He is surging up from under my pen.
– Vladimir Nabokov, Spring in Fialta (298)
Glaucous. It was Vladimir Nabokov’s short story Spring in Fialta that made me look it up. Some people prickle when the more obscure words of our language are put to the use they were meant for. But not me. I love my dictionaries and especially, with a mother’s love of the neglected, the recondite words within. Specific words can have complex personal histories of epic proportions to the user or writer: a life that looms like a long shadow behind the letters which readers can never fully make out. Still, the secret life of the writer’s words breathe and color the sentences. I experience words in a very visceral and visual way. I don’t have synesthesia, as Nabovov did, but I do understand the personal connection.
…but with every new book the tints grew still more dense (299)
However, glaucous is a problem child. The definition says it is blue-grey. Ah, but it also says it is yellow-green. That is a obfuscation that I can not quite forgive. In the story Nabokov surely intends it to mean blue-grey- his sea is more grey, but the mood is clearly blue. A woman, Nina, comes in and out of Victor’s life, casting a glaucous glaze of love and longing over his life, his story.
And moreover was she not chained to her husband by something stronger than love – the staunch friendship between two convicts? (306)
Nabokov uses color to illustrate what is a story of a story. The way that our remembrances take on a remote quality of literature within our own minds is fascinating: the fugue of color and book beautifully describing memory’s form.
Inspired, I perused (another problem child having -in many dictionaries- duel opposing meanings, in this case I mean skittered through- which is of course the meaning sometimes rejected, but I always root for the underdog) Color: A Natural History by Victoria Finlay. It was fun poking around the history of how the colors we use were and are procured. They all have their own tales of intrigue, blood or murder. I can’t look at my freshly painted red nails now without conjuring up the image of bloody cochineal beetles farmed from the cactus prickly pear to make true carmine red. The mythical cow piss and mango makings of orange, and the horrors of slow death by (lead) white paint all linger in the technicolor images of my mind.
Each of the side-pillars [of the door] is fluffily fringed with white, which rather spoils the lines of what might have been a perfect ex-libris for the book of our two lives. (292)
The Spring of Fialta is a chromatic tale that comes together into a epiphany of white light at the end: the full spectrum moment of clarity in which the admission of unrequited love is made. The “scarlet woman” of his affection has the same problem many pigments throughout history have had- they never “fix.” They fade, or worse turn into completely different colors- white or green turns black, reds become drab browns. The color of love may be unknown or different in each heart, but surely it is color fast?
She kissed me thrice with more mouth than meaning (291)
Of course, as Finley tells us, the word scarlet didn’t originally mean the color red. It was rather the cloth itself. A scarlet woman is a woman of the cloth. Oh that’s funny. I love words.
*The Spring of Fialta from The Penguin Book of Russian Short Stories edited by David Richards