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Herbert Lottman
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Wyndham Lewis
Vladimir Nabokov
Vladimir Nabokov: Alphabet in Color (image)
Brian Boyd: Foreword to “Vladimir Nabokov: Alphabet in Color”
Nabokow’s Blues
and His Drab-Shoelace Brown, and His Weathered-Wood Black
Nabokov once said that we will never know the nature of thought. He may be right, despite modern brain scanning, but I’m not so sure. He also once said no computer could ever be programmed to play chess, since this would require calculating an infinity of moves in a finite time. He did not live to see Deep Blue (interesting color association belatedly noticed, as he might say) beat Garry Kasparov at chess.

I suspect that we will at least discover much more about thought. Apart from the other obvious reasons, it’s a shame that Nabokov’s own mind was no longer in action when fMRI scanning became capable of identifying at least the site of particular brain activities, if hardly of offering us a clear window onto pure thought.

His brain would have been a neurophysiologist’s dream. What difference would each of these have made to the map of his singular mind?

his advanced trilingualism (he wrote at the highest literary level in Russian, English and French)
his gifts as a chess composer (he was invited to join the US national team)
his other prodigious gifts for pattern, especially in word and sound (“senescent nonsense, says science”)
a memory so overloaded that he complained about the burden of not being able to forget anything (be quiet, memory)
his combination of artistic genius and scientific excellence (he rapidly became the world authority in the Lycaenid family, the so-called Blues, in his few years as a professional lepidopterist, in the 1940s, and his contribution to that small area is still regarded as world-class by specialists in this group: see Kurt Johnson’s and Steve Coates’s Nabokov’s Blues)
and perhaps most interesting of all, his highly developed synesthesia.
Oliver Sacks has told me how fascinated he was to learn that as a seven-year-old in the throes of fever Vladimir Nabokov lost his skills as a mathematical prodigy, and found on his recovery that butterflies seemed to have recolonized some of the mental terrain he had formerly dedicated to his concern for, for instance, the seventeenth root of 3529471145760-275132301897342055866171392.

Nabokov himself would have been delighted by Sacks’s work and by his interest. He had already been delighted when in 1949 a team of psychologists drew on his detailed explanation of his synesthesia in his “Portrait of My Mother,” only two months after the memoir’s publication in the New Yorker and years before it became, as planned, Chapter 2 of his autobiography. Before it was called Speak, Memory, the autobiography was entitled Conclusive Evidence, partly because Nabokov, still working at the microscope at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology when he began the project, had conceived it as both an artistic and a scientific challenge, an attempt to recount his life with the maximum art and the maximum precision in retracing the strands of his personality. Indeed Véra Nabokov wrote to one of the coauthors of the paper on synesthesia, objecting to the implication that the metaphors he had chosen to specify the exact colors he associated with each letter of the alphabet — “In the brown group, there are the rich rubbery tone of soft g, paler j, and the drab shoelace of h” — were “a concession to literature. He says that, being a scientist (entomologist), he considers his prose scientific and would have used the same metaphors in a scientific article.”

Since that first 1949 discussion of Nabokov’s synesthesia by psychologists, there has been much more scientific work on the phenomenon, and Nabokov is almost invariably cited both for the artistic and scientific exactness of his report and as a prime example, along with Kandinsky, Scriabin and Hockney, of the association of synesthesia with artistic originality.

Nabokov had an unusual insistence on precision, in understanding either the world or a work of art, and an unusual insistence on freedom, in responding to the world or a work. When asked in 1930 did he think contemporary writing was and would be influenced by Proust, he insisted that this was almost impossible to tell, since writers A and B would each read Proust differently, and even if they were influenced by him, this might not be noticed by reader C, who would read him differently again. He would have been charmed by Jean Holabird’s precise but imaginative rendering of his As, Bs and Cs in her AlphaBet in Color.

Part of Nabokov’s passion for precision was his passion for color. He was born a landscape painter, he once wrote, and as a boy he had one of St. Petersburg’s finest painters, Mstislav Dobuzhinsky, as his private drawing-master. His eye for color — for nuance of tint and nuance of term — was surely sharpened by his love of butterflies, already intense by the time he was seven, and his searches for technical descriptions of them in guides in four or five languages. He noticed color in literature, praising Gogol for seeing so much more than the conventional labels: before him, “the sky was blue, the dawn red, the foliage green, the eyes of beauty black, the clouds grey, and so on. It was Gogol (and after him Lermontov and Tolstoy) who first saw yellow and violet at all. That the sky could be pale green at sunrise, or the snow a rich blue on a cloudless day, would have sounded like heretical nonsense to your so-called ‘classical’ writer.” In his guide to Nabokov’s short novel Pnin, Gennady Barabtarlo records 238 uses of color terms from amber to yellow via amber-brown, cadmium red, emerald-and-gray, magenta, mahogany and mauve, opalescent, pearly and platinum, slate-gray, snow-and-rose, straw and strontian. He even provides pie graphs and bar charts of the colors (the red-orange group had the highest bar, the fattest slice of pie — colored in by hand, in my copy, by Gennady’s daughter).

