Vladimir Nabokov

Vane Sisters — Wrong shadow on purpose?

By Alain Champlain, 6 February, 2024

I've been wondering about a detail in The Vane Sisters:

The lean ghost, the elongated umbra cast by a parking meter upon some damp snow, had a strange ruddy tinge; this I made out to be due to the tawny red light of the restaurant sign above the sidewalk[...]

In reality, the meter's shadow should be relatively greenish, since it's the spot where there's an absence of red light. I wonder who knows this and who doesn't... My guess is that Nabokov knows this, and that Sybil (who's responsible for this meter) doesn't — after all, she's not the painter sister, and seems to have a bad sense of colour, if her "gaudily painted" nails are any indication. Also, I'd say our narrator knows, but only subconsciously, which is why the ruddy tinge is "strange."

Or maybe Nabokov erred? I remember he said that in another world or another lifetime he might be a painter, but maybe he lacked colour theory in this one.

What do you think?



5 months 1 week ago

I think you are right, Alain! Very clever, and very tricky, if so. Why else would VN have chosen the color of a shadow to be an indication of Sybil's messing with him?



5 months 1 week ago

Alain, I've had some 2nd thoughts on this...

I have to assume that Nabokov, artist and scientist, would know something about shadows. I don't know much about optics, but as an artist I know that a cool shadow (cast by a warm light) has a warm edge to it. Elongated shadows have more light in them as they recede from the casting object. 

Even though Sybil is not a painter, she loved colors, perhaps from a particular artistic sense.

I believe the main thing VN is getting at in the story is the elevated sense of awareness the sisters are gifting him with. Most people without aesthetic or spiritual sense do not in general notice the details of their environment. It takes a keen eye to notice the warm edge of a shadow. A long shadow, such as a parking meter would make a good demonstration of this. This would surely be a very purposeful example of Nabokovian awareness.