Tuesday, December 15, 2009

`A Virescent Rainbow Edged with Mauve'

The middle-school science teacher, in a class devoted to electromagnetic radiation, asked if anyone knew the great baseball pitcher Roy G. Biv. One kid, who raises his hand for every question and has never once known the correct answer, swore he know who Biv was but could no longer remember. The rest of the class, once the tittering subsided, was mute. Under the letters in the pitcher’s name, the teacher wrote:

“Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, Violet”

It’s a mnemonic for remembering the colors in the visible spectrum and as they appear in a rainbow. The order is longest wavelength to shortest. The kids were not impressed but for me the linkage of memory and rainbows conjured Nabokov, their poet. Think of this passage from John Shade’s poem “Pale Fire” in the novel of the same name:

“My picture book was at an early age
The painted parchment papering our cage:
Mauve rings around the moon; blood-orange sun;
Twinned Iris; and that rare phenomenon
The iridule—when, beautiful and strange,
In a bright sky above a mountain range
One opal cloudlet in an oval form
Reflects the rainbow of a thunderstorm
Which in a distant valley has been staged—
For we are most artistically caged.”

No writer possesses so nuanced a color palette (“mauve,” “blood-orange,” “opal”). Nabokov praised Gogol for his visual acuity and his expansion of the Russian writer’s color sense. Nabokov writes in Gogol:

“Before his and Pushkin’s advent Russian literature was purblind…The sky was blue, the dawn red, the foliage green, the eyes of beauty black, the clouds grey, and so on. It was Gogol (and after him Lermontov and Tolstoy) who first saw yellow and violet at all. That the sky could be pale green at sunrise, or the snow a rich blue on a cloudless day, would have sounded like heretical nonsense to your so-called ‘classical’ writer, accustomed as he was to the rigid conventional color-schemes of the Eighteenth Century French School of literature.”

Rainbows turn up frequently in Nabokov’s work, often in association with women or girls. In Speak, Memory (Nabokov wished to title it Speak, Mnemosyne), his recollection of a girl named Colette evokes an image of “a rainbow spiral in a glass marble,” and he speaks for the first time with another, Tamara, in “a rainbow-windowed pavilion.” An unhappy rainbow, of course, arcs across Lolita. Even in his translations, rainbows appear, as in his rendering of Fyodor Tyutchev’s “Appeasement” (which reads more Nabokovian than Tyutchevian):

“The storm withdrew, but Thor had found his oak,
and there it lay magnificently slain,
and from its limbs a remnant of blue smoke
spread to bright trees repainted by the rain –

“- while thrush and oriole made haste to mend
their broken melodies throughout the grove,
upon the crests of which was propped the end
of a virescent rainbow edged with mauve.”

“Virescent” – a splendidly precise Nabokovian word meaning almost but not quite green, becoming green, an effect I associate with the swollen buds of maples in late April in upstate New York. Indeed, botanists most often use the word, and Nabokov boasted his work mingled the “passion of science” with the “precision of art.”

[Enjoy Roger Boylan’s “Nabokov’s Gift.”]

No comments: