Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Lo-lee-ta: An Interview with John Bertram

One of the most interesting design books out this year is Lolita: The Story of a Cover Girl, edited by John Bertram and Yuri Leving, published by Print Books. It's a fascinating  examination of the history of design approaches to this brilliant and problematic Nabokov novel, and it also contains numerous new covers designed for the book, which demonstrate just how many ways there are to visualise a book.

John Bertram was kind enough to talk to me about the how and the why of the book's creation. Click on any image for much larger versions, with artist/designer credits. (For a full list of the designers involved, and their websites, see here.)

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CAUSTIC COVER CRITIC: Your own work is very much in the field of design, but as an architect. How did you come to co-create a book about book design? 

JOHN BERTRAM: I’ve always had an interest in graphic design and at one point even worked briefly for a graphic designer. I’ve been an avid reader all of my life, and drawn as well to illustrated books, book covers and all sorts of printed ephemera. In 2009 I started Venus Febriculosa, a website devoted in part to the confluence of art and literature, the natural source of which is the book cover. Lolita was the subject of the first cover contest that I sponsored after which I was contacted by Marco Sonzogni, Lecturer at Victoria University of Wellington, who suggested the idea of working together on a book about Lolita covers. Marco became a collaborator on a several Venus Febriculosa contests (among them Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, and Tadeusz Borowski’s This Way for the Gas Ladies and Gentlemen), out of which came two other books, including This Way, that became the precursor of and the template for the Lolita book.

My conception from the very beginning was a book that merged the scholarly with graphic design. In early 2010 I was invited by Yuri Leving, Chair of the Department of Russian Studies at Dalhousie University, and author and editor of numerous books about Nabokov, to contribute an article about the contest to the Nabokov Online Journal, of which he was founding editor. Later Yuri suggested including my article in a book he was editing. At a certain point, the book that Yuri was planning and the book that I was planning merged into one.

CAUSTIC COVER CRITIC: Which was most interesting for you in creating The Story of a Cover Girl—the history of Lolita designs, or the untapped possibilities still to be explored?

JOHN BERTRAM: Although there is undoubtedly more to explore either way, I think it’s a finite exercise. I don’t think there will be a sequel to The Story of a Cover Girl, although I am sure new designers will always enjoy the challenge of Lolita.  When I first began commissioning designers, I found myself anticipating the arrival of each new cover, waiting for the perfect cover. But, of course, the premise of this book is that the perfect cover is an impossibility and that is a credit to the novel and to Nabokov.

CAUSTIC COVER CRITIC: Your book proves that Lolita lends itself to numerous effective cover designs. Do you think that many other classic novels would do the same? Could a volume of similar heft and variety be created for, say, Great Expectations or Ulysses.

JOHN BERTRAM: Well, I would say that Lolita is ideal for an exercise of this sort because it’s fairly unique in a number of ways that I’d like to quickly delineate. One: Vladimir Nabokov was a gifted and exacting writer, obsessed with the right word at all costs, and I think it’s important to honor that. There’s not a random or casual word in the entire novel. Two: Lolita is difficult to pin down. To borrow some terminology from Dieter E. Zimmer’s essay, is it a tragedy, a comedy, a social satire? Is it about a painful love affair or transgression of social mores? Three: The book comes with baggage that is usually very misleading or just plain false. The fact is, Dolores Haze is not sexually predatory, she does not have precocious sexual appetites, and she is not perverse. Although the word Lolita has come to mean all of those things, Lolita is, really, a normal twelve-year old girl. Four: There are clearly ethical considerations in treating a novel that deals with child rape. It’s important that we not ‘collude in exploitation’ to use Ellen Pifer’s phrase. Five: Humbert Humbert is the narrator, so there is the question of how much of what he is saying is the truth and this is the subject of many debates in Nabokov circles. Six: Lastly, Nabokov is on record with his own ideas about what should and should not be on Lolita’s cover and, again, these are worth paying attention to.

