Vladimir Nabokov: “Signs and Symbols”

Detail from Brueghel's "Triumph of Death"

Detail from Brueghel’s “Triumph of Death”

All this, and much more, she had accepted, for, after all, living does mean accepting the loss of one joy after another, not even joys in her case, mere possibilities of improvement. She thought of the recurrent waves of pain that for some reason or other she and her husband had had to endure; of the in visible giants hurting her boy in some unimaginable fashion; of the incalculable amount of tenderness contained in the world; of the fate of this tenderness, which is either crushed or wasted, or transformed into madness; of neglected children humming to themselves in unswept corners; of beautiful weeds that cannot hide from the farmer.

This is Literature with a capital L, the Literature I’m afraid of, that I fear means far more than I will ever get, that engenders the fear I’ve overlooked some key element every time a story seems remote and uninteresting to me – a Literature that tricks a clever reader into complicity (but leaves the dull one – me – standing by the side of the road), a Literature that combines linguistics, art, history, religion, mysticism, psychiatry – and where a single letter carries the weight of the Holocaust.

So I didn’t so much read this story as research it. That is what I’m doing here, after all: learning.

Last week, when I read Lorrie Moore’s “Referential” (you can compare the above paragraph by Nabokov to the similar one by Moore that begins my earlier post), I decided to follow up and read the story she was paying tribute to. In her New Yorker interview, she lists the common elements both stories share:

There are the jams, the photographs, the playing cards, the desire of the child to leave the world, the phone ringing at the end, the sleep problems of the man. There is also the referential mania of the child, which is contagious to the mother and which the story then embraces as well. The Nabokov story is a perfect one, and my hovering over it is intended as an homage and is not meant to be in any way disguised or dishonoring.

And it’s true she includes these, but their use in the Nabokov original was so crucial to the underpinnings of the story rather than the surface plot, it’s merely an echo. Moore focused on the couple, and used the mentally ill boy as a wedge between them, as a spotlight on their characters. It was effective and moving. But the primary functional intersection with the original turns out to be one element: the boy’s referential thinking, contagious to the mother.

The original, first published in 1948 in The New Yorker and available online, is a very different story. The focus – the entire reason for the story – is on the hidden story behind the one presented. Of great interest to me is the tracing of the edits, which Nabokov reversed when he published the story in his 1958 collection Nabokov’s Dozen.

There’s so much to say, and I’ve been spinning around for a couple of days trying to organize a post out of all the information I’ve discovered. I’ll start with the New Yorker podcast of Mary Gaitskill reading “Signs and Symbols,” and discussing it with Deborah Treisman, since she touches on most of the issues I ran into in other sources.

For starters, she doesn’t read the New Yorker version, but the “corrected” edition Nabokov later published. An interesting choice, given the setting of her reading and discussion.

Right off the bat, the title was changed to “Symbols and Signs” by then-editor Katherine A. White, for reasons no one seems to know. Gaitskill equates “Signs and Symbols,” Nabokov’s preferred title, with the medicalese “signs and symptoms”. For those who don’t read the Merck Manual for fun, a sign is an objective finding: a tremor, fever, something recordable, whereas a symptom is subjective – headache, fatigue – and must be reported by the patient. There’s also a difference, in linguistics, between a sign and a symbol (a sign is what Helen Keller used before the miracle; after, she used symbols – that is, true language, and that’s why it was a miracle), but I’m not going to wrestle with that here. Suffice it to say a symbol is arbitrary and requires interpretation of a concept, whereas a sign merely stands for something concrete.

She discusses in some detail one of the son’s fears:

The boy again, aged about eight, already hard to understand, afraid of the wallpaper in the passage, afraid of a certain picture in a book, which merely showed an idyllic landscape with rocks on a hillside and an old cart wheel hanging from the one branch of a leafless tree.

The picture is a reference to “The Triumph of Death“, a 16th century painting by Pieter Brueghel which depicts anything but an idyllic landscape – “In a hilly landscape an army of skeletons gleefully torture and kill their victims, piling skulls in a cart, pinioning bodies on elevated wheels, herding people into an outsized coffin” – but does include wheels, which were used as devices of torture and execution.

What does this say about the son’s fear? He associates a benign picture with a violent one, and that may seem crazy except, as Gaitskill says, why is the cart wheel hanging from a tree in the idyllic landscape, hanging from a tree? There’s the hint that maybe the boy sees danger because the world is a dangerous place, that he isn’t as crazy as everyone thinks he is.

This ends up magnified by another edit Nabokov reversed: in the last sentence of the story, the husband lists five of the types of jelly:

His clumsy, moist lips spelled out their eloquent labels—apricot, grape, beach plum, quince. He had got to crab apple when the telephone rang again.

Many analysts note the fruits are listed from sweetest to most bitter. And the accurate “beach plum” was originally, and later corrected to, “beech plum”. Turns out the German word for “beech” is Buchen, bringing in Buchenwald – “beechwoods” and the Holocaust. The date of publication was May 15, 1948 – the day Israel became an independent state. Kind of makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up, doesn’t it? I’m surprised Nabokov didn’t raise more of a fuss about the change.

