In this Missing Persons report set to music, someone named Jane B. — whose description is a curious amalgam of Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg — has disappeared, then is found dead.
Paroles de Gainsbourg
De sexe féminin
Âge : entre vingt et vingt et un
Apprend le dessin
Domiciliée chez ses parents
Le nez aquilin
Portée disparue ce matin
À cinq heures moins vingt
Une fleur de sang
À la main
One of my very favourite Gainsbourg songs — for its spare beauty, its density of reference, and the many mysteries that it contains. And one of my very favourite Birkin performances, for its earnest fragility. A little masterpiece.
You may have heard that Gainsbourg lifted the melody for this song from Chopin’s Prelude #4 in E minor. (Maybe you’ve even seen this fabulous mid-60s documentary in which Serge explains that he kept a portrait of Chopin on his piano because Chopin looked so serious that he seemed to be judging him, thus keeping him in line.)
But did you know that Serge lifted the concept for “Jane B.” from Nabokov’s Lolita?
Serge, as we know from Melody Nelson, was a huge fan of Nabokov’s novel. He was especially fond of the poem that Humbert Humbert writes for Lolita toward the end of the novel, in Part II, chapter 25. First stanza:
Wanted, wanted: Dolores Haze
Hair: brown. Lips: scarlet.
Age: five thousand three hundred days.
Profession: none, or “starlet.”
Gainsbourg was such a fan that he tried to acquire the rights to adapt this poem as a song for his 1962 album No 4. That was at the same time that the Kubrick film was being made, and the rights were denied. A full transcription of Serge’s rejected translation/adaptation is provided in Verlant’s biography:
Perdue : Dolorès Haze. Signalement :
Bouche “écarlate”, cheveux “noisette” ;
Âge : cinq mille trois cents jours (bientôt quinze ans !) ;
Profession : “néant” (ou bien “starlette”).
Sergent, rendez-la-moi, ma Lolita, ma Lo
Aux yeux si cruels, aux lèvres douces.
Lolita : tout au plus quarante et un kilos,
Ma Lo : haute de soixante pouces.
Ma voiture épuisée est en piteux état
La dernière étape est la plus dure
Dans l’herbe d’un fossé je mourrai, Lolita
Et tout le reste est littérature.”
Here’s me retranslating that back into English (Gainsbourg’s isn’t a straight translation of Nabokov):
Lost: Dolores Haze. Description:
Mouth: “scarlet,” hair “chestnut”;
Age: five thousand three hundred days (soon fifteen years!)
Profession: “none” (or “starlet”).
Sergeant, return her to me, my Lolita, my Lo
With eyes so cruel, with lips so soft.
Lolita: at the very most forty-one kilos,
My Lo: sixty inches high.
My ruined car is in a piteous state
The last lap is the hardest
I’ll die in the weeds of a ditch, Lolita
And the rest is literature.
Anyway, seven years later, he made this.
For me, it’s an improvement. Mostly, because this song is spoken by Jane, even if it’s not all in her voice. You only hear Humbert’s voice in Lolita. I’d rather hear from her.
Also, there’s a narrative here. It’s bare but interesting. Jane B. has gone missing, which is why her description is being provided: this is a Missing Person poster of a song. Then we learn she’s died.
Which lands us in a bit of a logical tangle. We’ve been assuming all along that real-life Jane Birkin has been singing this song about herself. And why wouldn’t we? “Jane B. / Anglaise” — blue eyes, chestnut hair…
But then the song’s Jane B. is found dead at the side of the road, and our real-life Jane Birkin, very much alive, keeps singing, switching into the second person to underline the split: “Jane B. / Tu dors.” It’s a chilling effect.
And, on reflection, that’s not the first hint that “Jane B.” isn’t Jane Birkin. We should have seen it coming.
Although her description matches real-life Jane Birkin on many biographical points, a few details are off. She didn’t live with her parents in 1969, and hadn’t for some time. She’s wasn’t studying painting, never did. And she most certainly does not have an aquiline nose.
You know who did study painting, lived with his parents on and off into middle age, and most certainly had an aquiline nose? Serge Gainsbourg.
So who has died here? Whose body is that by the side of the road, blood lily in hand? An abandoned amalgam of Jane and Serge — whatever they needed to cast off of their former selves in order to come together as a couple.
Traduction de “Fluid Makeup”
Age: between twenty and twenty-one
Resides with her parents
Reported missing this morning
At twenty to five
At the side
Of the road
A blood lily
In your hand