love story, but it’s not Lolita who is in love.  And, of course, well beyond that one can explore the brutality and humor of the novel, the beauty of the prose and the cleverness of the wordplay. This is a tall order for a book cover, and of necessity draconian choices must be made.

Bertram chose a cover by Bulgarian designer Lyuba Haleva as the winner, and that might have been the end of it, except for the fact that in 2010 Bertram was approached by New Zealand translator and professor Marco Sonzogni about including the contest entries in a book, which would be augmented by essays and other commissioned designs.

An article on the imprint website has more information about the upcoming volume, which is set to appear in June, and will be

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.

One of the participants in the project is David A. Gee, who is in the front rank of Canadian book cover designers. His contribution, pictured at right, is fabulously subtle and provocative. (It’s the dot above the “i” that pushes this over the edge of creepily clever into the realm of scarily brilliant.) In Gee’s own words: “I wanted to pay tribute to the sex (Lolita), the violence (Humbert), and the carefully clinical, yet florid, inner workings of the text itself (Nabokov) all at once.”

Other Canadian designers attached to the project include Ingrid Paulson and Michel Vrana. This is definitely a book worth keeping an eye out for.

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