Monday, March 23, 2009

Nabokov and Synesthesia

Content aside, the language of Lolita is so very lush and lovely and vibrant.

Someone twittered about Nabokov's synesthesia earlier, and since I'm such a public radio junkie, I thought I'd share an interview I heard a couple years ago with Nabokov's son Dmitri Nabokov that touches upon both Vladimir's and Dmitri's synesthesia. (And I have a stack of angry, neglected textbooks that need attending to, so I'm also taking the easy way out and just copy/pasting.)

I purchased the program and transcript and I uploaded the program here, so if you guys want to listen to the whole thing or part of it, go ahead and download it. The section with Nabokov is near the end. If not, I'm still posting the "relevant" bits of the transcript here.

GOODWIN: Vladimir Nabokov was a colorful writer in many senses. The author of
several novels including "Pnin" and "Lolita," Nabokov drew on colors
and textures to craft vivid descriptions, but he was also synesthetic.
And some synesthetes say his prose reads as if it were meant to be
visually pleasing, almost like a word painting.

We're now joined by Vladimir's son, Dimitri Nabokov, who is an expert
on his father's work, a writer in his own right and a synesthete
himself. Mr. Nabokov reads from his father's memoir, "Speak Memory,"
and spoke with THE INFINITE MIND's Sharon Lerner.

LERNER: Mr. Nabokov, welcome.

Mr. NABOKOV: Thank you.

LERNER: Your father wrote short stories, poetry and novels. I guess
listeners would be most familiar with "Lolita." Your father also wrote
a memoir. In "Speak Memory," which is really a collection of
autobiographical essays, he describes his synesthesia. Perhaps we can
start with your reading a section from that book, if you don't mind.

Mr. NABOKOV: I'll read a brief section from "Speak Memory." I quote,
"The confessions of a synesthete must sound tedious and pretentious to
those who are protected from such leakings and drafts by more solid
walls than mine are. To my mother, though, this all seemed quite
normal. The matter came up one day in my seventh year, as I was using
a heap of old alphabet blocks to build a tower. I casually remarked
to her that their colors were all wrong. We discovered then that some
of her letters had the same tint as mine and that, besides, she was
optically affected by musical notes.

These evoked no chromatisms in me whatsoever. 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 "Rue Swan," "Empicowood," "Empico Vay Edama" at least a
dozen times in the course of half as many years. And my weak
responsiveness to music was completely overrun by the visual torment
of not being able to read over Pnin's shoulder or of trying in vain to
imagine the hawk moths in the dim bloom of Juliet's garden."

LERNER: Thank you. That was beautiful.

Mr. NABOKOV: My pleasure.

LERNER: So I know that, like your father and your mother, you, also,
have synesthesia. How does your experience with it compare to that of
your father's?

Mr. NABOKOV: It is interesting. My father mentions his mother's
reaction to musical notes. He felt no sensitivity to musical notes
in--insofar as synesthesia goes, but his mother did, and I do, too.
So my life is complicated by the fact that I see the letter A as red
and the note A, or la, as red. But in other cases, I see letters and
notes that may have the same designation in totally different colors.
The letter--the note E, for example, is a--an--an orangish yellow.
And a whole piece--for example, if you take Schubert's "Doppelganger"
in one key and transpose it to another, suddenly the whole piece--it's
not the brightness or lack of brightness that is commonly used in
musical language, but, actually, the visual sensation I get as I sing
it or hear it is totally different, the whole--the whole piece of

LERNER: Did that interfere with your performing as an opera singer?

Mr. NABOKOV: Slightly, because liking certain colors more than
others--for example, I like the color of E-flat--the color and the
sound of E-flat, as a tonality--not as a note, but as a tonality--much
more than E. So I prefer to sing a piece in that tone rather than in
E--in E, if I have a choice.

