The Lolita Book Cover Project

Lolita – The Story of a Cover Girl: Vladimir Nabokov’s Novel in Art and Design


In 2013 John Bertram invited 80 well-known graphic designers and illustrators to each design a cover for Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita which, in his view, had never had the cover it deserved. I contributed an essay that reflected on their designs.  



The cover of a book of literary fiction is surely the most luscious of design commissions. Designers get to create the portal through which readers will enter a novel’s world, encounter its characters, and weigh its meanings. Designers create the image that readers will use time and again to conjure the book and the pleasure of reading it. Movie-title, album-cover, and poster commissions are similarly coveted, but with films and CDs, there are pressures to represent the stars or band members and increasingly long lists of credits; poster designers are prescribed lines of copy and often have multiple sponsor logos to contend with. Book covers, by contrast, have the bare minimum of parameters—a designer merely must mention the author and the title of the work (and, in the United States, point out that it is a novel)—and are thus among the purest spaces remaining for designers to work in. Book designers, subject to the demands of marketing departments, might disagree, arguing that they negotiate just as many constraints as any other commercial enterprise, especially in today’s economic climate. Furthermore, certain authors also bring stipulations—J. D. Salinger famously banned pictorial treatments from his covers—and even their own, amateur designerly talents. But for the most part, a book cover for a work of literary fiction provides a designer with the most freedom possible in the realm of commissioned work. Why, then, do some works of literary fiction seem to have quite the opposite effect on their jacket designers? Rather than liberating them to take visual flights of fancy, certain books appear to do the very opposite and actually shackle designers’ creativity. Lolita is one such book.


But for the most part, a book cover for a work of literary fiction provides a designer with the most freedom possible in the realm of commissioned work.


Perhaps the block is due to the complexity of the densely folded narrative and its cunning narrator, with his Russian-doll nest of personae, the shifting mood, and the abundance of imagery in its pages. Is Lolita’s embarrassment of metaphorical riches what stymies so many designers? Perhaps it’s also because making a choice necessitates taking a point of view—if designers decide to give us a glimpse of Lolita’s toenails, with their “remnants of cherry red polish,” “the gooseberry fuzz of her shin,” or the “seaside of her schoolgirl thighs,” they present her not only as an objectified fragment of a whole but as an oversexualized fragment, as seen through Humbert’s eyes.

The covers commissioned for this project have been created by a selection of international designers, including in-house designers at publishing houses and freelance book designers, as well as those for whom designing book covers is a rarity. They responded with evident gusto to John Bertram’s challenge: to create a successful cover for Lolita in the face of a tradition of covers in which, as Bertram notes, surprisingly “few seemed up to the task of communicating anything approaching the depth and complexity of the novel, which overflows with powerful, finely wrought imagery.” The designers were free to create a cover as enigmatic, evocative, or explicit as they deemed appropriate—and, as the designer Mark Melnick says, “to do something that would never get approved in a traditional context.”


The results are rich and diverse, at times delightful, amusing, menacing, and unsettling, just like the book itself.


Most of the covers fall into four main groups, each of which represents a different approach to capturing visually the elusive spirit or kernel of the book. The first group of covers use objects mentioned in the narrative to stand in for sex, for Lolita herself, or for one of the novel’s themes. The second set of covers attempt to convey a sense of Humbert’s obsession, depravity, and increasing psychological disturbance. The third group evoke what the designers perceive to be the prevailing mood of the novel, whether it is beauty, comedy, or a dark sense of foreboding. The covers in the final category zoom in to the words themselves, celebrating the texture, rhythm, and significance of Nabokov’s language.


1. Objects

“If I close my eyes I see but an immobilized fraction of her, a cinematographic still, a sudden smooth nether loveliness,” Humbert writes in his diary one night. In other similar entries he recalls Lolita not as a whole person, but rather in glimpses and whiffs of her fragrance and heat, and in slow-motion, close-focused fragments. 

