Sounds and Mr. Nabokov

The other day, a snowy Saturday, I sat in my unheated but warm apartment and read stories. Among the stories were “The Wood-Sprite,” “Russian Spoken Here,” and “Sounds,” each by Vladimir Nabokov. As the wood-sprite opened the door, the cold air blew in, and a runny candle flame tilted, I felt a familiar hot prickly feeling. I knew the feeling wasn’t from my thermal socks or the neighbors’ heat leaking in on all sides because I had felt the strange feeling before, and so has any writer who has read Mr. Nabokov. The feeling is jealousy.

Mr. Nabokov grew up speaking English, French, and Russian. His love was butterflies. According to his memoir, he was a synesthetic to whom “b” appeared red, “c” light blue. What an advantage! While reading “Sounds,” I wondered what colors shone through the clatter.

Here’s a snippet:

“The drainpipe rattled and choked. You were playing Bach. The piano had raised its lacquered wing, under the wing lay a lyre, and little hammers were rippling across the strings. The brocade rug, crumpling into coarse folds, had slid partway off the piano’s tail, dropping an opened opus onto the floor. Every now and then, through the frenzy of the fugue, your ring would clink on the keys as, incessantly, magnificently, the June shower slashed the windowpanes.”

Orange? Blue? I can see only the gray day, the black piano, the ivory keys. The sounds, though, are rich. We hear sounds given to us directly by Nabokov (the choking drainpipe, the slashing rain). We can hear the piano’s sound even though Nabokov uses no sonic language to describe its music (no choking, no slashing). And along with the sounds playing in the picture created by Nabokov’s words, we can hear the song of his language: his famous sound repetitions (“opened opus” and “frenzy of the fugue”), the varied rhythm of his line, and the harsh “k” sounds to go with the patter of rain on glass.

How does the story sound and feel when overlaid with colors?

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