On color and light or art and science in Nabokov I could write much more. Nabokov makes the rainbow a leitmotif through Speak, Memory. When he drew and colored invented butterflies for Véra, they were often in magic spectral arrangements (see, appropriately enough, both Véra’s Butterflies and Nabokov’s Butterflies). Nabokov studied light, shadow, reflection, color, in the atmosphere, on butterfly wings, in paintings (his projected but never completed book Butterflies in Art), in the marvelously poetic hyperrealist canvases he invents for some of his favorite characters, like painters Cynthia Vane (in “The Vane Sisters”) and Victor Wind (in Pnin). He spent a good deal of time among rainbows while chasing butterflies in the Rockies, an experience reflected in these lines from the poem he wrote for John Shade in Pale Fire:

My picture book was at an early age
The painted parchment papering our cage:
Mauve rings around the moon; blood-orange sun;
Twinned Iris; and that rare phenomenon
The iridule—when, beautiful and strange,
In a bright sky above a mountain range
One opal cloudlet in an oval form
Reflects the rainbow of a thunderstorm
Which in a distant valley has been staged—
For we are most artistically caged.
(His wife later explained "iridule" to a curious reader: “We have often had the occasion to watch it at Telluride [Colorado, in 1951]. It is single [i.e. not a double rainbow, like the "Twinned Iris" of the previous line], fairly rarely seen and most attractive.”)

At the end of his discussion of his colored hearing in Speak, Memory, Nabokov, who always had an eye for the incongruous, closes his description of the rich colors he sees in letters and sounds with this remark: “The first author to discuss audition colorée was, as far as I know, an albino physician in 1812, in Erlangen.” He matches that with an even quirkier combination in Ada, a parody of his own colored hearing and its albino describer. Van Veen, the novel’s narrator, a philosopher and psychologist, is invited to inspect “a singular case of chromesthesia:”

One Spencer Muldoon, born eyeless, aged forty, single, friendless, and the third blind character in this chronicle, had been known to hallucinate during fits of violent paranoia, calling out the names of such shapes and substances as he had learned to identify by touch, or thought he recognized through the awfulness of stories about them (falling trees, extinct saurians) and which now pressed on him from all sides, alternating with periods of stupor, followed invariably by a return to his normal self, when for a week or two he would finger his blind books or listen, in red-lidded bliss, to records of music, bird songs, and Irish poetry.

His ability to break space into ranks and files of “strong” and “weak” things in what seemed a wallpaper pattern remained a mystery until one evening, when a research student (R.S. — he wished to remain that way), who intended to trace certain graphs having to do with the metabasis of another patient, happened to leave within Muldoon’s reach one of those elongated boxes of new, unsharpened, colored-chalk pencils whose mere evocation (Dixon Pink Anadel!) makes one’s memory speak in the language of rainbows, the tints of their painted and polished woods being graded spectrally in their neat tin container. Poor Muldoon’s childhood could not come to him with anything like such iridian recall, but when his groping fingers opened the box and palpated the pencils, a certain expression of sensual relish appeared on his parchment-pale face. Upon observing that the blind man’s eyebrows went up slightly at red, higher at orange, still higher at the shrill scream of yellow and then stepped down through the rest of the prismatic spectrum, R.S. casually told him that the woods were dyed differently — “red,” “orange,” “yellow,” et cetera, and quite as casually Muldoon rejoined that they also felt different one from another.

In the course of several tests conducted by R.S. and his colleagues, Muldoon explained that by stroking the pencils in turn he perceived a gamut of "stingles," special sensations somehow allied to the tingling aftereffects of one’s skin contact with stinging nettles . . . , and spoke eerily of the “strong” green stingle of a piece of blotting paper or the wet weak pink stingle of nurse Langford’s perspiring nose, these colors being checked by himself against those applied by the researchers to the initial pencils. In result of the tests, one was forced to assume that the man’s fingertips could convey to his brain “a tactile transcription of the prismatic specter” as Paar put it in his detailed report to Van.

