Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Listening to Lolita in Connecticut

The last time I read Lolita my college roommate and I were dealing with a flooding basement apartment. We didn’t know how bad things were going to get yet, but things were bad enough. Water was seeping up through the cracks in the tiles, and we’d put newspapers down to try to absorb it. My bedroom seemed to be a little less wet than Tina’s, so we climbed on my bed together and read the assigned pages from the book out loud to each other. We were reading it for Modern American Lit, the only course we ever took together, and we both had a crush on the T.A. who was teaching it. He, being a Ph.D. candidate, couldn’t have been more than a few years older than we were, but for some reason, I viewed my crush on him (you know how when you’re only nineteen, someone who’s 27 seems ancient) as being very Lolita-like. The oddest thing was that he wasn’t my type at all, reserving, in the superficial way most young women that age do, my crushes for those who fit my idea of good-looking: tall, dark, and handsome (oh yes, and wiry, and clean-shaven. Dark, soulful eyes with long lashes were an added bonus). He was short, stocky, sandy-haired, and bearded. He wasn’t Tina’s type, either, which means maybe he was the first man on our roads to maturity, making us realize looks weren’t everything.

By the time we got home from class the next day, those newspapers we’d so carefully laid down the previous night were floating around the apartment. Because this was a particularly wet spring, everyone else was having basement flooding problems as well, and we couldn’t get anyone to come in and pump it out for us. I did what any self-respecting second-year college student would do: climbed up on the kitchen table for a good cry, and then called Daddy. Luckily, it just sort of all receded by itself eventually, and by the time my father had canceled his own classes and made the four-hour drive up to our place, there was nothing to do except be taken out to dinner by him. Of course, the water hadn’t waned without ruining a few things, but the damage, which could have been much worse, was minimal. Our landlords fixed the gutters, and we never had another problem, but from then on, a heavy dewfall would have us calling friends to see if we could come spend the night at their places.

Supposedly that sort of trauma either makes one remember everything surrounding the event in great detail or makes one forget everything associated with it. My brain tends to prefer the latter method of dealing with life. Thus, with the exception of what anyone could learn from reading a blurb on its cover, a couple of classes devoted to the topics of satire and love stories, and the fact I wrote what I thought was a very clever paper on the book, which my crush-of-the-moment broke my heart by not liking (he’d always loved everything I’d written up till that point, which was why this was the second class I’d taken with him. Well, that, and the fact that I had a crush on him, of course), I don’t remember much about the book at all. For a while now, I’ve been thinking it’s time for a reread.

Whenever I go to the library, I always feel like I’m being less of an infidel to all the hundreds of books I have on my shelves at home (each of whom has been dying for me to pick them up for a little tête-à-tête) when I head for the audio book section instead of the regular bookshelves. After all, these are books that can do more than the ones on my shelves at home. They can be read while I’m cooking and walking and folding laundry. So last week, when I was returning DVDs (something else that can’t cause jealousy amongst all my book friends), I was browsing the audio books and came across Lolita read by Jeremy Irons.

Can you imagine anyone more perfect for reading Lolita than Jeremy Irons, except possibly Anthony Hopkins? I’m about halfway through it at the moment, and he’s done exactly what any good pervert should do: drawn me in at the beginning with his unmistakably sexy charm and wit, which are oh-so-slowly becoming evermore creepy, the charm beginning to lose its shine and the wickedly wry sense of humor beginning to overstep acceptable bounds. As I listen, I am just amazed how I’ve managed to forget so very much about this book. I can’t fathom how I could have forgotten the most important details. Maybe because my eyes were too focused on wet newspaper words, my feet were cold, and I was afraid I was going to be swimming out to the kitchen to get my breakfast in the morning?

I can’t help but think that Nabokov probably would have preferred for us to listen to his books rather than to read them, to have them fed into our brains in this way. I can picture him reading pages aloud to himself, the well-chosen words in their rainbows of color and sounds. I’m jealous. I’m jealous that he might have been not only able to write and read the words and to conjure up images of Humbert Humbert and Lolita, but also that he might have been able to taste the bitterness or the sweetness of the words he chose to tell his stories, to feel whether they were rough or smooth, to know that "Lolita," a word that has always sounded rather stupid to me, is a word that is a soft pink, that feels like a rose petal, that smells like baby powder. How can any aspiring writer not be jealous of that – to have such a sensual relationship with letters and words -- despite the fact that it points to a rare problem most people wouldn’t understand and that very well might drive a person mad?