He did raise a fuss about the reparagraphing that changed the number of paragraphs in the three sections from 7, 4, and 19 (which, reversed, becomes 1947) to 7, 4, and 18. This may seem rather thin evidence, except not only did he separate the paragraphs in later publication to return the original numerancy, he complained about it in his novel Pnin, when the title character visits the library on his birthday of May 15, per analysis by Alexander Drescher:

“It can’t be!” cried Pnin. “I requested on Friday Volume 19, year 1947, not 18, year 1940” …
“Eighteen, 19,” muttered Pnin. “There is not great difference! I put the year correctly, that is important! …
They can’t read, these women. The year was plainly inscribed

Is this all smoke and mirrors, a parlor trick, seeing the face of Jesus in a tomato? Not for Drescher, who equates the final scene to Passover and imagines the third phone call as the angel of death passing over the son:

The third phone call is not the dim girl again, not the hospital reporting a suicide, not an indeterminate ending focused on the couple’s suffering, nor a meta-literary statement on the impossibility of certain knowledge, and certainly not Nabokov tempting the reader into a referential mania. The first born son has leaped through a window, landed on his feet, run to a nearby gas station, negotiated a once fearful gadget and telephoned his parents: Mama, can I come home?

Gaitskill, on the other hand, thinks the third phone call is irrelevant, and moves beyond the Holocaust to the greater issue of evil. Though the son may be mentally ill, he somehow sees there is danger in the world, in the “tragic nature of human existence,” which goes back to “the unknowability of life, smallness and vulnerability of people in a vast pattern beyond comprehension, glimmers of which they can see out of the corner of their eye.” All great stories have a second story, Nabokov, Gaitskill and Drescher agree; plot is merely a conduit.

I’ve only touched the high spots of these analyses by people far more sophisticated than I; it’s a start. My primary question is this: how do you know when there’s something there – when to count paragraphs or look up German translations of words or find the Passover in jelly jars – and when to just read the story? Because most stories, at least now, just don’t do this sort of thing. Is this kind of coding a ridiculous waste of time, or is it, like the Fibonacci sequence, something more elemental? Not sure. But it’s very cool.

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8 responses to “Vladimir Nabokov: “Signs and Symbols”

  1. Heh. I was planning on reading this story (in fact I have it printed out) but haven’t yet. You have the smarts to read her interview. I only found out about it because of the person who wrote on my blog that Moore ripped him off. I read the first page or so and decided it was a tribute, not a rip off, and then haven’t had a chance to finish it. And so I won’t read your post just yet either 🙂

  2. I read Moore’s piece over morning coffee, and I’ve read through the comments at the New Yorker and followed the links here. In this humble reader’s opinion, Moore’s words are just to close to, if not exactly, Nabokov’s to not think Moore plagiarized a bit. However, if Moore had made a direct attribution to “Symbols and Signs” then her story would clearly directed the reader to her play on Nabokov’s story, and the reader would have been in on the game.

    Nathan Englander’s retelling of the Carver piece, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” was obviously attributed. Less obvious is the popular young adult series Uglies, which is not attributed to the Twilight Zone story “Number Twelve Looks Just Like You.”

    Again and only my opinion, when I find these unattributed stories I am insulted as a reader and respect the writer less for it. Yet I have not finished thinking about this topic of referenced material or when borrowing ideas is more like wholesale lifting of words. It is a gray area. The same stories are told over and over again with different words. I do know if my daughter tried to turn in a story like this for her high school English class, and the teacher were astute enough to catch it, my daughter would cited for plagiarism.

    Thanks for the discussion.

    • Hi, Latitudes (I’m not sure what to call you, feel free to tell me what you prefer), and welcome.

      I didn’t know the Nabokov story existed when I read the Moore; now that I’ve read both, I’m glad you’ve given me an opportunity to think about the Moore again.

      I enjoyed it as a stand-alone, and felt the focus was on the relationship between the couple: how the woman was distancing herself, maybe even deliberately getting the man to cut things off. She seems to be protecting herself. The boy’s illness is an interesting side element, but the story to me “belongs” to the mother. It’s an emotional story.

      With the Nabokov, the couple is married and there’s no alienation at all between them; the story is on a deeper level, about the presence of evil and danger in the world. It feels like an intellectual story to me, rather than an emotional one, though the emotion of realizing what is under the surface is quite profound. It’s a very different emotion, though. A very different story. So to me, it’s not plagiarism. It’s using the same general elements to go somewhere else.

      But that’s just my opinion. Would I be comfy writing a story like this? Not in a million years. But I’m not Lorrie Moore. 😉

      I do, however, wish I’d known the Moore piece was a “tribute” as I read it. I’m not sure the Nabokov is widely-enough known for the average New Yorker reader to recognize it (none of the other TNY bloggers I follow recognized it, and they’re all quite well-read). And there would be no way to know unless one reads the interview. Most magazine readers would not. That makes it a “stealth tribute” which sort of defeats the purpose of a tribute, doesn’t it?

      It’s very much like when they print a novel excerpt. There’s no way to know it’s not a stand-alone short story unless you read the interview. Funny, I never thought of this before – I’ve always assumed it was a way to promote a book, but I’m not sure how it helps sell a book when readers aren’t aware there is a book coming out.

      Thanks for your comment – I hope to see more of you.

  3. Pingback: Lorrie Moore: “Referential” from The New Yorker, 5/28/12 « A Just Recompense

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