(Inspired by yet another new edition of Lolita spotted at the Landmark in Spencer's Plaza, Madras)
If Nabokov's Lolita is about anything other than how superb prose can make a chronicle of horrors seem like thing of beauty, it's about that humbug Humbert Humbert, the middle-aged, avuncular, intellectually arrogant, self-serving and self-deceiving sexual predator who is as much the real monster of the tale as Victor is in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.
But, going by the covers one sees this deeply creepy and unsettling novel wrapped up in, you wouldn't even begin to suspect as much. There are a very few editions that go for a typographical treatment, or a picture of the author. Just one which shows Jeremy Irons as Humbert and was probably motivated by the desire to cash in on his fan base.
But those are the exceptions. Generally, the cover tries to depict Lolita herself in some way. There's the schoolgirl-with-shyly-bent-knees cover from Vintage, the lips-as-vaginal-analogue cover also from Vintage, Penguin Modern Classics' snapshot of a teen girl on a suburban lawn, with its suggestions of amateur porn photo shoots, another cover from Penguin which just shows a young girl serenely lying down outdoors and reading a book, a cover which suggests an entirely different novel. A Penguin Twentieth Century Classics cover, which at least has the merit of being more unsettling than covertly titillating, of a flat-chested young girl flashing her panties - this is the only cover to suggest the 12-year old who first attracts Humbert's attention, rather than the budding 14-year old Kubrick opted to depict. But not one cover with a leering satyr of a doddering fool building elaborate, verbose castles in his overheated mind to justify the abduction and rape of a minor.
It's as if the book turns everyone who deals with it into Humbert; all complicit with his elevation of a troubled, unhappy child into a knowing, sexual provocateur; as if Humbert's self-justifying intentions are more powerful than any darker truth one may discover amidst the flurries and flourishes of his impassioned narrative.
This isn't so much a tribute to Nabokov's power as a writer as it is a symptom of something else altogether.
We live in a media bubble that is, overtly or covertly, informed by porn. From comic book artists using porn stills as photo references for superheroine drawings, through the hooker-bashing action in GTA to the pictures of starlets in the morning edition of the Times, carefully cropped to suggest more indecency than they contain.
And it's all male-oriented porn, at that. Women's magazines and men's magazines both favour alluring pictures of women on their covers, a travel magazine I have sometimes contributed to features more sunbathing girls than surfboarding dudes, romping kids or even exotic native life, human or animal on its covers; a health magazine for men is a rare exception where buff male bodies are the norm; which is all very well, but seeing how frankly sexual some of those images are, one wonders why they aren't seen on the cover of Cosmo, rather than in a medium where, presumably, they are once again catering to men - to gay men, closeted or otherwise, in this case.
Art and cultural history show us that this trend is nothing new; John Berger famously analysed the contradictions inherent in painting a picture of a beautiful naked woman because you like the way she looks and then putting a mirror in her hand and labeling the picture 'vanity' to stay on the good side of the moral police. Or the elaborate allegorical paintings that use culture and artistic tradition as an excuse to display gloriously painted female flesh in the corridors of (male) power. With lower standards of rationalisation and craftsmanship, the same is true of any male-dominated preserve, which is to say most public and private human spaces.
In short, we're all Humbert, my sodden, depraved, porn-haunted brothers, shivering and coughing with our illicit lust and finding elaborate excuses for it. The question isn't how or why we got this way, but what we'll do to crawl out of this pit. I suggest brown-paper covers for everything for the next 20 years as a start.
ETA: A few noble exceptions:
1: Humbert The Monster
2: Unsexualised image with a poignant childish quality
3: Image is sexual, but clearly predatory, violent, not alluring
And this is so wrong-headed it has to be ironic.