Judge these books by their covers: Nabokov Giveaway!

Perhaps the most creative and ambitious backlist promotion in the history of Vintage International, John Gall’s individually commissioned Nabokov backlist covers have become collector’s items in themselves. As an homage to the author’s love for collecting butterflies, each cover was created using pins, paper, and butterfly boxes.

Below, see them in all their glory. Click through for larger images. And just for fun, tell us which is your favorite! Then leave a comment with your reasons why– the most original argument will win a copy of the book they’ve chosen.

*Bend Sinister, The Enchanter, The Gift, Look at the Harlequins and The Luzhin Defense won’t be available until early next year, but don’t let that sway your vote! We’ll get it to you as soon as possible if one is your favorite. The rest are currently available.

121 thoughts on “Judge these books by their covers: Nabokov Giveaway!

  1. Pale Fire:
    because of the poetry that is present in a snuffed match

    (and the infinity of images in the smoke, just waiting for interpretation)

  2. The Luzhin Defense because my first thought every time I see one of those display cases is “What would happen if you shook it?” I think that cover shows pretty clearly what would happen.

  3. Invitation to a beheading, while I didn’t actually vote for it, may be my favorite on a second look. It is the only one up there that looks like it can’t actually fit in the shadow box. The perception of distance created by the box’s shadow is shallower than the perception of distance created by the perspective of the invitation.

    While most of the others skillfully play with depth, this is the only one that looks like it couldn’t actually fit within its own box.

    Very cool.

  4. Pale Fire.

    The color choice is perfect, as is the imagery of the match/smoke. The color gives it this rich velvety look which the font balances with clean lines.

    I’m also a sucker for simple one-image covers.


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  6. ‘Speak, Memory’ is the best cover. Instead of a butterfly pinned in the box, there is a simple transparent sheet with his name, Vladimir Nabokov. He as a person now is the one encased and showcased, his collection of words and memories are all there for us to view. He is the butterfly now on display, very fitting as this book is his autobiography. It is a simple and very clever design. Bravo.

  7. Luzhin Defense:

    The chessboard squares coming apart are a little cliched, but the cover nicely evokes a sense of tumbling, which is crucial to the book, and especially its ending.

    I’m not particularly keen on the others – they are nice looking enough but rather obvious and over the top (e.g. Speak Memory). But I suspect I’m in the minority…


    There is a subtle undertone that reflects the uncomfortability depicted within the book. The exaggerated use of angles in the invitation itself creates a physical boundary that reacts with the inferred sense of human scale to depict a confined isolation behind the glass.
    Ironically, this has been done in what initially was an enclosed 3-dimensional space.

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  10. i like pale fire because it makes me think of the tv spots for tucks medicated pads and there’s all that scatological humor at the end of the book w/poor gradus so i think the match picture was a good choice and i get what you’re going for.

  11. Bend Sinister, because this new cover is possibly as eerily intriguing in its simplicity as the original cover that forced me to open it.

  12. The Enchanter looks most like it was designed especially for the specimen box, using the layers and depth in a way that would not be as satisfying without the butterfly box.

  13. The Luzhin Defense is my favorite – the decontructed chess board squares all jumbled into the bottom of the box are very evocative of Luzhin’s mental collapse in the story.

    But they are all fantastic covers. It must be a beautiful collection of art when viewed in person.

  14. Despair has the eerie juxtaposition of the word “Despair” and the jaunty colors, and the symmetrical design is a nod to Hermann’s belief that Felix is his double.

  15. I like the “Speak, Memory” cover the most. I haven’t read the book yet, but I know it is an autobiography/memoir and the gauzy way the title is blurred beneath the overlay (with the author’s name in clear, sharp type) makes me think of someone looking back and pulling out the stories from fuzzy memories.

  16. Glory take the prize for me. (Pale Fire finishes with a strong second.)

    This cover just oozes decadence!! I love it! The steel (maybe??) cut out letters, the feathers that seems as though they belong on a dress, glitter…the embellishment is lush but somewhat spartan in it’s restrain – after all, with what seems to be the left overs of a Prince costume, this cover has all the makings to be excessive, but it’s not.

