The Sonorous and The Spine
How Lana Del Rey and The Caretaker Read Old European White Guys
This month, director Grant Gee’s new documentary Patience (After Sebald) has its limited US release. The film is a hypnotic meditation on the writer W.G. Sebald and his book The Rings of Saturn. As many Tiny Mix Tape gourmands already know, English experimental musician The Caretaker was responsible for the film’s soundtrack, which shares the film’s title and was independently released at the beginning of the year. Beyond providing a hypnotic 82-minute plunge, the film and its score are noteworthy for precipitating general consideration of how today’s music interacts with fine literature. The Caretaker and W. G. Sebald complement each other beautifully, and in the final fourth of this article, they offer a glowing example of how a musician can commune with a text.
However, before reaching our final destination of The Caretaker and W.G. Sebald, there is another pair of much more notorious artists whose recent, complicated entangling begs extended attention.
In a 1962 interview with a journalist whose name remains unknown, the self-mythologizing novelist Vladimir Nabokov provided a concise, though illuminating, list of those things he most disliked. “My loathings,” he said, “Are simple: stupidity, oppression, crime, cruelty, soft music.”
In the digital age of fashionable hi-fi headphones, noise pollution awareness, and all-night dance halls with decibel output exceeding that of a jumbo jet, it makes sense to champion Nabokov’s hatred of meek music. Turn it up! we’d like him to say, because in our era, we are wont to agree. But, in fact, Nabokov, the aesthete, held an indifference — if not disdain — toward music in general; other interviews and confessions reveal any kind of music filled him with distaste, and notes played too softly were the prime trespasser and recipient of his spleen. Nabokov expressing hate for soft music is analogous to an arachnophobe exclaiming, “I most hate spiders with furry hides.” While there’s a certain wooly insect that comes to mind, we know this phobe finds even the ones without bristles to be unbearable. Similarly, for Nabokov, it wasn’t just the volume of music that he disapproved of — though, to be fair, the man never seemed able to stomach timidity.
Of all the pretty poetic ponies Lana Del Rey could have tried to saddle, she picked one that, in addition to being fiercely independent and inimitable, held a grudge with her very medium.
For these facts alone, it’s noteworthy and precarious that Lana Del Rey — the music world’s alternating bane and beloved, varying with whatever URL upon which you alight — should have based so much of her debut album on Nabokov’s classic Lolita. It would surely be simple for Lana’s most ardent detractors to deem her Lolita references clumsy, superficial, and baseless. But it’s also likely that those same self-appointed critics would clumsily overlook a few of them. If you’ve come with Pitchforks and torches to watch the girl get eviscerated, that’s not what this is about; yes, it is unequivocally true that Del Rey’s most obvious Lolita references are awful: the song actually titled “Lolita” is far and away one of the album’s most rebarbative. However, no matter your love or loathing for Born to Die and its birthmother, a closer scrutiny reveals Del Rey does, at the very least, manage to exhibit an “interesting” reading of Nabokov’s masterwork, integrating it into her music in ways more intriguing than an occasional shout-out or two. Whether Del Rey’s interpretation of the book is, in fact, accurate or insightful requires more nuanced consideration; at the very least, she has managed to make a notable entry into the discussion of how contemporary music reads — or possibly misreads — literature.
Nabokov’s rejection of music has an unnervingly simple and convincing basis. In another interview (this one with Playboy in 1964), he offered one of his most brilliant quotes, explaining how he believed literature (and, we can extrapolate, all art) should be experienced: “You read an artist’s book not with your heart (the heart is a remarkably stupid reader), and not with your brain alone, but with your brain and spine.” Now pair this assertion with yet another: in a lecture he delivered to his students at Cornell and later published, Nabokov describes a moment from Kafka’s Metamorophis. Samsa, already transformed and abject, abandoned by his loved ones, hears music and is overwhelmed, weakened by it. Seemingly, to most readers, it is the music’s loveliness that inundates. Nabokov’s interpretation of this scene, however, is so tainted by his personal opinion of music that it seems almost comical, tantamount to an intentional misreading. In fact, says the professor, railing as usual against the common and expected, the music overwhelmed because that’s what music does: it manipulates emotion without any sound reason or logical foundation. In other words, it’s a senses-reliant art we experience through our dumb and wanton “heart” rather than with the glorious logic of our “brain” or the unmistakable shiver of our “spine.” Music enslaves our emotion and gives us over to feelings without justifying why. Consider this. It is, I can admit, often true. A sad song, by its simple sound, can suffuse you with melancholy. Something optimistic, by virtue of its primal, driving beat, can indeed be uplifting. For a mind craving truth, this reeks of manipulation.
