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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.


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“Perhaps they don’t know what sex is either.”

nabokov_at_workI started reading Lolita for the first time over the weekend. I can’t remember the last time an opening passage left such an impression on me:

Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.

She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.

I love that parade of hard T’s in the third sentence and the way Nabokov breaks her name into syllables. I speak like that sometimes, when I’m having fun: Na. Bo. Kov. We hear sounds like these all of the time but rarely slow down to appreciate them.

Before I even opened the book, my impression of Lolita was well formed. Probably too well formed. Critics called it erotica, pornography, and trash. I understood it to be primarily about sex and hebephilia. It was banned in the United Kingdom and France for a short time, and banned books emit a particular aura, especially when their topics are taboo.

Thanks to this book the name Lolita is practically synonymous with perversion. Yet it ranked fourth on Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels list and is widely considered a classic of the English language. Speaking to the BBC in 1962, Nabokov said “Lolita is a special favorite of mine. It was my most difficult book—the book that treated of a theme which was so distant, so remote, from my own emotional life that it gave me a special pleasure to use my combinational talent to make it real.”

With that in mind, I went to Youtube this evening looking for an interview with Nabokov about the book and found this two-part video from CBC’s “Close-Up” television program. Vladimir spoils a plot point or two during the conversation, so consider yourself warned, but I think it is worth watching because he goes into some detail about how he views his work.

Sex and destructive obsessions are discussed, and Nabokov does not dispute their presence in the novel, but he spends much more time emphasizing love, passion, and tragedy. Responding to the sexual scandal surrounding the book, he says, “If sex, you see, is the servant maid of art, love is the lady of that tower.” The topic shifts away from perversion and toward our perceptions as he asks us to consider how we define sex and love, and whether we can tell the difference. A lot of remarkable things are said at the end of the interview, so be sure to watch all the way through: