NABOKV-L post 0019470, Sat, 20 Feb 2010 10:28:06 -0500

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

The Man in White Paper and Other Travel Companions

Friday, February 19, 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 attempted 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 second hand 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 young girl and an older man. Turns out, this is what a lot of people, young or old, think Lolita is about. Actually, it's the first-person confessional of a middle-aged pedophile's sexual obsession with a 12 year old girl. The titular character, whose name is actually Dolores, suffers 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 apparently doesn't know better. How did the child victim transform into a villain? True, HH casts her as a villain at times 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 of the covers 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 with the little thing in its orbit and ready to confess something terrible. 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's many different days over the course of the book, but also the many different "nymphets" that HH catches sight of (and tells us of) 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.

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