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The Many Faces of Lolita

lolita_kubrick_stillRachel Arons’ most recent post on the New Yorker’s lit blog examines the history of Lolita’s cover art. She interviews John Bertram, co-editor of Lolita: The Story of a Cover Girl: Vladimir Nabokov’s Novel in Art and Design, who says some very interesting things about Nabokov’s demands for the cover, as well as the novel’s reception.

About half way through the book, one question started to nag me more than any other: who the hell decided this was an erotic novel? When and how did Dolores Haze, the-impossible-to-summarize 12 year-old victim of a predator’s hyper-sexed affections, become a sexual fantasy and fashion icon? Turns out Bertram has a very good answer.

Arons notices that “Many of the covers guilty of misrepresenting Lolita as a teen seductress feature images from Hollywood movie adaptations of the book— Kubrick’s 1962 version, starring Sue Lyon, and Adrian Lyne’s 1997 one” and then asks, “Are those films primarily to blame for the sexualization of Lolita?”

Bertram replies:

As is argued in several of the book’s essays, the promotional image of Sue Lyon in the heart-shaped sunglasses, taken by photographer Bert Stern, is easily the most significant culprit in this regard, much more so than the Kubrick film itself (significantly, neither the sunglasses nor the lollipop ever appears in the film), or the later film by Adrian Lyne. Once this image became associated with “Lolita”—and it’s important to remember that, in the film, Lolita is sixteen years old, not twelve—it really didn’t matter that it was a terribly inaccurate portrait. It became the image of Lolita, and it was ubiquitous. There are other factors that have contributed to the incorrect reading, from the book’s initial publication in Olympia Press’s Traveller’s Series (essentially, a collection of dirty books), to Kubrick’s startlingly unfaithful adaptation. At the heart of all of this seems to be the desire to make the sexual aspect of the novel more palatable.

There’s absolutely nothing palatable about what happens to Dolores in the course of the novel. Near the start of the second part there’s a particularly disturbing scene where Humbert bemoans the limits of his affair. He’s just described how he would use rewards like coffee or candy to force Lolita into her “morning duty,” when he unleashes this hellish day dream:

My only grudge against nature was that I could not turn my Lolita inside out and apply voracious lips to her young matrix, her unknown heart, her nacreous liver, the sea-grapes of her lungs, her comely twin kidneys.

Maybe Kubrick believed he couldn’t get away with portraying the rape of a 12 year old child on film, so he changed the Dolores’s age. I haven’t looked into the why, but the result would be the same just so long as her age increased, and Bertram nails it: the normalization of Humbert’s desire.

Definitely a good read. Worth it just for the link to the Lolita cover gallery, but if you don’t care to read, you can skip straight to the pictures here. I’ve posted my favorite below, but I’d love to hear what other people think about the artwork on that site.

Cover design by Jamie Keenan.

Cover design by Jamie Keenan.