Present conditions have distanced relatives and friends from each other, and ourselves, from the busy goings-on we are accustomed to. Stuck inside our homes, I expect that many of us have had a row with anyone who so much as breathes too noisily in our direction. And, with little else to do, we attend our online classes, and video chat our friends with whom we have hardly anything to share (there are only so many responses we can give to the customary ‘what’s up?’ before we start summarizing the plot of Nacho Libre to a vacant expression). On the bright side, being stuck at home gives you a jump start on the summer reading you usually postpone for idle July and August.
However, this is not your average book recommendation list. I have compiled a soundtrack of four songs for four classic novels that might complement an afternoon spent nose-deep in a book, nestled in an armchair of preference.
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
Nabokov’s prose is musical. Within the first paragraph, the novel’s protagonist Humbert Humbert does his due diligence to his pubescent sweetheart by dissecting her name into three syllables: “Lo. Lee. Ta.” He emphasizes it twice to describe how the name should fall on the orator’s mouth, like a gentle gallop: “Lolita, light of my life;” “My sin, my soul,” The accompanying playlist also shares an ear for syntax. Lola by The Kinks has the most immediate relevance with its reverberating lo lo lo lo Lolas. It’s easy to imagine Humbert turning up the volume on their road trip across America, slyly glancing to see whether his little Lolita’s grass-stained knee is bouncing along to the rhythm. The rest of the songs are variations of Humbert’s guilty pleas for sympathy, ‘she was a heartless heartbreaker,’ ‘I was the initiand,’ ‘all is fair in love…’ and ‘just between the two of us, isn’t there something irresistibly sexy about a schoolgirl outfit?’
Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson
Ruth Stone and her sister Lucille live in the remote lakeside town of Fingerbone, Idaho. The children are raised by a succession of relatives who are each dispensed of by some terrible accident or incident. Their Aunt Sylvie, a drifter and the diagnostic character for transient women, becomes the guardian that takes their place. Robinson’s novel expresses dissatisfaction with the ordinary human condition and its niceties, such as the colossal measures taken by institutions to keep people close to convention by intervening in their private lives. Hence, the following selection of songs describes the rejection of this ‘keeping’ of people: in schools, townships, and churches. Instead, it explores the singular aim we sometimes feel to creep below human observation and disappear completely.
Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut
This antiwar novel leads with the compelling opener, “All this happened, more or less.” In his nonfictional introductory chapter, Vonnegut lets us know that all the characters are real people whose names have been changed, and that throughout the book, he was there too, alongside his characters, at Dresden, on the field, and so on. This added legitimacy distinguishes Vonnegut from the uppity academic whose conjectures about war are only theoretical, and whose full breadth of inconveniences is limited to a stiff back from prolonged chair-sitting, a burned tongue from trying his coffee too quickly off the stove, and a dust allergy exacerbated by time spent around old books. These songs are therefore not concealed by metaphor or meaning investigation of any sort and are instead plainly relevant to some of the major themes of the novel: time, alien interludes, and acceptance.
Perfume: The Story of a Murderer by Patrick Süskind
18th-century Paris is anatomized into its stenches; cat feces, fish stalls, and at once, wonderful things like cheese and lilies. And Jean Baptiste-Grenouille, the protagonist, is an olfactory magician who can locate and recognize odours with startling specificity. However, the scent which entices him most is that of virginal girls whose sweet-smelling odours cannot be duplicated without having been wrung of their essence and contained in miniature bottles. Aside from Scentless Apprentice by Nirvana, which directly draws from Süskind’s Perfume, and alludes to Kurt Cobain considering himself a persona non grata like the novel’s protagonist, the songs all contend with obsession, as Jean Baptiste-Grenouille’s obsession is what precipitates his serial murders in this captivating story.