LERNER: Did you ever speak with your parents about the ability you

Mr. NABOKOV: Oh, yes. Oh, yes. I never had initiated the subject.
But my father asked me when I was somewhere between 8 and 10 to tell
him if I, by chance, associated colors with letters. I was rather
surprised. And I thought, `Yeah, I do.' I--I'd never quite thought
of--in fact, I think many of us do and don't realize it. It's not
such an outlandish thing. But in any case, I noticed that I did. My
C--and he noted these all down in a little notebook--was light yellow.
My E was reddish. My F was brownish red. My R was bluish purple, and
so forth. And the interesting thing is--and I think it has occurred
with other anomalous people like me--is that when I tested myself in
my late 30s, I think, the colors all were the same.

LERNER: Did you speak with your mother about this as well?

Mr. NABOKOV: Yes, my mother had her own colors. Actually, father's
colors, mother's and mine are ch--practically all different.

LERNER: Your father's writings appeal unusually to the senses. He
writes about the scent of fresh violets clinging to a woman's black
veil. And he refers to his own father as hard white and gold. Do you
think, in these cases, he's being synesthetic or is he just being

Mr. NABOKOV: It's hard to say. He, himself, realizes that very
often, the imagery is colored for poetic reasons rather than
instinctive ones. So there is a kind of delicate line between the
two. But I think he did see people, ideas, things, whole stories in a
special light. His favorite color was blue. When he had any color he
wanted to choose from for any kind of object that had no particular
graphic connotation, he would more than--often than not choose blue.
And he did--that did extend to the character of people sometimes.

I think it was related, also, to the fact that he was interested in
the graphic arts from a very early age. He began studying painting
under the famous writer--painter and friend of the family, Dabuvinsky,
who would come to the house and give him painting lessons, until one
day Dabuvinsky, when my father was 14 or so and had written his first
piece of prose--Dabuvinsky said, `You should be a writer, not a
painter. You have a painting talent, but your writing talent is going
to be far greater.'

LERNER: Can you recall some other particular instance of synesthesia
in your life?

Mr. NABOKOV: A striking case which suddenly came to mind the other
day that I was thinking about my past was a--as a very young
teen-ager, my sexual awakening and my first intense, sexual experience
was accompanied by huge, strong, geometrical shapes, spheres, cubes
and pylons that filled my mind and that never recurred.


Mr. NABOKOV: I don't know if anybody else has had that one. There
was another instance in father's earlier collection. I read this only
because it is his first mention together with another poem written in
1918, as is this one, even though he, himself, made a notation at the
bottom saying (foreign language spoken), which means trash the whole
thing because he didn't consider it a good poem. I don't even
remember whether it was he or I who translated it, but in English, it
sounds pretty good to me. He was--just turned 19. It's a nostalgic
dialogue recalling summers in the family estates not far from

`A gift exists that is unclear to science. One hears a sound but
recollects a hue. Invisible the hands that touch your heartstrings.
Not music the reverberations that ensue within; they are of light.
Sounds that are colored, an enigmatic sonnet was addressed to you that
scintillate like an iridescent poem by Artu Lambeau, their land's
conniving crony. Besides that, there are
.RE Trish listened
colors that have sound. On limpid, melancholy days in autumn upon the
purple of a maple leaf, I seem to hear the tremulous and distant
hollow re-echo of a horn. The beauty fades, transformed to simple
tunes, a crystal ringing in dahlia's fiery facets, I perceive, on dry
grass midst the cobwebs' motley weave.'

I don't think I'll trash it.

LERNER: It's beautiful. Thanks for speaking with me today on THE
INFINITE MIND. Dimitri Nabokov is the son of Vladimir Nabokov and
Vera, and he's a musician, critic and, can I say, novelist in his own

Mr. NABOKOV: Perhaps budding novelist. The novel is going to pop
out one day, I think, fairly soon.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for transcripting this very interesting interview! Just a remark: at one place you wrote "Artu Lambeau". Actually it is "Arthur Rimbaud", the famous French poet.