One day in 1963 Vladimir Nabokov received from his British publisher a paperback copy of Laughter in the Dark with a request to sign it for Penguin's founder, Allen Lane. Nabokov was known not to sign books and, in this instance, was also annoyed by the cover art for the book. He sent a letter recording his displeasure. This was not the first time Nabokov had found the artwork for his paperbacks “pretty bad and insulting.” Earlier a Penguin cover art for Nabokov's Dozen had upset him: a sketch of a professorial-looking man chasing a butterfly with a net. Unlike many serious literary authors of his time, Nabokov liked paperbacks. He wanted to be involved in their cover art and design. In a survey sent out to many writers asking what they felt about paperbacks, Nabokov telegrammed three words: ‘Pretty little things'.
Paperback Nabokov by Paul Maliszewski is a pretty little thing in itself. I nearly missed spotting it on the bookstore shelf: a slender 20-page monograph published by McSweeneys that could easily disappear between rows of books. Maliszewski (the author also of Fakers: Hoaxers, Con Artists, Counterfeiters, and Other Great Pretenders, which examines “literary and journalistic deception”) explores the world of Nabokov paperbacks: details N's feelings towards the cover art for several editions, his son Dmitri's role as illustrator, the artist that finally satisfied N with his artwork, and a few choice letters from N on paperback design and cover art. The bonus is right in the middle of the monograph: four pages of full-colour photographs of at least 43 various paperback editions and their cover art.
The front cover of this elegant and fascinating little book shows 15 different sketches for Lolita, many with pictures, photos or sketches of little girls, which Nabokov loathed. He did his best to keep away little girls from the covers but he couldn't control what paperback publishers did with Lolita's cover art all the time. Intrigued by Nabokov's interest in paperback design and his quest for an artist to fulfil his perfect cover, Maliszewski pursued Dmitri Nabokov who could be contacted only through email on “an internet list devoted to Nabokov's writing”. Eventually he heard back from Dmitri who answered many questions regarding his own role in creating cover art for his father's work.
One question – about N's idea of a good cover illustration – Dmitri felt he could only say what he, not his father, felt are qualities for a good cover: “1) a literal echo of the theme or setting, 2) a poetic/pictorial suggestion of the book's style, 3) a beautiful design with no emphasis on direct association and 4) a tasteful title, unillustrated.” To this M tells us that Dmitri added a fifth: “in any case, no poshlost!” ‘Poshlost', M discovers, is Russian for approximately “a sensibility that embraces clichés and trash is satisfied by them.” Dmitri became the in-house illustrator for three of N's novels: The Defense, Invitations to a Beheading and The Gift. Dmitri's cover for The Defense (about a chess player who has a breakdown) notes Maliszewski “is a chessboard world, where the sidewalk is made of dark and light squares and the trash cans cast ominous shadows shaped like a rook and a pawn.”
Nabokov was pleased with these covers, and noted that “it is in the spirit of the book and translates some of its poetical quality.” Dmitri himself notes: “I…confess…to being a fringe closet book jacket designer.”
The right artist
It was for Pnin that N finally found the artist he wanted. His name was Milton Glasser. Doubleday's editor, Jason Epstein, sent N the sketches. Glasser had pictured the title character on the cover: a professor in a small college, originally from Russia. It was a really nice portrait but Nabokov was certain this was not Pnin as he had imagined him in the novel. And then he proceeded to give a precise description of Pnin, which startled Glasser with its exacting visual details: “the shape of Pnin's head, the style of glasses he wears, the thickness of his nose, and the space between his nose and upper lip.”
A month later Glasser's revised sketch arrived and N “opened it and was delighted.” He responded saying, “I never imagined that an illustration could render an author's vision so accurately.”
But after Glasser, M goes on to observe, N increasingly did away illustrations for the paperbacks, preferring plain covers, save for the artful titling. He became especially firm about this after a proposed cover (mauve beatnik) for Pale Fire he found “horrible, disgusting, tasteless.” Hundreds of these paperbacks, M writes, could be found resurfacing in second-hand bookshops, yard sales, grocery stores, bus stands (here in India, with pavement hawkers), selling cheaply. This was a time, M points out, when N's literary reputation was still an unknown thing, unlike today when even his paperbacks are issued in expensive and artful editions such as Vintage (and the recent John Gall-curated Nabokov redesigns).
But for Lolita alone, concludes Paul Maliszewski, Vladimir Nabokov never found the artist or the cover art he always wanted, a picture that would be: “romantic, delicately drawn, non-Freudian and non juvenile.” What he got instead were “pictures of girls or women pretending to be girls”. Maliszewski asks at the end: “Where was the cover…of his imaginings…Nabokov saw a road, after a rain, with a burst of sunlight above. The artists and publishers saw only girls, on bicycles or in saddle-shoes and skirts. Nabokov alone saw the sunlight reflecting off standing water in the road's furrows and ruts. He saw a nostalgic highway dissolving into nothing in the distance.”