Cover Story: Lolita—The Story of a Cover Girl
A classic 20th-century novel continues to inspire countless cover designsBy Stephanie Murg November 21, 2013
In March of 1951, The New Yorker rejected Vladimir Nabokov’s latest submission, “The Vane Sisters,” on the grounds of its “overwhelming style,” “light story,” and “elaboration.” The author, then living in Ithaca and teaching at Cornell, fired back a prickly response. “All my stories are webs of style and none seems at first blush to contain much kinetic matter,” he wrote to editor Katherine White. “For me ‘style’ is matter.” His apparent defiance of the laws of literary physics has long bewitched readers—and thwarted cover designers.
|Cover design by Michael Bierut. From Lolita—The Story of a Cover Girl, by John Bertram and Yuri Leving, eds. (2013, Print Books/F & W Media)
It was just a few years later that Nabokov finished spinning his greatest web, a “timebomb” of 459 typewritten pages. This was Lolita, a novel “which deals with the problems of a very moral middle-aged gentleman who falls very immorally in love with his stepdaughter, a girl of thirteen,” according to its author. For this book, irresistibly narrated in the fancy prose style of a murderer, he prescribed a largely matter-free cover: “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,” he wrote. “And no girls.”
Graphic designers have spent nearly six decades ignoring his advice. “Lolita is not only a book but also a cultural touchstone,” according to John Gall, who designed the cover for the current American version of the novel. “There is so much visual reference associated with this book.” The challenge of designing a cover for Lolita has spawned not only hundreds of published variations—heavy on schoolgirls, lollipops, and hot pink—but also a series of 80 commissioned covers that are revealed in the pages of Lolita—The Story of a Cover Girl: Vladimir Nabokov’s Novel in Art and Design, edited by John Bertram and Yuri Leving.
“There are two directions for this cover: either you take the title head-on and go with some representation of Lolita, or you don’t,” explains Gall in an interview with Bertram that begins the book. “But be careful: the land of metaphor is filled with furrows and ruts and roads going off into the distance.” An even greater challenge, and surely a task that would have delighted the paradox-loving Nabokov, awaited the designer of the cover of this book of and about book covers. Seoul-based design duo Sulki & Min were up for the meta-challenge.
|Cover design by Ellen Lupton. From Lolita—The Story of a Cover Girl, by John Bertram and Yuri Leving, eds. (2013, Print Books/F & W Media)
“The first thing we considered was that the book is about the cover designs of Lolita, not Lolita itself,” says Min Choi, who initially encountered the novel while in college, in a “difficult” Korean translation, before reading the English original. “We should not attempt to ‘interpret’ Lolita in our cover. It should respond to the covers, not the content.” Determined to show the ideas and desires behind the Lolita covers rather than concrete visual incarnations, they seized upon Nabokov’s original directions, complete with “And no girls.”
Sulki & Min treated the quotation as a main element of their cover, yet made it visually recede, in outlined all-caps, to differentiate it from the book’s three-part title. “We also drew a rectangle to the same size as the book covers inside, and arranged the titles in the rectangle so together they can look like a possible cover,” notes Min. “The typeface is something Nabokov himself prescribed in the later part of the quote (not present on the cover).”
The key was neutrality, another element that would have delighted Nabokov, who parlayed the success of Lolita into a suite life at the Palace Hotel in Montreux, Switzerland. “Conceptually, we had to avoid our cover looking like any of the cover designs inside,” Min says. “That means, to some degree, that it had to look as least Lolita as possible.”
They originally proposed a white background, “to make it very neutral,” with spot-varnishing (marked in light gray on the above image). The publisher nixed it as overly stark and demanded color. “In that case, we had only two options: green, as a nod to the first edition of the original book; and a rainbow spectrum, meaning all colors possible, because any other particular color would bend our design toward some other covers in the book,” says Min. The publisher preferred green, and while Sulki & Min pointed to the matte bottle green of the first edition, published by Olympia Press in 1955, a shiny neon cardstock won the day, making the publication feel more like a middle school textbook from a foreign country than a cache of design creativity. “The green is based on our imagined color of the first edition of Lolita—‘imagined,’ because the green(s) we could see on the remaining copies were all faded differently.”