The book is filled with enumerations of Lolita’s belongings, the tawdry accessories, candies, sodas, and comics accumulated on her travels across the country that Humbert doles out as rewards and bribes for her sexual services. These pop consumables, which Lolita adores and Humbert disdains, are at the crux of a subtextual debate between a learned, cultivated, but gray and war-exhausted Europe in his “pale cashmere ties” and smoking jackets and a vibrant, brash, economically strengthening America, in her swimsuits of “all shades. Dream pink, frosted aqua, glans mauve, tulip red, oolala black.” Humbert and Lolita’s travels back and forth across America allow Nabokov, who still viewed the country with the clear-eyed fascination of a relative newcomer, and who knew some of its byways and backwaters from his butterfly-collecting expeditions, to reflect on and catalogue, in an almost encyclopedic fashion, life in mid-century America—its education, architecture, cars, motels, roadside attractions and souvenir stores, diners, jeans, vocabulary, teenagers, movies, small-town social dynamics, mores, academia, magazines, food, advertising, music, roller-skating, swimming, tennis, and summer camps.

“In the gay town of Lepingville I bought her four books of comics, a box of candy, a box of sanitary pads, two cokes, a manicure set . . . a portable radio, chewing gum, a transparent rain-coat, sun-glasses, some more garments.” This is one of many passages that list the items Lolita gathers and uses to soothe and normalize her disturbing way of life. Through the juxtaposition of the candies and comics with the sanitary pads and manicure set, it poignantly illustrates her confused and oscillating state between child and woman.


Among the book covers that dwell on objects, some use them to spell out Lolita’s name, as if rebuilding her into a whole from the banal accoutrements of her daily life.


Among the book covers that dwell on objects, some use them to spell out Lolita’s name, as if rebuilding her into a whole from the banal accoutrements of her daily life. Daniel Justi’s cover deploys Nabokov’s listing technique, but visually, by inserting an illustration of an intrauterine device into a collection of other, more age-appropriate accessories—mascara, lipstick, a doll’s leg—that spell out the name “Lolita.” It takes a moment to register the dissonance of the IUD, made to work here as the T; it’s incongruous among the other more benign props in playacting a grown-up woman, and also because IUD devices were not available at the time of the novel. The Women’s Design + Research Unit uses similar props—glasses, gun, lollipop—and wraps them in texture and pattern, flattening them into typographic elements to be interspersed in the letters of the title.

Adrienne Weiss’s image of assorted buttons simultaneously suggests the collections of childhood and the state of being literally and metaphorically unbuttoned. The text makes few direct mentions of buttons—there’s the rhinestone button that Charlotte Haze, Lolita’s mother, keeps for three years and then drops in the mud in her fatal haste to mail letters incriminating Humbert; and then the nacreous buttons on one of Humbert’s fine waistcoats—but since Humbert is so vain and takes such an interest in both his own and Lolita’s apparel, clothes are otherwise considered in great detail and are, of course, constantly being taken off or put on.

Several designers choose just one of these objects and make it perform in a more emphatically symbolic manner, usually to suggest the disappearance of Lolita’s childhood, either by its slipping away—the string of Margot Harrington’s childish red balloon rising just out of the reach of a young woman’s manicured fingers—or being more violently expunged. Jennifer Heuer’s smashed lollipop, which forms the o of Lolita, for example (putting aside the anachronism of the plastic wrapper), speaks of a ruined childhood, but it is an image nicely complicated by its color: siren lipstick red. Transfer Studio’s lollipop is also used for the same vowel of the title, but here, hauntingly, it has fallen to the ground and is melting into a sticky pool. Even though Lolita’s lips are described as being “as red as licked red candy,” Humbert buys Lolita a lollipop only once in the novel, and so it is probably due to the power of Kubrick’s 1962 film, and the iconic poster of Sue Lyon seductively licking a red lollipop, that we associate this candy so strongly with the character.

Related to these “stolen childhood” covers are those that dwell on Lolita’s loss of virginity, her sullied innocence represented variously by rumpled bed linens, a shredded and faded pink hair-ribbon, and, most disturbingly, a fly settling on the curve of downy buttocks as if it were a piece of overripe fruit. In this last cover, the designer, John Fulbrook, has portrayed Humbert as what he calls “a dirty common insect preying on the blood of the innocent,” an idea that Nabokov introduces more than once. When Humbert and Lolita get into his hot car after he has claimed her from summer camp, she “slapped a prompt fly on her lovely knee,” and on other hot days as he holds her in his lap, he notes that when “a fly would settle and walk in the vicinity of her navel or explore her tender pale areolas,” she would attempt to catch it in her fist, a sad reminder of her ineffectual attempts at self-defense. Fulbrook’s portrait of Humbert the fly is destabilized by his close-up focus on the soft hairs on Lolita’s honey-hued skin, which takes us back to Humbert’s viewpoint. Fulbrook adds that he’d want the cover to be produced with matte UV lamination, so that every time you handled the cover your fingerprints would be visible, accumulating there with those of all the others who “mark up this young skin” through the very act of reading.

