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Nabokov, Vladimir - Speak, Memory - Coloured hearing



Type of Spiritual Experience


A description of the experience

From Speak, memory

On top of all this I present a fine case of coloured hearing.  Perhaps hearing is not quite accurate, since the colour sensation seems to be produced by the very act of orally forming a given letter while I imagine its outline.

The long 'a' of the English alphabet has for me the tint of weathered wood, but a French 'a' evokes polished ebony.  This black group also includes the hard 'g' (vulcanised rubber) and 'r' (sooty rag being ripped).

Oatmeal 'n', noodle-limp 'l' and the ivory backed mirror of 'o' take care of the whites.

I am puzzled by my French 'on' which I see as the brimming tension surface of alcohol in a small glass.

Passing on to the blue group, there is steely 'x', thundercloud 'z', and huckleberry 'k'.  Since a subtle interaction exists between sound and shape, I see 'q' as browner than k, while 's' is not the light blue of 'c', but a curious mixture of azure and mother of pearl.

Adjacent tints do not merge, and dipthongs do not have special colours of their own, unless represented by a single character in some other language....

I hasten to complete my list before I am interrupted.  In the green group, there are alder leaf 'f', the unripe apple of 'p' and pistachio 't'.  Dull green, combined somhow with violet, is the best I can do for 'w'. 

The yellows comprise various 'e's and 'i's, creamy 'd', bright golden 'y', and 'u' whose alphabetical value I can only express by 'brassy with an olive sheen'.

In the brown group, there are the rich rubbery tone of soft 'g', paler 'j' and the drab shoelace of 'h'.

Finally among the reds, 'b' has the tone called burnt sienna by painters, 'm' is a fold of pink flannel and today I have at last perfectly matched 'v' with rose quartz in Maerz and Paul's dictionary of colour...

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 colours 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

The source of the experience

Nabokov, Vladimir

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