Surely there are many counterarguments — the greatest composers have created systems of symbolism through notes themselves; lyrics in pop music have risen on a few rare occasions to the levels of full-blown literature; and the cultural phenomenon of rock ‘n’ roll’s web of genres is one that has at least some academic merit, even if it generally ignores the music itself. But all this is besides the point. What should be considered is the fate of a musician who tries to corral a writer such as Nabokov into her stable of cultural stallions. Of all the pretty poetic ponies Lana Del Rey could have tried to saddle, she picked one that, in addition to being fiercely independent and inimitable, held a grudge with her very medium.
She was a sex object only because she was perceived that way by her surrogate father. Del Rey does these things precisely in order to be perceived as a sex symbol.
As far as I’ve seen, Del Rey’s extensive debt to Lolita has gone much under-analyzed. But, first of all, what are the grounds for this comparison? To start, Del Rey drew the connection herself. First, there is the aforementioned track, which plainly burgles (not alludes; let’s not award a song so crass that privilege) Nabokov’s book’s title as its own. Then, surely with much blasé, Del Rey once called herself in a Guardian interview “Lolita [who] got lost in the hood.” In a “Why We Fight” article for Pitchfork, Nitsuh Abebe makes the accurate if unfulfilled observation that the epithet, and Del Rey’s aesthetic, made him believe she truly was referring to the book Lolita rather than some cultural bastardization of the name. Abebe is correct that, overall, Del Rey does pull much from Lolita, the paper-and-spine entity, but this particular quote is not one such case. Let us remember that the plight of Lolita, Nabokov’s Lolita, had nothing to do with wandering off — we can safely say that if she had wound up in the hood, she wouldn’t have willingly stayed long enough to land a record deal. By the time she does end up in the boonies, hitched, she’s a homemaker and jaded and harbors no fantasies that champion suburban squalor. If her kind spouse would have had videogames to play, Nabokov’s Lolita, at this point in her spurious, tortured life, would already have been too resigned to mope about it, much less pen a ballad. Surely, Lolita never actively “got lost”: the child was abducted, raped. Her consummate scene with Humbert Humbert features only-semi-veiled images of fragmentation and stinging blood. Your wince, reader, is not unsuited.
It’s true: Lana Del Rey adopts the Lolita identifiers of enthusiastically chewing gum, citing starlets, and inhabiting tragic swaths of suburbia. The difference is that Lolita did these things because she was a little girl. She was a sex object only because she was perceived that way by her surrogate father. Del Rey does these things precisely in order to be perceived as a sex symbol. Her equating of the identity and the perception is a fundamental misunderstanding of the character, of the story. Lolita depends entirely on Humbert Humbert… and yet nobody tries to win the hearts of consumers by putting on his guise. I wonder why! All of the details Del Rey borrows are accurately observed but failed in execution. The problem with her conception of the Lolita character is that the character is in fact a victim; anybody intentionally trying to identify with her has, by definition, failed far in advance.
But these are all concerns of image, which is transient and subject to trends. What of the text itself, or the music? What lies beneath the glossy sheen? Nabokov himself meditates on the subjects of duplicity and multi-layers, presenting these ideas to the reader prior even to Lolita’s first page. In the book’s Foreword, fictitiously penned by the fictitious John Rey Jr., we are introduced to Humbert Humbert by name. The “author’s bizarre cognomen is his own invention,” says Rey Jr., “and, of course, this mask — through which two hypnotic eyes seem to glow — had to remain unlifted in accordance with its wearer’s wish.” The entirety of Lolita, as astute readers have learned, dances around this question of disguise and deception.
