In which Nabokov provides an excuse to ramble about noise intolerance

I knew Nabokov suffered from synaesthesia — or, as he called it, “colored hearing” — which in his case apparently meant associating colors with sounds. But I didn’t know he hated music:

Music, I regret to say, affects me merely as an arbitrary succession of more or less irritating sounds. Under certain emotional circumstances I can stand the spasms of a rich violin, but the concert piano and all wind instruments bore me in small doses and flay me in larger ones. Despite the number of operas I was exposed to every winter (I must have attended Ruslan and Pikovaya Dama at least a dozen times in the course of half as many years), my weak responsiveness to music was completely overrun by the visual torment of not being able to read over Pimen’s shoulder or of trying in vain to imagine the hawkmoths in the dim bloom of Juliet’s garden.

(From Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited.)

I can’t relate to the all-music-as-irritant problem. But certain kinds of repetitive noises — plinking, beeping, buzzing — in songs, and in general, make my blood boil. I suffer from a sensitivity to sound that borders on the autistic.

Actually, “sensitivity” is too kind a word. It’s more like sound rage.

In my personal, No Exit version of hell, I’d be strapped to a wall while people popped gum, clicked pens and clipped their toenails. Back when I was in law school, one of my classmates used to say that if he ever went up against me in a courtroom, he’d be sure to win, notwithstanding the merits. He’d just click his pen the whole time, and I wouldn’t be able to think about anything else.

Max warns me before he clips his nails, so I can close all three doors between the bathroom and our bedroom (we live in a railroad, or shotgun, apartment) and turn on music to drown out any possible overflow of noise.

He likes to eat Grape-Nuts without milk, a breakfast choice that comes between us on the weekend mornings that we don’t go down the street to the diner. “Can you tell me when you’re done?” I say, as though he’s dissecting a live caterpillar on the table instead of enjoying tea and cereal. My sister has a similar conversation, revolving around the consumption of oatmeal and the clattering of spoons against bowls, with her partner every morning.

Whether it’s learned or innate, the severe noise intolerance comes from our father. Dad couldn’t understand why we didn’t emerge from the womb chewing with our mouths closed. When I turned three, he announced that I was old enough to know better than to chew with my mouth open and spanked me when I did it; Sister suffered the same fate, at the same age. And inevitably, whenever he stayed at home to work instead of going in to the office on weekends, Sister or I would push around our popper toy with the large, clattering balls in it or pull the string on a “See and Say” one too many times, and he’d storm out of the study, scream at us, take the the offending item away, and send us to our rooms.

So it’s no excuse, but that’s where Sister and I get it.

The first time Max rode in the car with the two of us, he was perplexed by the following exchange.

Sister: (Rolling her eyes.) “You’re not chewing a piece of gum are you?”

Me: (Sighing.) “Yes.”

Sister: “Do you have another piece?”

Me: “No.”

Sister: “Well?”

I threw my gum away.

See, Sister and I had a deal. Still do. Somehow we’re less irritated by the sound of someone chewing gum if we’re chewing it, too. Neither of us can chew gum unless the other has a piece.

Poor naive, Then-Boyfriend Mr. Maud looked back and forth between us. “What was that all about?”

“Oh, nothing, don’t worry,” I said.

I’m sure he now considers that the warning moment, the first indication that the Newton Sisters were crazier than the string of [redacted] he’d dated.

I can never have children. It wouldn’t be fair to subject an innocent toddler to my noise rage.

We imagine that if we did have kids we’d call each other every two minutes to give a noise report. Sister would pick up the phone only to hear me whisper, “She’s eating a piece of candy.”

“Oh shit.”

“Yeah. She’s sucking and chomping on it. She’s banging it against her teeth.”

“Okay, just keep smiling. Breathe deeply. It’ll be over soon.”

“No it won’t. She’s got an entire bag of Gobstoppers.”