December 17, 2013

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When Lolita was first published by an obscure French publisher of erotica in 1955, it came packaged in a plain green wrapper. Since then, the book’s had many evocative covers, most of which ignore Nabokov’s ardent art direction: “No girls.” There’ve been knocked-kneed legs in schoolgirl skirts, lollipop-licking seductresses, and button-nosed cuties smiling wanly. In Lolita: The Story of a Cover Girl editors John Bertram and Yuri Leving examine the ways in which Nabokov’s most famous book has been portrayed, and commission new takes on the book’s cover from eighty artists and designers, along with essays by Mary Gaitskill, Barbara Bloom, and Leland de la Durantaye, among others. We see textual treatments, the most successful of which uses the famous opening enunciation of the nymphet’s name (“Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps . . . ”), and another that illustrates a tongue taking those three steps. There’s a cover that pictures Humbert Humbert in a sweaty reverie, as well as a school-girlish notebook page, and some sexualized bobby socks (and scrunchies). Looking at the covers on display here one can sense the difficulty of the designers’ task: How to even hint at the devilish and unstable mix of beauty and cruelty in Nabokov’s most shocking work of art? Perhaps the book would be best served by a simple warning: “Contents may be combustible.”

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