Saturday, February 20, 2010

The Art of Perversion: The Unfortunate Duality in Images of Lolita

"To illustrate a story is to interpret it." --A former classmate.

Today on Jezebel, (an ever-burning beacon of inspiration for me) Katy posted the results of a 2007 challenge issued by John Bertram: to design a new cover for Vladimir Nabokov's controversial 1955 classic, Lolita. I read Lolita for the first time a year ago, almost ten years after I first tried to. This attempt resulted from my being 12 and always on the prowl for books with long, langourous descriptions of sex. I threw it down after skimming through and seeing almost no dialogue at first glance. There was a time when this could kill a book for me, sex or no. I also remember being terribly embarrassed to be seen reading it, even in Barnes and Noble. So I left Lolita on the shelf and depended on Francesca Lia Block and an old yellowed copy of Valley of the Dolls bought at a garage sale for those aforementioned descriptions of sex. It's just as well. I wouldn't have found any in Lolita. Not the kind I was looking for anyway.

This trip down nostalgia lane reflects the stark contrast between Lolita the novel and Lolita the legend. At 12, I knew Lolita as a "dirty" book about an affair between a teenage girl and an older man. Turns out this is what a lot of people, young or old, think Lolita is about. Actually, it's about a middle-aged pedophile's sexual obsession with a 12-year-old. The title character, whose name is actually Dolores, suffers years of rape and sexual abuse at the hands of HH, our narrator. And yet, in spite of this, time and popular culture have turned her into a symbol of sexual precociousness: a scantily-clad underage temptress sucking on an oh-so-subtle lollipop and peering over (usually red heart-shaped) sunglasses, ready to manipulate the helpless grown man who, of course, doesn't know better. Bullshit anyone? But how did the victim transform into a villain? True, HH casts her as a villain throughout the novel, but he's also probably the best example of an unreliable narrator outside of Poe. He's 37; she's 12. He's a pedophile. He's the villain.

That's what makes the results of this challenge (sorry if you have to reread this whole damn thing to remember what the challenge is) so fascinating. There's a clear delineation between those who read (or understood) the book and those who didn't. Some of the covers are stunningly beautiful and some look like Photoshop shat itself to death. Some look like they belong on the cover of porno rags or Harlequin romance novels (the kind 12-year-olds scour garage sales for) and some are horrific and genuinely disturbing, they are so on the mark. The one above is one of my favorites because it focuses on HH while Lo is obscured. His face looks pained but also annoyed and ready to confess something terrible. I especially love that he seems to be making eye contact with you, reflecting how HH turns the reader into a confidante. Another of my favorites is the one Jezebel posted with its article: a coverful of the backs of little girl heads all with different hair styles. One head, just above the title, is turned slightly. This represents not only Lolita, but also the many different "nymphets" that HH notices (and tells us about) over the course of his life. There are many wonderful covers though. There are many bad ones as well, but it just makes for a more thorough (and unfortuately, telling) exploration.

The good, bad, and ugly results of the challenge. [Flickr via BlackBook]

For good measure, with thanks to my beacon, the Jezebel article. P.S. Scroll down in the comments and look out for my favorite "real" cover. Black and white, a young girl in saddle shoes and a dark skirt, her bare knees barely touching. The copy I first peeked into at age 12 in Barnes and Noble (and now wish I had bought) had this cover. I think it sums up the book--innocence peered at and distorted by way of perversion--and it's since been discontinued.


  1. I enjoy this entry, Er! I, too, never could get past the first 5 pages os Lolita when I was in middle school. I should probably take another shot of it.

    Reading your entries makes me feel like I'm in literature class discussion again ("unreliable narrator" for the win!). Which is awesome, because I only ever took like 4 English classes in college. I miss it! :D

  2. Definitely take another shot. It's an amazing book best read when you're old enough to appreciate/understand it (which I certainly was not at 12).

    I'm glad I transported you back to Lit. Half the reason I keep this blog is to keep me sharp now that I'm not in school anymore.

  3. What an awesome challenge and such cool results! Im ashamed to say i still have never read Lolita. This is more of a push for me to read it soon

  4. Welcome back to the states, Lianne. I can't wait to hear all about your trip. Thanks for reading. I'd be happy to loan you my copy of Lolita anytime. I think you would like it.