Designing “Lolita”

“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul, my inspiration for book design.” Or something like that. Kevin Nguyen goes behind the scenes of John Bertram’s Lolita book cover contest.

How do you design the book cover of Lolita — the classic novel about lusting after a twelve-year-old girl?

That’s the question John Bertram posed to fans of both graphic design and Vladimir Nabokov’s modernist masterpiece. On his blog Venus febriculosa, Bertram challenged readers and designers to a cover redesign contest. The competition is just for fun — there are no plans for the winning design to adorn any future edition of Lolita — but he was so curious about the results that he’s offering $350 out of his own pocket as the grand prize.

Bertram is an architect based in Los Angeles who harbors a lifelong passion for Nabokov’s work. The contest was inspired by a recent close reading of the text with the accompaniment of Alfred Appel Jr.’s The Annotated Lolita and Leland de la Durantaye’s Style is Matter: The Moral Art of Vladimir Nabokov. According to Bertram, the brilliance of Lolita is how Nabokov’s prose is able to seduce readers into the perspective of the novel’s pedophiliac narrator, Humbert Humbert, with frightening success.

“The book may as well be called Humbert because the whole time we are inside Humbert’s head and learn absolutely nothing about Lolita,” he says. “The liberties taken by some of the representations of Lolita [on the cover] pretty much serve to re-traumatize the poor girl all over again.”

Bertram has many complaints about the dozens of iterations of Lolita covers. He’s disappointed by the frequent characterization with body parts — young lips, legs, eyes. When the covers aren’t suggestive, they tend to play it safe with bland text-only covers.

“What stuck me was how nuanced and carefully structured Lolita is and, really, how ambiguous it is for a book that unfortunately has become a cultural one-liner for most Americans,” Bertram says. “Lolita is so excruciatingly subtle that subtlety is almost its hallmark. It would be nice if the cover conveyed some of that.”

Though it’s clear Bertram was onto something, I decided to bring in a second opinion.

Charles Brock is the principal and creative director at The DesignWorks Group, as well a co-founder of FaceOut Books, a blog that focuses exclusively book design. I asked him what challenges a designer like himself would face designing a cover that might suit Lolita thematically. He expressed concerns similar to Bertram’s, and from his own professional experience, he explained the difficulty of dealing with contentious subject matter.

“Like any work dealing with a shocking topic, the controversy often times overshadows the genius of the work,” Brock said. “Do you pass on showing an image that could accurately communicate the feel of the book because some people may find it distasteful? Where do you draw the line?”

Brock also pointed out the regional differences between the covers. Cultural taboos can constrain design, and he believed the U.S. covers had often taken a more conservative approach.

Then, of course, there’s the question of tackling a novel that has already gone through so many interpretations. Is there pressure to conform to older covers or pressure to create a fresher design?

“I think all designers with this opportunity would like to create a fresh approach. There is something a little freeing in being able to see all the previous designs for classic work, especially when there are some bad ones,” Brock said. “People buy books for the content or what the content promises to be, not because of the cover. Covers don’t sell books. With a classic work, it’s less about selling an unknown and more about connecting with consumers’ emotions about the content, whether or not they’ve read it.”

The first time I checked in with Bertram in mid-September, just over a month into the contest, he had received around 60 entries. But by the deadline last Friday, Bertram had received over 150 entries.

Bertram admitted his own biases toward the “clear and precise,” and an aversion to what he believed to be misleading representations of Lolita.

“I made a point to steer clear of the overly romantic and the highly sexualized, both of which I find incredibly limiting if not completely misguided,” Bertram said.

After much deliberating, Bertram will be mailing $350 to Lyuba Haleva in Bulgaria. In her design, unlike almost every existing copy of Lolita, Humbert — or at least his outline — dominates the cover over a surprisingly warm yellow background.

The winning design by Lyuba Haleva of Bulgaria.

The winning design by Lyuba Haleva of Bulgaria.

“What I really love about Lyuba Haleva’s cover is that it really gets at the poetry of the novel. Humbert is transported by Lolita, so the wings are an intriguing choice. Whether they represent Lolita and Annabel Leigh or Lolita the fantasy and Lolita the real person I have no idea,” Bertram said. “Somehow it all feels right to me and very inspired, and although the typeface is anachronistic and suggests to me a classic European novel, it seems to work.”

Bertram also picked three honorable mentions from Aleksander Bak, Egor Krasnoperov, and Derek McCall, representing Poland, Russia, and the U.S. respectively.

I asked Bertram if he would call the contest a success. At first, he hoped more professional designers would have entered. Regardless, the competition was well received. A number of submissions coming from outside the U.S. — particularly from Eastern Europe — and at Virginia Tech, a screen printing instructor assigned the contest to his architecture students.

“I’d never done anything like this before, so I didn’t know what to expect,” Bertram said. “I’d say it was a success. I’m now considering making it an annual thing.”

Bring on Pale Fire.

See John Bertram’s thoughts on the winning design, as well as his picks for honorable mentions at Venus febriculosa.

Kevin Nguyen is a founding editor of The Bygone Bureau. His only marketable skill is an above-average knowledge of European geography. He has been useless since the introduction of the atlas in 1477. Reach him by email or follow his Twitter account.