    I haven’t read the book, but gleaning from the cover, I think there’s something about restrained decadence, elegance and by effect, mourning. Those qualities twined usually never last long. And the words “Glory” seem sad. Not to mention that the cover is done in an entire monochromatic black motif. Not exactly celebration, I would say. But, because of the odd fellowship of mood invoked through the color and the title of the book, I want to read it! Why is this not a celebration? Or if it is, what about it is somber? Or is Glory a sarcastic quip to gentlemenly bitterness? Which ever it is, and because it’s Nabokov, it is probably a love letter to something forlorn and unattainable.

    I’m 150% positive I would not have thought about all of that prior to reading this book, or any book for that matter, but I like a cover that makes me think about the contents of the book.

  17. Stories. The changing of fonts for each letter shows that you will be receiving a variety of fiction species when you open the book, but that all the stories exist in the same genus.

  18. The Luzhin Defense cover is almost frightening in its lack of sense and symmetry. This cover, more so than the others, convincingly visualizes the experience of its character; Luzhin, like the book’s cover, stumbles in the face of his world’s overwhelming three-dimensionality. Remember Luzhin’s frightening trip through the hotel in the midst of the chess competition. Ultimately, Luzhin opts out of the book’s three dimensional game, falling to the flat ground below – just like the pieces in this cover.

  19. Pnin–lovely pinned bow-tie/butterfly perfectly symbolizes the protagonist as eccentric professor: a little askew, a bit out of touch, perhaps fragile, but a most unique voice.

  20. As an aside, would you ever consider producing a poster of all the covers? I would love to hang something like that on my wall (or even a poster of the “Pale Fire” cover alone…)

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  22. Wow. Those were all really good, but for me it’s Glory and then Pale Fire. Well, they are really, really close. But I love the word Glory so there you have it. Now I guess I need to look this author up. I can’t say as I’ve ever read any of his work.

  23. Laughter in the Dark is a gorgeous image. It seems to reference classic Hitchcock posters, and hints at a suspensful tale inside. I would absolutely buy this book based on the cover alone. Love those sinister hands.

  24. I adore the Pale Fire cover! It clearly evokes the smokiness, or lack of clarity, of the main character’s perspective. The narrator is “blowing smoke” and making the reader fight to find their way through the narrative and various sections of the novel.

  25. GLORY –

    It reminds me of both fireworks and for some reason the opening lines of Lolita – Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth.

    I think it does a really good job of portraying what Nabokov excelled in – very precise, very calculated chaos.

  26. So hard to choose, they are all stunning,
    but I would say “Glory”

    because….it makes me feel like im being watched by those letters, and its creepy in a good way.like most of N’s work

  27. I was torn between “Despair” and “Pale Fire.” Ultimately I chose “Despair.” At a first look, it is eye-catching and aesthetically pleasing. After reading the title and looking at the close up image I liked how the title is so simple and in a black box surrounded by intense colour. The colour on the outside starts to look like it is closing in on the black box. It evokes a sense of despair.

    Additionally, it’s one of the few covers that actually makes me thing of a butterfly in a shadow box. I was a biology major and I used to see these a lot with the little white tags underneath identifying the species of butterfly or bird in slanting cursive handwriting, very similar to the way “Despair” is written. Dead butterflies in shadow boxes certainly seem desperate to me.

  28. I think Glory is the best because there is a higher level of art at work in the placement of each paper tendril. It also has a distinct unity and is eye-catching but subdued. Beautiful piece of art by Martin Venezky.

  29. The Luzhin Defence- the three dimensionality of the shadow box reduced to the 2 dimensions of a printed page ties in so neatly to the way chess is at once in one’s head (moving, always the sense of almost infinite possibilites) and on the board (only one choice, one move, and then fallout). I love this cover more than I love developing both knights before the queen’s bishop.

  30. Invitation to a beheading.

    The chair is so small, and the invitation so large. And I feel like the invitation is swallowing me whole, and it is perhaps inviting me to my own beheading.

