Saturday, July 11, 2009

Listening to Lolita in Pittsburgh

Every morning I make my way from the little sub-leased apartment in the Oakland area of Pittsburgh to the Shadyside campus of the UPMC hospital system. There is a shuttle that stops in front of the UPMC medical school building (just a few blocks from my apartment) and after weaving a circuitous route through the streets of Oakland and Shadyside, leaves me within a few hundred feet of my temporary workplace. The shuttle is supposed to make the run (round-trip) once every thirty minutes. It is not entirely reliable. I often find myself waiting at one end of the route or the other for more than the theoretical maximum wait time of 30 minutes. This has led me, on numerous occasions, to forsake the hope of free transport and either take the city bus (at a cost of $2.00 per trip) or walk. The bus takes ten minutes and requires a seven-minute walk on the apartment end of the route. To walk from apartment to work (or vice versa) takes approximately thirty-two minutes (slightly longer when apartment-bound than when work-bound, as the route home is predominantly up-hill).

Regardless of the means by which I achieve my destination, however, I have taken to spending the transit time listening to recorded books on my mp3 player -- or rather (thus far), to one particular book: Vladimr Nabokov's Lolita. I had been listening to it at home before leaving Albuquerque, typically while cleaning the kitchen, cooking dinner, or preparing for work in the morning. When I arrived in Pittsburgh I had made it about half-way through the book.

On my first morning in Pittsburgh I rode the shuttle to Shadyside and did not have my mp3 player along. The radio in the shuttle was tuned to a conservative right-wing AM radio talk show of the Limbaugh type and the volume was set to a very high level, such that it was almost impossible to ignore the nauseating inanities that were being broadcast. I suppose that it is good for me to be reminded, once in a while, that such horrific varieties of baseless propaganda are infecting the airwaves and being eagerly swallowed by a large number of people; it inspires a little more sympathy for the misguided listeners and a greater disgust for the promoters and propogators.

Subsequent to that unpleasant exposure to one of the darker facets of American media, I was careful to carry my mp3 player and with the help of noise-isolating earbuds I am able to replace the amplitude modulated distribution of the worst of republican sentiments (forgive me Mr. Lincoln; I think that you, were you here now, would be quick to disown your grand old party) with a completely different strain of shocking spoken words: Professor Humbert Humbert's eloquent account of his own pedarastic misadventures and sincere, though ever so perverted, obsessive affections for the titular character.

I have been aware of the general story of Lolita for probably at least fifteen years, and it was about ten years ago that I first saw the Kubrick's film of the story. Two years or so ago my mother suggested that I read Reading Lolita in Tehran. I told her that I didn't think I should do so without first reading Lolita, and she replied that she had not read Lolita and really had no interest in doing so, and that Azar Nafisi's book could be read and thoroughly appreciated independent of Nabokov's infamous novel. Still, I had my doubts and decided to postpone Reading Lolita in Tehran (perhaps I will do so some time soon).

Knowing the story of Lolita in advance has eliminated any elements of surprise at the components of the story, and though I'm not surprised by the quality of the writing either, I am certainly impressed. I have seldom felt so entirely immersed in a character's psyche. To be able to feel incite so much sympathy--and even empathy--for a character whose appetites are so socially unacceptable and whose actions to fulfill those appetites are so abusive is, in my opinion, a mark of mastery in an author. The first time I can remember encountering such a well-crafted dispicable character was when I found myself contriving and manipulating along with Claude Frollo, the archdeacon in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. There have been many characters with whom I've felt bonds of similar strength, but it is rare that a character is so perfectly formed as to take possession of my mind in spite of overt idealogical or psychological traits that are in clear opposition to my own (or at least to those that I am able to recognize in myself).

I still have a few chapters left to Lolita. When I have finished it I have another recorded book queued up and ready to help me pleasantly pass the travel time between apartment and work. It's another similarly light-hearted frolic, I expect: One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Next.


Anonymous said...

I am thinking of aurochs and angels, the secret of durable pigments, prophetic sonnets, the refuge of art.

M. Huw Evans said...

Had to google that to figure out what it meant... now you've given away the end!

M. Huw Evans said...

I finished listening to Lolita while walking to work yesterday morning. The conclusion was, needless to say, for those of you who've read it, as perfect as the rest of the book... and strangely, pleasantly comforting and reasuring after all that had preceded it.

Seth said...

I might have to read it sometime.