“The long ‘a’ of the English alphabet has for me the tint of weathered wood…” So wrote author Vladimir Nabokov, expressing the colours that certain letters of the alphabet evoked for him. Best known for his controversial masterpiece Lolita, the novelist is also one of history’s most famous synesthetes. Much better known today than when Nabokov was writing in the first half of the 20th century, synesthesia is a recognised neurological phenomenon in which activity of one sense or cognitive pathway leads to experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway. Synesthetes commonly experience words, letters or numbers as colours. Other variations of the condition can encompass experiences like taste and sound becoming confused.
Nabokov himself equated specific numbers and letters with specific colours, and examples of synesthesia – as well of course as a more general depth of sensual perception – feature in a number of his novels. His wife Véra and son Dmitri also experienced synesthesia, in his son’s case the colours attached to letters were often a combination of those sensed by both parents.
As well as referring to synesthesia in his novels, Nabokov also tried to capture the exact nature of what he ‘saw’ in prose, writing his own alphabet describing the rich, evocative language the hues that each letter represented to him. More recently that writing has been lovingly transformed into a book of illustrations by artist Jean Holabird. You can see the full book, Vladimir Nabokov, Alphabet in Color, as part of a current exhibition at the Welcome Collection. Lovers of illustration, language – and perhaps other synesthetes keen to compare notes – can see this work as part of the States of Mind exhibition until October 2016.
States of Mind, Tracing the edges of consciousness is on at the Welcome Collection, London, until October 2016.