Lolita is a notorious book. Even today, as it celebrates its sixtieth anniversary, readers can hardly fail to be shocked by its subject matter. It's also a book that designers have wrestled with, on a visual level, for decades. John Bertram, author of Lolita: The Story of a Cover Girl, describes it as “an erudite, nuanced work by a master prose stylist, who agonised over every word. It features an unreliable narrator and a storyline in which child sexual abuse figures prominently. It is a tragedy, a comedy, and, improbably, a love story.” Couple this with the dissemination of the term ‘Lolita', which has come to signify a certain kind of sexuality, rather than the child abuse the book depicts, and the result is a novel that continues to challenge even the most accomplished graphic designers around the world.
“I want pure colours, melting clouds, accurately drawn details, a sunburst above a receding road with the light reflected in furrows and ruts, after rain. And no girls,” were Nabokov's own equally demanding and puzzling instructions on to how to illustrate the book. In a note to an editor, the author himself seemed uncertain as to who could craft an appropriate visual representation, questioning, “Who would be capable of creating a romantic, delicately drawn, non-Freudian and non-juvenile, picture for LOLITA?”
Nabokov was right to wonder. His no girls rule, in particular, has been repeatedly flouted by both publishers and designers over the years. Stanley Kubrick's 1962 film adaptation has also played a major part in the book's perception. “In particular one arresting promotional image of actress Sue Lyon (with lollipop and heart-shaped sunglasses) taken by photograph Bert Stern really influenced how Lolita came to be viewed,” comments Bertram who, finding himself disappointed with the novel's history of tasteless covers, launched a project in 2013 that asked designers to rethink the book's visual identity.
“The provocative nature of so many published covers is such an egregious misreading of the novel that, of all books, this one practically demands that the record be set straight,” comments Bertram, on his motivation behind the project. .Initially setting the project as an open competition, he admits to being disappointed by many of the covers that fell back on typical motifs – lollipops, roses, hearts, butterflies, lingerie and lipstick, to name a few. It was his decision to actively commission professional book designers that resulted in a collection of accomplished and varied new covers, ranging from the darkly suggestive to the purely typographic, challenging publishers' propensity to fall back on the stereotypical girl image. “It's interesting because I think many of the covers that I commissioned for Lolita: The Story of a Cover Girl are far superior to the actual published covers,” says Bertram. “This is probably due to the complete freedom that the designers had and of course the fact that they didn't actually have to sell books.
”It's precisely this tension between publishers' need for commercial success, and Lolita's unsettling subject matter, that's resulted in six decades of sometimes brilliant but often misguided covers.