Spring 2002

The look of Lolita

The author ‘emphatically opposed’ showing a girl on the cover. Most publishers ignored him

The function of a book jacket is to catch the potential reader’s attention – usually in an instant, and amid the visual noise of its neighbours. This is often achieved by abbreviating the book’s contents to a single image that speaks on a greater scale about the book. But what happens when these criteria are forced on a book that resists all abbreviation?

Lolita, the most famous novel by Russian émigré author Vladimir Nabokov (1899-1977) is the ultimate test case. Not only is its structure synopsis-proof, but the novel carries with it a great deal of misleading baggage thanks to the controversy surrounding its first publication. Thanks to its complexity and the taboo aspects of its contents, designers, art directors and marketers have continued to misunderstood the title, and ignored Nabokov’s own wishes, which were stated clearly in 1958.

Before assessing how Lolita has fared in the jump from verbal to visual form, it is worth looking at the raw material of the novel. In straightforward narrative terms, Lolita is the story of Paris-born Humbert Humbert’s fixation with Dolores Haze, a twelve-year-old girl whom he meets in 1947 while seeking lodgings in suburban America. Spotting her on the lawn of her widowed mother’s house, Humbert sees reincarnated the lost sweetheart of his boyhood: ‘It was the same child . . . The twenty-five years I had lived since then, tapered to a palpitating point, and vanished.’

Humbert and the girl he calls ‘Lolita’ embark on a tour of America’s motels, and soon become sexually involved – at first with her naïve consent. She escapes Humbert’s obsessive rule, and the story deteriorates into tragedy before reaching us in the form of a confession written by Humbert in prison – allegedly composed in a single draft.

Nevertheless a synopsis of this kind cannot represent the substance of Lolita. A ‘Nabokov blurb’ is an oxymoron. Twenty years before Lolita’s publication, he wrote to his then agent regarding another, much simpler book: ‘I am afraid I cannot very well send you a synopsis . . . the quality of this novel is in the way the plot is treated and not in the plot itself. Besides I am very much against my books being judged by mere descriptions of their contents.’ . . .

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Lolita is no less complex than other Nabokov works of the period. What separates it from the others, and is the reason for its mistreatment, is the fact that it at first glance appears to be fronted by something immediate, potentially controversial, and a magnet for visual clichés: the image of a sexually experienced, underage girl.