Page 29. " On top of all this I present a fine case of coloured hearing "


Synesthesia is a neurological term meaning 'union of the senses', whereby sensations in one cognitive pathway can trigger activity in another. One of its most common forms is the perception of individual letters of the alphabet, numbers, days of the week or months as tinged or shaded with a certain colour, or as occupying precise places or orders on an imagined map.

In Nabokov's case, hearing a certain letter's name could result in an experience of colour, but of course his exposition here of "coloured hearing" is just another excuse for him to explore his love of words, and to show off his polyglottal knowledge. We do not know if Nabokov was any good as an artist, but he was taught drawing from an early age by Msistlav Dobuzhinsky, the celebrated Russian landscape painter of the time. Nabokov and Dobuzhinsky kept up a correspondence for decades later.

The now famous first lines of his scandalous novel of 1955 Lolita, "Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta" is a good example of how much he enjoyed words and their sounds.  

Other references to synaesthesia in Nabokov's work include the character Krug's description of the word 'loyalty' as being like golden fork lying in the sun in Bend Sinister.

Further reading:  Nabokov and the Art of Painting by Gerard de Vries and D. Barton Johnson, in which the writers explore the rich presence of colour and painting in Nabokov's works. 


Page 31. " I vividly visualized her driving away down Morskaya Street towards Nevski Avenue "


Hotel Astoria
GNU Free Documentation LicenseHotel Astoria - Credit: Корзун Андрей (Kor!An)





Bolshaya Morskaya Street is perpendicular to Nevsky Prospekt. Like most streets in Russian cities, Morskaya ("Naval") Street was renamed by the Soviet authorities after the 1917 Revolution, and became Herzen Street. Morskaya Street in Nabokov's time was a street of palatial townhouses, embassies and banks. It was also home to the Fabergé shop at number 24, selling the eggs and jewels that Nabokov so loved to hate.  Nowadays, it is home to boutique hotels, luxury stores, and the imposing Hotel Astoria, which was built in 1912, five years before the Nabokovs fled St Petersburg.  

Nevski Avenue, known locally as Nevski Prospekt, never changed its name. It was then, and is still St Petersburg's main artery, stretching from the Winter (Imperial) Palace to the Moscow Railway Station.

Page 31. " I distinguished the light sleigh drawn by a chestnut courser "

The image of Nabokov's mother wearing her seal furs in her sleigh in wintry St Petersburg streets is one of the most evocative ones of Speak, Memory and it certainly sums up the style in which the Nabokovs lived in Russia. Seeing as it was drawn by a single horse, the sleigh may have been one like this, although Nabokov describes the coachman as being in front of the rider.

Page 32. " Now the object proved to be a giant polygonal Faber pencil, four feet long and correspondingly thick "
World's second largest pencil, outside the Schloss von Faber Castell in Stein
Permission Granted by Copyright Owner for Use on Book DrumWorld's second largest pencil, outside the Schloss von Faber Castell in Stein - Credit: Graf Anton von Faber Castell

As is fitting for a writer who never learnt to type, pencils are one of Speak, Memory's leitmotifs. (see Bookmark to page 146) This scene, in which Nabokov's mother returns from town to his sickbed with a giant Faber (Castell) pencil is one of the most vivid and symbolic in the book.

Page 35. " One of her greatest pleasures in summer was the very Russian sport of hodit' po gribi (looking for mushrooms) "

Russians are still mad about hodit' po gribi and come September, they head to the woods in pursuit of mushrooms, which they then eat with smetana (sour cream), or stuffed inside pelmeni dumplings. The fact that Nabokov's mother took part in the national sport - without particularly caring what happened to the mushrooms once she had handed them over to her cook - shows the place that the countryside occupies in the Russian psyche: no one in Russia, it seems, is or was too grand for mycological pursuits.



Chanterelles are called lisichki in Russia, after the word lisa, (fox), because they resemble a fox's orange coat.


Page 37. " a bleary, incredibly wrinkled old woman (born a slave around 1830) "

Tsar Alexander II is credited for emancipating the serfs (or slaves) in Russia in 1861, thus liberating approximately twenty three million people. Five years later in 1866, state-owned serfs, who worked on Imperial properties, were also given plots of land with their freedom.


Count Leo Tolstoy photographed in 1908 by Prokudin-Gorsky
Public DomainCount Leo Tolstoy photographed in 1908 by Prokudin-Gorsky - Credit: Prokudin-Gorsky

Serfs feature a great deal in Russian literature of the 19th century. The nobly-born writer Leo Tolstoy was fascinated by peasant life, and a champion of serfs' rights. He felt that the key to the Russian soul lay in its peasant folk, in their communal life and uncorrupted spiritual values. Tolstoy even went so far as to adopt peasant dress and to found thirteen schools for serfs' children near his country estate.

Page 39. " Peterburg was sunk to Petrograd against all rules of nomenclatorial priority. "

The city we now know as St Petersburg has been called many things in its 307-year history. Founded by Tsar Peter I in 1703, it was capital of the Russian empire for two hundred years. Following the Revolution of 1917, St Petersburg's proximity to the Finnish border meant that Moscow became Russia's capital and as World War I loomed, the city's German-sounding name was changed to Petrograd in 1918. In 1924, three days after Vladimir Ilyich Lenin's death, the city was renamed Leningrad. In 1991, on the same day as the first Russian Presidential election, the name St Petersburg was chosen in a referendum, but only by 54% of voters.

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Page 42. " On my fifteenth name-day, he took me aside and [...] informed me that he was making me his heir "

Name days, akin to saints' days in Western Europe, are now rarely celebrated in modern Russia. Before the October Revolution, however, the name day was considered as important, if not more important than the celebration of the birthday, and could be celebrated with a full-blown party.

Page 47. " During several months in 1903, my mother [...] was constantly at his side in Nice "
Russian Cathedral, Nice, France
Creative Commons Attribution Share AlikeRussian Cathedral, Nice, France - Credit: Michel Zacharz

The latest wave of Russians to engulf the French Riviera resort of Nice is nothing new; sun-starved Muscovites and Petersburgers have been flocking to the Côte d’Azur ever since Empress Alexandra Fyodorovna first visited in 1856.

Built between 1903 and 1912 on land bequeathed by Tsar Nicholas II, the magnificent Cathédrale Saint Nicolas is still today the most visited monument in Nice. It was the first church to be designated Russian Orthodox Church outside Russia, and it is modelled on St Basil's on Red Square in Moscow. When it was finished, the church was a place of worship for Russian aristocrats while they wintered in Nice, staying either in hotels or in their palatial villas.

The 1917 Revolution changed everything. Within a matter of years it represented a refuge for the same aristocrats such as Nabokov's family, now in exile. Nowadays, it is a place for these same pre-Revolutionary Russian refugees - now third-generation residents of Nice - to take shelter from the "new Russians" who grace the Promenade des anglais.