The descriptive potential of the letterforms of the word Lolita provides another point of departure. In Melnick’s cover, the initial L, a black slab, is unpeeled to reveal a pink phallus, exposed as the motivating force of Humbert’s day-to-day behavior and attire. Kelly Blair creates a pair of delicate ovaries in the calligraphic curlicues at each end of her L. Of the covers that use an object to stand in for the sex—which is obviously at the center, but also just off in the wings, of the book—Barbara deWilde’s cover is especially rich. She uses a white ankle sock (one of Lolita’s characteristic garments and a recurring obsession of Humbert’s) for the L and another, curled suggestively, with a puckered ribbed cuff, to form the o, all set against a blackboard background that reinforces the schoolgirl age of the socks’ owner.

Keira Alexandra’s cover abstracts this idea one step further by representing it typographically: A red exclamation point inside parentheses is sexually suggestive, but because the exclamation point can indicate both danger and a joke, it also implies the ambiguities of the tragicomedy, a tale that hovers between alarming depravity and slapstick.

The covers that use birds and birdcages, a rosebud in the palm, or a butterfly are concerned with Lolita’s vulnerability and her helplessness in the face of Humbert’s machinations. Some of them edit out the complicating factors of her initial, confused attraction to Humbert and her coquettishness, but Michel Vrana’s bird is ambiguously both inside and outside the cage, and Laura Berglund’s butterfly is particularly nice, evoking the scene when Humbert comes to collect Lolita from summer camp and notices “some gaudy moth or butterfly, still alive, safely pinned to the wall” (his lack of empathy for the creature lingers, and the use of the word “gaudy” reminds us of his censure of Lolita’s taste). And by reminding us of Nabokov’s well-known passion for lepidopterology, Berglund’s cover reminds us of the layers of storytelling at work in the book. The Canadian designer David Drummond’s cover of spilled pins also picks up on the cruelty of butterfly collecting, but because there are so many pins, the image does not convey the intensity of Humbert’s single-minded obsession.


2. Humbert’s worldview

Some covers do attempt to represent that obsession and to show us the world as seen through Humbert’s infatuated gaze. In Jamie Keenan’s cover, the corner of a pale-pink room becomes Lolita’s thighs, topped by the white triangle of a pair of underpants—or of a piece of ceiling cornice. Keenan notes that the low angle of the image’s vantage, looking up at the intersection of walls and ceiling, implicates the viewer in Humbert’s world; it is as if we too were lying on that motel bed. Lolita was written in a period of heightened interest in Freudian analysis, which Nabokov satirizes by having Humbert attempt to psychoanalyze himself throughout the book and “regurgitate . . . neo-Freudian hash.” Diane Shaw’s image of a cross section of Humbert’s brain shows Lolita in every lobe. To convey Humbert’s increasing insanity, both Gabriele Wilson and Susan Murphy give us a page of Humbert’s repeated writing of Lolita’s name; this approach also suggests the way in which he has erased and rewritten her identity.

The designers who take handwriting as their visual theme recall Nabokov’s famous signature as well as the book’s self-reflexive premise: a narrator in prison, writing a manuscript based on his memory of a destroyed diary that he nonetheless recalls because he wrote it twice before—once as notes and once in abbreviated form.


The designers who take handwriting as their visual theme recall Nabokov’s famous signature as well as the book’s self-reflexive premise: a narrator in prison, writing a manuscript based on his memory of a destroyed diary that he nonetheless recalls because he wrote it twice before—once as notes and once in abbreviated form.