(Note that phrase: “makes one’s memory speak in the language of rainbows.”) This passage might seem mere whimsy, but Nabokov loves to hide fact at the core of his most extravagant fancy. There is a famous case, first reported in 1922, of a late-blind subject with chromatic synesthesia, Thomas Cutforth, for whom it took the form of colored Braille as well as colored hearing for words, letters and syllables. Recently two neuropsychologists have reported “a man who, after becoming blind late in life, acquired a kind of synesthesia (tactile stimuli on his hand evoked a sensation of 'movement, expansion, or jumping’).”

But I still think neuroscientists would have found Nabokov’s brain even more of a revelation to test, in all its shifting tints, on their fMRI screen.

Vladimir Nabokov was also, as the leading American Nabokovian, D. Barton Johnson, has described him, a “man of letters.” He signs himself into Lolita as Vivian Darkbloom, refers in Speak, Memory to “Vivian Bloodmark, a philosophical friend of mine,” and has a Scrabble game donated to the central family in Ada by Baron Klim Avidov. He builds an acrostic into the final paragraph of “The Vane Sisters.” His most alphabetical novel, Pale Fire, set in Appalachia and Zembla, ends with an index that runs from “A., Baron” to “Zembla,” but in a sense may start, as I explain elsewhere, in the home of the “alphabetic family” of the Goldsworths, who have four daughters, “Alphina (9), Betty (10), Candida (12) and Dee (14).” “Judging by the novels in Mrs. Goldsworth’s boudoir, her intellectual interests were fully developed, going as they did from Amber to Zen” (from the historical bodice-ripper Forever Amber to The Prisoner of Zenda). The beginning of John Shade’s poem “Pale Fire” showcases not only Nabokov’s eye for reflection, and pattern, and rumination, and nature, but also the a-z motif, and the bright cloudless blue that dominates the whole novel, my favorite hue in all his work:

I was the shadow of the waxwing slain
By the false azure in the windowpane.
Azure: alphabet and color combined.

But let me give the last word to a novel about which I could write — have written — much, much more: Ada, a kind of twinned Iris or hypertrophied reverse of Speak, Memory’s rainbow. In a world where electricity is banned as improper (and electricity is, after all, shocking, isn’t it?), and hydraulic surrogates have to be found, Ada’s great-grandmother pipes a stream on her estate to make it “carry vibrational vibgyors (prismatic pulsations) through a system of platinum segments” to replace the now proscribed or desubscribed old magnetic telephone that connected park with manor. Van and Ada are separated for four years after their first summer of love — “‘our black rainbow,’ Ada termed it” (note the cover of this book) — and write to one another in code, ruBkrE for “lovely,” for instance. Eighty years later Van writes his memoir of their love, Ada, which is tapped out letter by letter by their typist, Violet Knox, and edited after their joint death by their secretary, Ronald Oranger, who informs us within editorial brackets that he has married the typist — now Violet Oranger.

Notice — I just have — that Violet and Oranger form the beginning and end of Ada’s acrostic spelling of the spectrum: vibgyor.

© Brian Boyd
About the Author:
Brian Boyd
Brian Boyd is University Distinguished Professor of English at the University of Auckland, New Zealand. He has published widely on Vladimir Nabokov, including a two-volume biography, books on Pale Fire and Ada, and the website AdaOnline.
See also:

Vladimir Nabokov: Alphabet in Color
Vladimir Nabokov:
Alphabet in Color
Illustrated by NY artist Jean Holabird, Nabokov’s colored sounds come to light. Vladimir Nabokov could hear color. As he described it — perhaps “hearing” is not quite accurate, since “the color sensation seems to be produced by the very act of my orally forming a given letter while I imagine its outline...” more...

Nabokov: Pale Fire NEW
Vladimir Nabokov: Pale Fire
Many think Pale Fire is Nabokov’s greatest novel. At its heart beats a 999-line poem, penned by its fictional hero, John Shade. This first-ever facsimile edition of the poem shows it to be not just a fictional device but also a masterpiece of American poetry, albeit by an invented persona. more...

Nabokov: Photographs by Horst Tappe
Photographs by Horst Tappe
Until Nabokov’s death in 1977, Tappe photographed the world-renowned author of Lolita in private as well as on the Swiss mountain slopes catching butterflies (Nabokov once stated "My pleasures are the most intense known to man: writing and butterfly hunting"). more...
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GINGKO PRESS | LITERATURE ART BOOK | ISBN-13: 9781584231394 | ISBN-10: 1584231394