All of that being said, I think there are many books that could successfully be addressed in this way. Before we decided upon The Name of the Rose for our second cover contest, we entertained a variety of titles, including Ulysses and Finnegans Wake by James Joyce, The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka, Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett, The Wasteland  by T.S. Eliot, A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess and Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll. The Name of the Rose contest was extremely successful. The novel has a lot of interesting components: an ambiguous title, unusual visual richness, literary depth, symbolism. It’s an international best-seller that has been translated into dozens of languages and, like Lolita, made into a film. And it is, paradoxically, both a rather breezy page-turner of a ‘murder mystery’ and at the same time a book of historical complexity and erudition that addresses some obscure points of faith, doctrinal squabbles and the state of the early 14th century Christian church.

Of course, my dream is to edit a similar book about the Bollingen Series, an unparalleled publishing endeavor undertaken by Paul Mellon’s first wife Mary Conover Mellon.

CAUSTIC COVER CRITIC:  Is the sexual nature of the book part of its design appeal--many of the covers you show are clever visual puns on sex, genitalia and the like. Do you think the gap between what everyone knows the book is about, and what you can actually show on a book cover, helps inspire the designers?

JOHN BERTRAM: I do think that the sexual nature of the book is clearly part of its design appeal (as well as media appeal!). Whether this is fortunate or unfortunate is hard to say, but I’m certainly aware that no other book would likely garner the interest that this one has. There are many people who feel that Nabokov’s Pale Fire is superior in every way to Lolita, but it’s difficult to imagine a scenario in which a book on Pale Fire would be the subject of so much attention. I also can’t imagine drumming up much interest for my Bollingen Series book (although I know it would be brilliant). I would love to be proven wrong about this.

CAUSTIC COVER CRITIC:  The Story of a Cover Girl is notable for being a book about visual design with no pictorial elements on the cover itself. What led to this decision?

JOHN BERTRAM: When Michael Silverberg, our incredible editor at Print, suggested that Sulki & Min design the cover I was overjoyed. They had designed a wonderful cover for Tadeusz Borowski’s This Way for the Gas Ladies and Gentlemen which was included in the book This Way, and I had no doubt that they would bring their customary intelligence and insight to this cover. They were pretty much given free reign, so whatever conceptions we had about the cover were sort of irrelevant. It was completely their idea to include the Nabokov quote on the cover. Originally, they had designed a white cover with black text, a reference to another Nabokov quote in which he is willing to settle for ‘an immaculate white jacket…with LOLITA in bold black lettering’ but I think the publishers felt that it was too austere. Enter Pantone 7488, a color that references (albeit in a brighter shade that really pops!) the original Lolita cover published by Olympia Press.

CAUSTIC COVER CRITIC: To violently change direction—if you could resurrect any neglected book and push it on everybody you met, what would it be?

JOHN BERTRAM: Well, I suppose you can’t really call The Rings of Saturn a neglected book, but I am constantly surprised at the number of people who have never read W.G. Sebald. However, the one book I have pushed on people (and this is before Jeffrey Eugenides rescued it from the ashes of obscurity) is Second Skin, the criminally underrated 1964 novel by John Hawkes. Just incredible.

CAUSTIC COVER CRITIC: Thank you, Mr Bertram!


weaver said...

the abebooks blog posted a couple of years ago about an online display of 150 covers for the book. it gives a fair indication of the range of less imaginative solutions that tend to obtain in dealing with the problem presented by the book.

jb said...

Oh wow, it's as if someone wrote a book specifically designed to make my first - & only - thought be, 'I must have that ASAP'.

Thanks for bringing it to my attention!

weaver said...

Trawling thru venus febriculosa I belatedly noticed that gallery I mentioned ("Covering lolita") actually inspired Mr Bertram's design competition. So, erm, there's that...

JRSM said...

Thanks for the link, though, Weaver: it's very useful (and shows how many publishers ignored Nabokov's "no girls" stricture).

My pleasure, jb. If I have to heamorrhage cash to get all the books I want, I'm glad to take others down with me!