Paratexts Gone Wrong

Today in my Intro to English Studies course we are talking about paratexts, the materials that surround the text (front and back matter, illustrations, book design, advertisements, etc.) but are not part of the text proper. Nabokov, as we know, was fascinated by paratexts. He liked to include sham versions of them within his novels (John Ray Jr.’s foreword in Lolita, Kinbote’s foreword, commentary, and index in PF, the editorial interruptions in Ada) and penned a number of authentic prefaces and afterwords, as well. Sometimes he intruded into the publisher’s paratext, as in the Putnam’s first edition of Pale Fire, where, as James Ramey has shown, he hid the crown jewels of Zembla, represented by a black crown on the title page, just below the author’s name and just above the Putnam’s logo.

When it came to cover illustrations, Nabokov strongly preferred plain text on a simple background to any kind of representative image of characters or situations, and the publishers of his first editions largely adhered to his wishes. Later editions, however, were beyond Nabokov’s control. In Lolita: The Story of a Cover Girl (Print Books, 2013), John Bertram and Yuri Leving present a brilliant overview of the ways book designers have molded, and been molded by, the public’s image of Lolita (the character). Also be sure to check out Dieter Zimmer’s web gallery of Lolita editions from around the world.

For all the egregious distortions and vulgarities apparent on the covers of books, we should not forget the damage that can be done by the blurbs and summaries on the back cover. One of the worst is from the 1989 Vintage paperback of Despair. (The whole Vintage 1989 reissue was, by the way, a design nightmare: awful photographs, ugly colors, inaccurate lepidoptera, etc.) The description reads thus:

Extensively revised by Nabokov in 1965–thirty years after its original publication–DESPAIR is the wickedly inventive and richly derisive story of Hermann, a man who undertakes the perfect crime: his own murder.

Immediately below this we find a blurb from Newsweek:

“A beautiful mystery plot, not to be revealed.”

But of course, one of the main elements of that plot–an element that is not fully revealed until quite late in the novel–is Hermann’s plan to murder his alleged double, Felix, and collect the insurance money. So the Vintage description does, in fact, reveal an essential element of the plot that Newsweek says should not be revealed!

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2 thoughts on “Paratexts Gone Wrong

  1. asa says:

    I haven’t read Despair yet, but I did notice that the Vintage plot spoiling blurb is still widely used to describe the book when I’ve looked to purchase it.
    Interesting looking at the different Lolita covers. I’m amused by the designers who didn’t really know what to do and just put a photo of Nabokov on the cover.
    What do you think of the book covers designed under the supervision of John Gall? I think they’re quite interesting in the way they try to specifically incorporate an essence of Nabokov himself with the specimen box design. Curious how Lolita seems to be omitted from this thematic collection, although Jamie Keenan’s prospective design for Lolita is quite clever.

    • matthewsroth says:

      Asa, I love the new John Gall designs! Such an improvement! In his interview with John Bertram, Gall said they didn’t redo the Lolita cover because it had recently been repackaged for the 50th anniversary edition. But he then says that he does have a plan to put it in the box format, “which hopefully will be soon.”

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