Mental Floss

Vladimir Nabokov Talks Synesthesia

Stacy Conradt
GingkoPress / GingkoPress

You’ve probably heard of synesthesia, the condition that makes people involuntarily associate something with a sense that wouldn’t normally be associated otherwise. For instance, some synesthetes report that the word “blue” tastes inky, or find that an E sharp is always chartreuse.

Lolita author Vladimir Nabokov had grapheme-color synesthesia, which is when people see specific letters in specific colors—and we’re not just talking when they’re reading a Richard Scarry book. His way with words is legendary, of course, so it’s no surprise that his description of how he saw letters was rather fascinating.

“It's called color hearing,” Nabokov told the BBC in 1962. “Perhaps one in a thousand has that. But I'm told by psychologists that most children have it, that later they lose that aptitude when they are told by stupid parents that it's all nonsense, an A isn't black, a B isn't brown—now don't be absurd.”

When the interviewer asked what color his own initials were, Nabokov replied that the “V is a kind of pale, transparent pink: I think it's called, technically, quartz pink: this is one of the closest colors that I can connect with the V. And the N, on the other hand, is a greyish-yellowish oatmeal color.”

What’s more is that Nabokov “heard” different colors in different languages:

“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 hard "g" (vulcanized rubber) and "r" (a sooty rag being ripped). Oatmeal "n", noodle-limp "l", and the ivory-backed hand mirror of an "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.”

Oddly—though maybe not that odd, as it’s been estimated that 1 in 23 people have some form of the condition—his wife, Véra, also had synesthesia. So did their son, which is how they discovered this interesting tidbit:

“My wife has this gift of seeing letters in color, too, but her colors are completely different. There are, perhaps, two or three letters where we coincide, but otherwise the colors are quite different. It turned out, we discovered one day, that my son, who was a little boy at the time—I think he was ten or eleven—sees letters in colors, too. Quite naturally he would say, "Oh, this isn't that color, this is this color," and so on. Then we asked him to list his colors and we discovered that in one case, one letter which he sees as purple, or perhaps mauve, is pink to me and blue to my wife. This is the letter M. So the combination of pink and blue makes lilac in his case. Which is as if genes were painting in aquarelle.”

No doubt the way he saw letters colored the way he wrote—quite beautifully, obviously.