The Lolita Lapse


Newspaper cutting from the West Australian, 21 February 1964. NAA: A425, 1964/5354

Vladimir Nabokov is high up there on my list of favorite authors, though more for Pale Fire and Invitation to a Beheading than the infamous and oft-banned Lolita. Still, I’m as peeved as the next guy when it comes to the novel’s marketing, which has, historically, completely convoluted the story.

Predicting this, Nabokov once said, for the 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. And no girls. … Who would be capable of creating a romantic, delicately drawn, non-Freudian and non-juvenile, picture for LOLITA (a dissolving remoteness, a soft American landscape, a nostalgic highway—that sort of thing)? There is one subject which I am emphatically opposed to: any kind of representation of a little girl.”

And yet:


Sexualized little (and sometimes not-so-little?) girls abound. On the cover of the most popular edition yet, below,

3486989“The only convincing love story of our century.” —Vanity Fair.

Unless Vanity Fair is being more cynical than even can stomach…please. Has anyone ever even read the thing?

In the preface to Lolita: The Story of a Cover Girl: Vladimir Nabokov’s Novel in Art and Design, Mary Gaitskill says,

Lolita is not about love, because love is always mutual; Lolita is about obsession, which is never, ever love, and Nabokov himself was so disappointed that people did not understand this and take away the right message… For how could anyone call this feeding frenzy of selfishness, devouring, and destruction ‘love’?”

Humbert Humbert, the site of this “feeding frenzy,” is among the founding members of two classes: 1) antiheros and 2) unreliable narrators. Anything he says should be taken with whole handfuls of salt. These covers, however, tap into and proliferate the superficial scandal of the story—an affair between a prepubescent girl and a middle-aged man—and fail to communicate its complexities. One being that the book is NOT about Lolita, that Lolita is a victim of this affair, not one of its components. As Humbert himself muses, “What I had madly possessed was not she, but my own creation … encasing her; floating between me and her, and having no will, no consciousness—indeed no life of her own.”

Authors John Bertram and Yuri Leving, in the introduction to Story of a Cover Girl, argue,

“The book cover is … paratextual material that has the potential to influence the reading of a text: It may distort or illuminate, editorialize, and even invent subjects and situations that do not exist in the text.”

So, while Lolita isn’t so much the subject as the object of Lolita, she’s certainly given fairer shakes in Story of a Cover Girl. Comb through a few alternative cover submissions included in the volume near the end of this post and restore your faith in humanity.

Thanks to The New Republic and Brain Pickings for content, and Happy Banned Books Week!


About centerforthereader

St. Louis Central Library, Center for the Reader, is where you can find fiction, reading suggestions, author information, and much more!
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