a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z
In his autobiography Speak, Memory, Vladimir Nabokov described the genuine synaesthesia– a cross-wiring of normally separated sensations and perceptions– that had occasionally crept into his work in fictionalised form (e.g. The Gift, Bend Sinister). Although it was only properly recognised and subjected to study recently, there seem to be examples of certain people having it throughout history; Nabokov, Franz Liszt and Arthur Rimbaud were among the more famous people to have experienced a consistent palette of colours alongside specific sounds, words or letters.
From Speak, Memory:
“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 ‘o’ take care of the white. . . . Passing on to the blue group, there is steely ‘x’, thundercloud ‘z’ and huckleberry ‘h’. 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… In the green group, there are alder-leaf f, the unripe apple of p, and pistachio t. Dull green, combined somehow 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 express only 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 Color. The word for rainbow, a primary, but decidedly muddy, rainbow, is in my private language the hardly pronounceable: kzspygv.”
Note that he seems to contradict himself, saying that H is both “huckleberry” and “drab shoelace”; this may be a simple mistake, since he firmly puts H with the browns, or another case of ineffable non-spectrum colours like “azure mother of pearl”. From a 1962 BBC interview:
“V is a kind of pale, transparent pink: I think it’s called, technically, quartz pink: this is one of the closest colours that I can connect with the V. And the N, on the other hand, is a greyish-yellowish oatmeal colour. But a funny thing happens: my wife has this gift of seeing letters in colour, too, but her colours are completely different. There are, perhaps, two or three letters where we coincide, but otherwise the colours 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 10 or 11 — sees letters in colours, too. Quite naturally he would say, “Oh, this isn’t that colour, this is this colour,” and so on. Then we asked him to list his colours 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.”
I’d love to see complete synaesthetic editions of Lolita, Pale Fire, and so on, all printed as the author himself would have seen them.