Curiously, it’s also in considering beginnings and names that we get a glimpse beneath the mask of Lana Del Rey. Consider her album’s name, for example: Born to Die. At first glance, it evokes little more than the hint of a Lady Gaga and Springsteen romance. But held up against the backlight of Lolita, Lana’s title acquires a certain diaphanous incandescence. For example, in addition to hinting at H.H.’s haunting malice, the Foreword also secretly prefigures the fates of the major character in the book: they all die. In turn, the phrase Born to Die could be a recognition of this fact, an allusion (here the word is earned) to the idea that our heroes are DOA the moment we crack the book’s cover. Most importantly, though, these opening pages slyly reveal the fate of Lolita herself. Here, we note, she is craftily called by her husband’s name, Mrs. Richard Schiller. It’s by that name that we learn she is to die in childbirth. Born to Die is therefore a phrase quite literal and, we might begin to admit, in this context, quite well-conceived.
Before dubbing Del Rey a gleaming member of the literati, however, we must admit one three-word phrase is hardly proof of her intent or even understanding. But having now taken note of a possible intent, I propose we also must entertain the idea that beneath Del Rey’s mask of flippancy and pouty glam, there may just be a hypnotist’s eyes. And of course, when we examine her more closely, some evidence does glare back. Let us take a brief look.
First, there is another more obvious example: the track “Off to the Races” plainly quotes in its refrain Lolita’s much celebrated first sentence, “light of my life, fire of my loins.” If nothing else, this proves beyond reasonable doubt that Del Rey seeks to engage Lolita as a text and not just as a misshapen cultural idea. Unfortunately, this really does prove nothing else. We can hardly give Del Rey credit for lifting a book’s already over-cited first lines for a song that doesn’t engage with them meaningfully. Further, this particular citation suffers from the same shortcomings of Del Rey’s quip about Dolores Haze in the ghetto — specifically, in this context it doesn’t actually mean anything. Once again, it reveals the confusion between Lolita and Humbert Humbert, the confusion between victim and victimizer. Let us remember, students of Nabokov and scholars of Spotify, anything seductive in this book has its source in the thrashing pen of a pervert, not the thighs of a poor vixen. It is simply incorrect for Del Rey to belt out this quote and pretend Lolita was the one who originally moaned it. Del Rey’s mistake is baldly revealed in the juvenile pitch she affects when the line squeaks out. To achieve verisimilitude, her voice must plummet three octaves, at least.
The Caretaker’s album does not choke itself on the objective of embodying an entire book. Instead, it sounds as if it has read that book and can now move forward with that greater knowledge in its noise.
But, ultimately, this sort of criticism is redundant and hollow. Worst of all, it discourages us from gleaning what is most interesting, which is, again, what Del Rey got right. Namely, I submit, the song “Carmen.” It seems indisputable to me that of Born to Die’s offerings, the finest songs are the ones Del Rey released as singles prior to the album’s actual debut (“Video Games,” “Blue Jeans,” and the title track). Of the remaining songs, two stand out as approaching the quality of these earlier offerings: the first is “Radio.” But it is in the second song, “Carmen,” where Del Rey makes an argument for herself not only as a compelling pop musician, but as a perceptive reader.
Scour the song’s lyrics all you like. You’ll see they hold no overt reference to Lolita. The connection is more interesting than that, as it is an achievement of metafiction. The song, you see, is Del Rey’s own version of a tune that Humbert Humbert and Lolita sing together early on in the novel, while the girl sits in the pedo’s lap as he secretly (and fully) pleasures himself by indulging through layers of cotton against her lower limbs. The ballad that H.H. employs as distraction, is, of course, about a “little Carmen” and “the stars, and the cars, and the bars, and the barmen.” Having firmly established Del Rey’s interest in Nabokov, there is no doubt her song titled “Carmen” is no coincidence. Although she quite smartly generates her own lyrics (she does, however, mimic Nabokov by rhyming “Carmen” with “charmin’”), the reference is undeniable. Of her various attempts to embody Lolita’s character, this song, in its entirety, is the most successful, but not because its content is about some poor girl and her sad, spoiled life. It’s successful because it intentionally refers to a moment in the book when Lolita is oblivious and exploited. Of all the tracks on Born to Die, this is the only one that convincingly portReys Lolita’s pairing of deception with naïveté — of all the tracks, it’s the only one I can imagine Lolita herself singing, but only because I believe it’s been proven through illustration and allusion that, despite the song’s content, she would willfully overlook its darkness and would not notice the man plucking the apple from between her knees. Del Rey, for a sad single song, doesn’t call herself Lolita, but actually sounds like her, and it’s because of the cited scene, through a rare affectation of innocence.
