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'A Little Ghost in Natural Colors': Nabokov and the Reproduction of Colour

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In writing in 1971 that ‘a bad memoirist re-touches his past, and the result is a blue-tinted or pink-shaded photograph’, Nabokov locates himself on the snobbish side of a contemporary debate about the merits of colour photography. The problem with photographic colour has always been that the effect can seem artificial. But it was in the 1950s and 1960s, when coloured images in magazines and films, and later in polaroid snapshots and on television screens, were gradually becoming normal that their ‘bepop and electric blues, furious reds, and poison greens’ – to borrow the photographer Walker Evans’s sneering phrases – came to suggest a lack of cultural sophistication. As Evans writes: ‘There are four words which must be whispered: colour photography is vulgar.’ In reading the self-consciously artificial colours of Lolita (1955) and Pale Fire (1962) as an aspect of the larger interest in misrepresentation which characterises Nabokov’s post-war work, this paper will consider his sense of the ‘vulgarity’ of garishness as a mode of inspiration. In both these novels, I will argue, unnatural or ‘natural’ colour is crucial to the conception of fictional worlds.

This talk is part of the CRASSH series.

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