  31. Glory : for the menace and the disorder in the graphic, and how that contrasts with the apparently simple meaning of the title. I already want to open the book to try resolve the ambiguity, overcome the tension.

  32. What a terrific concept. The Penguin Classic new covers are also amazing. It is unfortunate that it takes a fancy cover to get some to read these incredible classics.

  33. The “Speak Memory” design is firing on all cylinders. The pins give a nod to the butterfly-box concept, the gauze effect speaks to Nabokov’s theme of the ambiguity between memory and identity, *achieving* the gauze effect exploits the ingenuity of adding depth to book design, and the onion-skin is a nice reference to the classic tools of the designer. So Bierut is executing four different design ideas with the materials he already had sitting on his desk. This should earn him applause from designers, but most importantly I think it would bring specific pleasure to Nabokov himself, whose writing is characterized by his delight in layers of wordplay and a multiplicity of readings. So that makes five design ideas in one box.

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  35. Bend Sinister — nice and clean. But wait; is that supposed to be like a “mark on [one’s] escutcheon” joke? Ooohhh–

  36. I voted for Glory, but I like Pale Fire. The idea of a smoking match on the cover of a book is just so dangerous and reckless and sexy.

  37. I had to vote for THE LUZHIN DEFENSE / Design by Paul Sahre. As much as I love Invitation to a Beheading, I could not vote for the cover. I adore al things Nabokov and I think he would like these covers.

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  39. Laughter in the Dark
    Love the hourglass figure together with the loud lipstick mouth. Makes me wonder about the female character and want to find out more. She looks and sounds like me…

  40. I like Transparent Things cover. It really seems as though I’m seeing through the objects on the cover. I love books that make me try to figure out what the cover means in relation to the book before I read it.


    Definitely a powerful cover, specially with the eyes in the mask, the topic is asking you to look at the harlequins but the cover is looking at you looking at it, its a pretty powerful imagery that makes you self conscious yes intrigues you to look inside while avoiding the glaring eyes behind the mask.

  42. ada: wisely opts against a literal depiction of van’s structurally perfect stools, instead conveying the novel’s sense (texture) of time.

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  44. Glory: it’s the inside of a watch. Probably what Sirin’s mind looked like. Fitting, seeing that he died in Switzerland.

    Reading this over, it’s obvious that I’m drunk.

  45. I chose, The Eye as my favorite for 3 reasons. First it was my first Nabokov novel I read when I was 17 years old, so it has a nostalgic hold over me – I can remember exactly where I was in my life and what was happening around me.

    Second it was a really short read just over 100 pages – that’s one of the reasons why I originally bought the book & read it.

    Third reason is the cover reminds me of the russian constructivists- (Vladimir Tatlin, Kasimir Malevich, Alexandra Exter, Robert Adams, and El Lissitzky). Who I studied back in college when I was studying art history & design.

    To me this cover fits perfectly with the story not only does the story revolve around Russian characters it was written around the time of the Russian Constructivist. It is a perfect marriage of story, time, place and design.

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  47. The cover of “Stories” is my favorite. I love the eye-catching color palette (red, black, and white being particular favorites of mine), as well as the simplicity and clarity of the design. I’m intrigued by the playful mix of fonts, hinting at the variety of tales within. And I appreciate the cleverness behind the vertically folded letter tiles, as their three-dimensional silhouettes suggest a series of open books – inviting the reader to choose a story and dive right in.

  48. The cover for THE LUZHIN DEFENSE is so irresistibly intriguing, so engaging – and these qualities reflect all that I’ve learned about Nabokov’s writing. That balance between cover and content is rare and wonderful!

  49. When I think of the word, glory, I think brightness, like a spotlight on a returning hero. I love the cover for Glory, because, while very fitting to the content of the book, the brooding black is the absolute antithesis of the images one associates with the word, glory.

  50. i voted for transparent things. why? i’m a sucker for trompe l’oeil and i love the color palette. it also happens to be the only one of those books that i haven’t read.