Wilson’s page of repeated Lolitas was written with a Montblanc fountain pen, another phallus; it’s the same pen that Humbert uses to sign the registers of hundreds of motels, hotels, and tourist homes. Wilson is attentive both to Humbert’s manipulations of the reader through his writing and the extent to which his diary entries drive the plot, “To me,” she says, “Humbert’s writing is everything about this book, and all the consequences are a result of it.” Ben Wiseman’s collage of deranged scrawl, blacked-out passages, and scraps of paper picks up the same theme. It alludes to Humbert’s diary, written “in my smallest, most satanic, hand,” and, with the scrap of Nabokov’s own stationery, conjures the complex relationship between author and narrator, reality and hallucination, fact and fiction, and between Humbert the protagonist and Humbert the author. When Charlotte discovers his diary, he attempts to explain away its lurid details by saying that the notes she found “were fragments of a novel”; Charlotte’s name and Lolita’s name “were put in by mere chance.”

Of the covers that direct our scrutiny toward Humbert, Ingrid Paulson’s resonates. Her presentation of Humbert’s stained white handkerchief, with the title written in coral-red lipstick, evokes the sordid and one-sided nature of Humbert’s relationship with Lolita. Unfortunately, Paulson has stretched the square shape of a man’s handkerchief into the rectangular shape of a book cover, and her choice of coral red for the lipstick is jarring—this was Charlotte’s shade, not Lolita’s.


3. Mood

Other covers create a mood of foreboding, giving us hints of Humbert’s looming homburg-hat-wearing presence, always in the peripheral vision of Lolita’s life. We see his silhouetted reflection in Lolita’s shiny shoes and in a large teardrop. In David Pearson’s particularly menacing cover, we have the sensation that he is behind a bedroom door that slowly opens, letting in pink light from the corridor. Among the other dark treatments is Dan Mogford’s aggressive composition in hot-pink and black. Its central motif combines the carnivorous Venus flytrap and that other Freudian theme of vagina dentata.

Threaded through with guilt, death, murder, violence, rape, and cruelty, and with the town of Gray Star as its depressing capital, Lolita is a dark book, but it is also exuberant and excruciatingly funny in places. To that end, some of the more comic interpretations are less discordant than they might first appear. I especially like Agata Jakubowska’s cartoonishly ejaculating pink water-pistol, rendered in the benday dots of Lolita’s beloved comics. The gun, both as an actual object and a metaphorical phallus, is central to the story, of course—Humbert carries one in his pocket for much of the book, as he becomes increasingly paranoid, and finally uses it to kill his rival and alter ego. The ambiguity between the toy gun of childhood and the real gun of adulthood, and between the supposed power it lends its owner and his powerlessness in the face of his nymphet addiction, is all built into what at first looks like a merely playful image.


The ambiguity between the toy gun of childhood and the real gun of adulthood, and between the supposed power it lends its owner and his powerlessness in the face of his nymphet addiction, is all built into what at first looks like a merely playful image.


4. Language

There are several purely typographic covers, most of which respond to Humbert’s opening salvo—his love letter to language and to Lolita in her kaleidoscopically glimpsed facets—in which he rolls with his tongue the three syllables of her name from the palate down to the teeth: “Lo. Lee. Ta.” The descent of the syllables and of Lolita herself is depicted most emphatically by Elena Grossman, whose red letters seem to step, somewhat fatalistically, down a staircase. Others split the syllables and arrange them vertically on the page, while some quote the whole passage.

My favourite of the quietly typographic covers is Philip Kelly’s, in which a line from the end of chapter eight is simply set in gray against a black ground: “Oh, my Lolita, I only have words to play with!” Reflecting on his choice, Kelly says, “By using one sentence, we get the frisson in Humbert’s voice and a glimpse into Nabokov’s style, and avoid the pitfalls of depiction.” Kelly highlights the word Lolita in white to signal that this is the title; he lets the significance of the phrase, plucked from its natural context and magnified for closer inspection, hover and vibrate, with an implied warning that Lolita’s manipulation extends to the reader. We step into Nabokov’s net of words just as Lolita runs into Humbert’s arms.


Lolita is irresistible and frustrating to designers.


Lolita is irresistible and frustrating to designers. The wealth of visual detail provides an unending stream of images to choose from, and although I enjoy the playfulness of the image-based treatments, rarely does any single one, or even a set, tell the whole story. By extracting and enlarging fragments of text and holding them up for our contemplation, the simple typographic covers visually cleanse our palates in preparation for the coming onslaught of richness, reminding us to slow down and savor every single word between the covers of this most delicious of books.

Cover by John Fulbrook

Cover by Jamie Keenan

Cover by Agata Jakubowska

Cover by Philip Kelly

Cover by Ben Wiseman