Artwork From the First-Ever Illustrated Version of Vladimir Nabokov’s ‘Lolita’

Last year, the New Republic celebrated the 60th anniversary of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita with a selection of mini-essays from women writers. The first of these, from debut novelist Alexandra Kleeman, offers a brilliant close reading of the novel’s first lines. After a fiery opening that seems to be addressed to Lolita, Kleeman writes, our narrator veers off, “leaving the reader uncertain whether he refers to the girl or to himself, or to the latter in the guise of the former.” It becomes ever more clear, Kleeman adds, that

Humbert isn’t speaking to Lolita at all: he uses her instead as material for thought, something to give shape to his speech. Lolita’s allure has more to do with Humbert’s backstory than with any nymph-like nature of her own.

This reading strikes me now as important, especially in light of a new Folio Society edition of Nabokov’s Lolita, which is the first to attempt to illustrate the novel. If an artist wants to illustrate Lolita, how does he cut through the psychodrama of its public reception? Of its critical history, or its depictions in cinema? Is it possible to illustrate scenes from Lolita without carrying its considerable baggage? With this in mind, I spoke to artist Federico Infante, whose own artwork from the Folio Society edition can be seen below.

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Flavorwire: I’m curious about your relationship with Lolita before the project — was it a book you came to recently? Or had you read it in the past?

Federico Infante: I had read Lolita before starting this project, and I was aware of its complex subject matter and the sensibility of Nabokov’s writing. But with any project like this I had to move from a surface understanding of the work to a deeper analysis.

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How did the project begin? How long did it take?

The project started when Sheri Gee, art director of The Folio Society contacted me with the idea. She had a vision about this book, and I’m honored she picked me. After seeing some of my drawings on my website, she emailed me and told me about the project. Her vision was similar to mine so we started working right away on it.

I believe it took around six months or a little bit more, but the toughest part was the final selection of the images to illustrate. It was a long process before starting to work on the paintings you see in the book.

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Obviously the prospect of illustrating Lolita is complex emotionally and ethically, but your images manage to be tasteful while remaining true to the spirit of the novel. Was this a worry, or did you overcome this problem easily?

Thanks, yes, it was a very challenging project. Each image and the unity of them required a long and thoughtful process, but for me was like continuing my personal work. Painting is a challenge, every day you face new possibilities and outcomes. With time you begin to enjoy a ride that in the beginning feels more like a struggle.

I was definitely worried about depicting Lolita in a way that reflected the common ideas of her, and not my own. I believe that historically she’s been wrongfully sexualized by popular culture, viewing her through Humbert’s distorted lens and not the reality of such a young, innocent girl.  I wanted to be careful to capture her true essence.

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Can you talk a little bit about the scenes you chose to illustrate — what inspired you about these scenes? Also, the images taken together form a rich and and coherent whole. Did you conceive of this as a total project or a set of scenes?

I began brainstorming initial illustrations with my first rereading of the book. I tried to connect with the story and let my imagination visualize the situations in a very organic way. Specific sentences popped in my head, giving me clear ideas of visual metaphors that could be use to interpret several pages. I proposed my ideas to the editors, and, with Sheri’s help, we came up with a body of work that had unity.

I used the scratches and textures of the background as a connective element. They represent the unsettling and decaying atmosphere of the story and underline the distorted vision of the narrator.

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What are you working on next?

I’m currently wrapping up preparations for a solo show in Italy in March and creating new work for exhibitions in NYC  later this year.

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The Folio Society edition of Lolita, illustrated by Federico Infante, is exclusively available from www.foliosociety.com.