  51. The Luzhin Defense cover is just so different and a piece of art (would it be possible to purchase a poster of the cover?).

  52. oh, yes, I did not write the reason of my choice: actually “speak memory” remainds me to a some good conceptual art – I like the font and the use of onion paper to blur some of the content, exactly like memory does with the passing of time


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  54. I went with Pale Fire. I have a rather simple reason for enjoying the cover: it makes me want to re-read the book. This is especially impressive considering that I was not a fan of pale fire but the cover makes me think I missed something.

  55. “Well done, you’re a real cubist” says Luzhin’s mother-in-law. Sahre’s design encapsulates this defamiliarization of perspective in allowing Nabokov’s name to penetrate the title like some kind of visual roman à clef. Using only pins, paper, and butterfly boxes, the title cover serves to undermine their basic uses; to contradict the stasis that they are supposed to uphold by giving them a reckless fluidity. Through the interplay of the black and white of the chessboard, Sahre’s design also creates problematising penumbras, evoking the fact that Luzhin “rarely got to the colours” yet allowing the reader, like the protagonist, to be plagued by mordant shadow play.

  56. The waves on King, Queen, Knave remind me of stage props used in old vaudeville shows, evoking a self-conscious drama that is heightened by the diminishing font of the letters–the cover is “awash” in tension. The ring buoy is the perfect touch.

  57. They’re all so good! But _Despair_’s my favorite: so clean, so direct, and so precise — it’s a novel of false doubles, and there’s the twin bands of symmetrical colors; it’s also a novel of murder and so there’s those bright colors losing out to the darkness.

  58. I voted for ‘Pnin.’ The others are very well-designed, and occasionally beautiful, but the creator of the Pnin cover illuminated the essence of the book with all its Nabokovian winks.

    The pattern which spells out the title character is stung with Bill Blass propriety. The bumptuous bow tie itself is appropriate for its slapstick residue…something the titular emigre can never wash off. I think VN even refers to that ‘goon tie’ in the first few pages. And let’s not overlook its resemblance to a stretched butterfly, dumbly labeled underneath in some American typewriter font. And that’s the predicament of the novel, visually summed up here in clever economy.

    I can well imagine Nabokov scribbling on a notecard (too individual to use a blog) and mailing his vote to Vintage Int’l. It might read “The author prefers this one.”

  59. I voted for “King, Queen, Knave” only because every single one of the other covers is sterile, lifeless, and totally lacking in appeal to the imagination–the very opposite of the qualities I associate with Nabokov’s writing.

  60. I like the cover of STORIES best, because while it takes an old technique of collage letters, it’s given a new life within the specimen box. Isn’t that exactly what art is always about? A constant refreshing of the old? Perfect.

  61. Pnin- As a lesser but still good cover of Pnin quotes Graham Greene, it is: “Hilariously funny, and of a sadness.”

  62. I vote for “Pale Fire” and “The Luzhin Defense”– both are simple and elegant. Though I would have liked to have seen a Black Queen chess piece amongst the black and white squares.

    The smoking match, sultry and elusive, reminds me of film noir.

  63. Oh, these are wonderful. My favorite is Invitation to a Beheading, because it reminds me of a theater program as much as an open invitation. It feels like the chair is as much there for me to sit in — as an audience member at this grotesque event — as it is an object in Cincinnatus’s cell.

  64. Laughter in the Dark is my favorite cover. I like how the silhouette covers the space diagonally and her big red lips. I noticed the contrast between black & white in the colors chosen with red as an accent. The most artistic cover has the playfulness of light and dark.

  65. The cover for ‘Despair’ instantly jumped out at me for one seemingly whiz-bang reason: as an undocumented synaesthete, and knowing that Nabokov was regarded as a grapheme-synaesthete, the color-bands on the front cover make me want to assign them letters! And I wonder what Nabokov would do (see)?

  66. “Pale Fire” is actually a quote from Shakespeare — something about the moon stealing its pale fire from the sun — and, of course, works (among other things)in reference to the delusional main character stealing light and life from John Shade — more jokes and more jokes with that “Shade”

    Point is, the match — although beautiful — has nothing to do with the book, but is itself a joke. More jokes and more jokes.