I think this way, because being one of those weirdoes who is fascinated by the brain and how it works, I’ve devoured books and articles on the intriguing disorder known as synesthesia, a neurological condition that causes sensory overlap. A synesthete (for all you non-brain-weirdoes out there) is someone who, for instance, might taste or feel numbers or see letters and words as colors or distinct shapes. The last time I read Lolita, I wasn’t aware Nabokov was a synesthete, but it’s nearly impossible to read about the disorder without finding some sort of reference to him. How appropriate, then, that my first time around I found myself listening to the book, my brain on sensory overload, and now, with my second go-round, I’m listening to it yet again, mostly while I walk through the snowy woods and fields in bitter cold weather. “Lolita” is now a word that will forever conjure up stocky young crushes, soggy newspapers, as well as snowy whiteness, a seductive voice, and cold extremities for me, and isn’t that so appropriate? I wonder, however, if I will better remember the details of the actual story this time.


Rebecca H. said...

Great post! Lolita must be a great book to listen to, and it does seem like Nabokov would have approved. You can really concentrate on the language that way. Your description of the narrator turning creepy is great.

Ian said...

Happy Birthday Emily! I've never read Lolita. Having it read by Jeremy Irons sounds creepy indeed. After that movie he made where he seduces his son's fiance (can't remember the name) Irons has always been high on my creepy actor's list. I enjoyed remembering that apartment you shared with Tina at college, although I'm sorry about the flooding--I always liked coming to visit you there.
yer bro

Anonymous said...

Haven't read Lolia Emily, but enjoyed very much Belle de jour: Intimate Confessions of a London Call Girl. I wrote an article about it here: http://ezinearticles.com/?The-Joys-of-Listening-to-Books&id=409386

When next you want an audio book, visit my site here: http://www.download-audios.com.

Nova Ren Suma said...

I love the book Lolita, and I loved hearing about your reading experience during your basement flood.

I read the book I think only twice, but I've never had it read TO me (by Jeremy Irons, no less!) — what an experience that must be... Jeremy Irons as Humbert Humbert in the Adrian Lyne version of Lolita was the book come to life for me. He inhabited the character in a way that made me shudder. It was unreal. He seems like he'd be the perfect voice to read the novel aloud.

Anonymous said...

Loved this post - you really drew me in! Lolita is on my classics challenge list this year but it's looking like I'll never ever finish Anna Karenina so I'm glad my soul-sister is reading Lolita instead. I've been thinking of turning towards audio books but somehow I feel like I'm cheating if I do that, which is ridiculous! Hmmm, maybe this weekend I'll check one out and give it a try - seems like a worthy way to pass time during my commute!

Litlove said...

What a great post, Emily! There were so many bits I loved - calling your dad to save you, exploring synaesthesia and most of all admiring Anthony Hopkins, who is one of my all-time great crushes. Jeremy Irons played Humbolt in the movie version, didn't he? So he must be a brilliant choice to read it. Ohh I get shivers down my spine at the thought.

Emily Barton said...

Charlotte, thank you. I rarely ever manage to achiever perfection.

Dorr, yes the language so comes through. Of course, it's one of those things that makes one despair at her own inability with language, but despair can eventually lead to perserverance.

Ian, thank you for the birthday wishes. Jeremy Irons was very creepy even as Scarr in The Lion King, wasn't he?

Nova, I wasn't aware that Jeremy Irons was in the movie version. Seems I'll have to check that out.

Court, audiobooks, as long as they're unabridged absolutely are not cheating. My argument is that long before stories were written down, they were listened to.

Litlove, have you seen Anthony Hopkins in 84 Charing Cross Road? I don't know how any woman can watch that movie without walking away with a mad, haunting crush.

Litlove said...

Emily - I have, and I couldn't agree with you more!!