But the strongest case in Del Rey’s favor is the least precise and requires the most generosity from us. It’s simple and, once you notice it, obvious. It’s a matter of aesthetic, and it utterly penetrates the majority of the album’s songs.
Integrated into many of Del Rey’s beats is one of two sound effects: the first is the sound of a man screaming with varying degrees of choler and clarity. Regardless of a song’s subject, this sound gives the often chilling effect of a masculine force attempting to break into the defensive shell projected by the music. The most obvious example is on “Blue Jeans;” the most subtle and harrowing is in “National Anthem” (use those hi-fi phones!). Because these sounds are ingredients of the beat, their suggested violence seems relentless and inevitable, even while the girl sings about girlish things. By now, I believe the relevance in connection with Lolita should be self-apparent.
The second sound is one of children playing. In the final pages of Lolita, a stricken Humbert Humbert, now having reached a sort of moral certitude and doom, tells how one day a bout of nausea compelled him to stop his car at the crest of a valley. Walking to the edge, looking out, he hears coming from the town below the sound of children at play, invisible in the distance. In these last pages, he mourns, hopelessly, “the absence of [Lolita’s] voice from that concord.” Impossible to believe, but also with the effect of impossible sincerity, Humbert Humbert actually intimates the will to repent, accompanied by the tantalizing knowledge that he never can. Appropriately, to hear Del Rey’s take on invisible children at play, see “Off to the Races,” “Summertime Sadness,” and “This is What Makes us Girls.”
No doubt, these details and their effects could be mere coincidence. Even so, there is something to be said and considered about even an accidental resonance of imagery and aesthetic between Born to Die and Lolita. No matter the banality of Del Rey’s statements on literature or the platitudes of her references, there are moments when she incises and strikes right to the quick of something. This is why she remains under examination and why you’ve read this far.
So what is Del Rey’s ultimate fate in terms of Lolita? The conclusion is simple and thankfully shocking. Of the many multi-layered tragedies folded into Nabokov’s book, there is one in particular that sits squarely at the bottom, at the root. It is the tragedy of Humbert Humbert’s art. While not the saddest of the book’s tragedies, nor involving the most egregious crimes, in Lolita’s Afterward, Nabokov himself suggests this tragedy was the seed of his book. The writer describes the “first little throb of Lolita” entering his nervous system when he read an article about an ape who was taught how to draw. The first picture it produced depicted the bars of its cage.
The shocking verdict for Del Rey is she has cast herself more as Humbert Humbert than Lolita.
H.H.’s tragedy is this: the man clearly possesses a sort of genius; he is some breed of literary titan. But, alas, Humbert Humbert’s own fetish has driven him to squander a supremely rare gift to a life of crime and impulse. It is not hard to imagine the character, freed from the compulsion of his fetish, as a writer spewing masterworks with ease and devouring dozens of ingenues of a more appropriate age. But, of course, his prison and its bars — his love for nymphets — has contained and consumed his art.
The shocking verdict for Del Rey is she has cast herself more as Humbert Humbert than Lolita. Of course, I do not mean this in terms of perversion, or of exploiting anybody, or of being a villain. I make the comparison thinking of H.H.’s tragedy, which Del Rey, in a way, shares. Born to Die offers moments of clear potential, such as the evidence that Del Rey is capable of injecting literature into her music in a profound way. But her misreadings overwhelm. All her successes are couched within an album that’s too often either puerile or sterile. We get the impression that something threw her off course, distracted her from making the kind of art that was in her potential. Maybe Del Rey truly had only a handful of great songs inside her, but it seems to me she more likely fell victim to an imprisoning seduction of her own. Exactly what this would be, we can only speculate, but it seems just as Humbert Humbert’s art was deluged, doomed by an obsession he could not shake, Born to Die was crippled by the allure of swollen fame and success, which came too soon.