    Appropriate? Can’t say. I’d like a small bucket containing some burning paper.

    Pail Fire, I’d call it.

  67. What an astounding opportunity for artists! These covers so enhance the pleasure of handling and reading these books.

  68. The cover for Glory looks simply delectable, almost like a box of premium dark chocolate :)

    I haven’t yet read the book, but I think the ribbons wonderfully add a kind of festive look that’s fitting for the title while the rich black palette creates a dark atmosphere suggests that the story may not be all that glorious after all.


    Because it’s gorgeous and black and white (so appropriate) and I love that little loneley stickpin up top…reminds me of Luzhin’s poor wife at the end.

    Oh, and also for restoring the proper name to the novel!


    Because it’s gorgeous and black and white (so appropriate) and I love that little lonely stickpin up top…reminds me of Luzhin’s poor wife at the end.

    Oh, and also for restoring the proper name to the novel!

  71. SPEAK, MEMORY: the relationship between the waxy yellow paper and the Snellen eye-chart type on this cover wonderfully captures Nabokov’s anti-Proustian view of memory. The past becomes clear for Nabokov only with patient focus. There are no sudden insights; no overwhelming linden tea-scented flashbacks–no removal of the veil. The past is an effect of concentration. This cover nicely visualizes the delicate interplay between opacity and transparency in Nabokov’s autobiography, one of his most eloquent works of writing.

  72. Speak, Memory. Represented as if the memory and the person are two different entities. The person yellowed and thinning and uneven about the edges. Or perhaps the person pinned to the sterile plate for observation. The subjective pinned to the supposedly objective. The subjective obfuscating the objective.

  73. Invitation to a Beheading works on so many levels: Visually perfect utilization of the shadowbox idea: Depth, shadow and perspective presented in a simple and dramatic way. The invitation itself becomes like the specimen, With its upwardly folding wings pinned to the background in a more subtle way than, say, the Pnin cover. And the imagery is true to the story itself: sparse, solitary, empty and claustrophobic at the same time. This cover does visual and conceptual justice to its book!

  74. Simple really – What else evokes the primal and precocious nature of a true Nabokovella. The Enchanter.

  75. Laughter in the Dark evokes both the embracing and the menacing aspects of Nabakov’s work. You can be carried along so swiftly by his story, his elegance, his perfect white teeth, and then you are reading about a little girl crying in the dark while Humbert laments her lack of manners. Shocking. And this cover for Laughter does the same.

  76. I voted for “The Real Life of Sebastian Knight” mainly because it’s the perfect and most original way of interpreting the novel. The cover is very appealing, conveying all the most intriguing themes of the book: vertigo, metafiction, reflection: this novel is in fact about itself.
    I also appreciated the butterfly-like boxes which frame all the novels; in this case it is even more appropriate: this pinned-down image fatally attempts to do the impossible, trying to fix the shade of a fleeting character-book.

  77. The Luzhin Defense:

    The cover presents an erudite elegance that is thoughtfully woven out of what appears to be chaos on the first look – the perfect reflection of this book and his literary style.

    …although honestly the cover of Pale Fire is just as beautiful and well done.

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  79. All of these covers are a treat to the eye and to the mind (ditto the comment posted earlier about wanting to own a poster of these covers), but the one cover that also made me feel the impulse to action, in other words, to open the book–right now!–was INVITATION TO A BEHEADING. This was the cover where I wanted the rest of the story; the other images seemed to be complete statements in and of themselves and might be most meaningful to readers after they had read the book, not before.

  80. Speak Memory-

    The words “SPEAK” and “MEMORY” on close inspection are partially fuzzy and out of focus similar to when dissecting and recalling past thoughts and images in one’s life.

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  83. I quite like the cover for “The Enchanter”. There’s an alluring dichotomy between innocence and seductiveness in the picture of the girl; not surprising, given the book’s status as a proto-Lolita of sorts.

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