Afterword. The fate of the writer W.G. Sebald was a tragedy — a tragedy of the real world, not the melodramatic “tragedy” I’ve just used to discuss Lana Del Rey. In 2001, a car crash ended Sebald in an instant, as a New York Times obituary from that year reports. Sebald, 57 years old, had been on track to become one of the 21st century’s indispensable pillars of literature. In the decade since his death, it has become clear that, though robbed of half his life, he stands as a monolith anyhow.
Obviously, W.G. Sebald never achieved a Nabokov-esque level of fame in his lifetime. Although brilliant, his books likely will never seduce the masses with the same naughty tenacity as Lolita. But Sebald himself said on occasion how personally important he considered Nabokov, and the two share common ground. Their propensity for mazes is a start, along with their identities as snowy-haired European gents with supreme gravitas, immortalized in their most famous photographs. They both made great use of English, though it was not their native language (Nabokov wrote his best works directly in English; Sebald, a German living in England, wrote first in his mother tongue, then meticulously and expertly oversaw his translations). Sebald’s perennial subject was the Holocaust, though he most often described it through terms of outline or by examining it in the periphery or reflection of something else. Nabokov’s own brother died at the hands of the Nazis, though this is a subject he attends to in his writing at its periphery. Sebald himself noted in interviews that one of his great talents was to trace unlikely, seemingly roving, associations, like a dog zigging then zagging through a field.
However, not all associations need be far fetched or meandering: it is a great and all-too-tempting coincidence that the same month Lana Del Rey’s Born to Die hit shelves — January 2012 — there also debuted an album focused on one of Sebald’s finest books. The Caretaker’s Patience (After Sebald) is the soundtrack for a documentary about The Rings of Saturn, one of Sebald’s “novels” (the documentary, also called Patience, begins by describing how Sebald’s books effectively deny and decimate conceptions of genre). Appropriately, the film has recently seen a wider US release. It’s very, very good — you can read an aptly glowing review on this very website.
While there seems to be almost no aesthetic similarity between The Caretaker and Del Rey, based on wherein reviews for each artist appear, their audiences do share some overlap. In terms of music alone, it would be a fool’s errand to flatly compare the artists’ 2012 albums because they’re so different. In terms of how each integrates their respective book, however, there is no more enlightening contrast. A pairing is recommended.
An analysis of The Caretaker’s effort can be thankfully swift, because his album is so successful in its mission. There is a quote in the film Patience by Robert Macfarlane describing how Sebald concerns himself with substances of dust, materials on the border between something and nothingness. A fan of The Caretaker will find assured harmony in these ideas, as his method of music-making — filtering vintage-sounding tracks through layers of deteriorating effects — embraces dissolution as a key component. Sebald is a writer fixated on memory and all its holy perforations and errors. The Caretaker’s music is reverent in the way it celebrates the aesthetic of decline. Grant Gee, the documentary’s director, did not find a musician who could rise to the aesthetic of W.G. Sebald — he found a musician who was already living within it. The Caretaker’s album does not choke itself on the objective of embodying an entire book. Instead, it sounds as if it has read that book and can now move forward with that greater knowledge in its noise.
In an interview in 2001, Sebald discussed technology of the modern world. Technology, of course, makes The Caretaker’s music possible, as it makes possible your consumption of these words. Responding to a question about his book After Nature, Sebald said, “In terms of evolution, [machines] are of the higher order, there’s no doubt about it. Whether they are intelligent or not is neither here nor there, but they are of the higher order. They come after us. It is encapsulated in that wonderful image of the dog listening to the gramophone.” As I write this, records emblazoned with the RCA terrier line my wall, bend against books, and gather dust. W.G. Sebald died in tragedy later that year, shuttled darkly by the luxurious technology of a car. Whether or not his radio was turned on, I don’t know, and whether that fact should have significance, I can’t say.