symbols & signs in Signs and Symbols

Submitted by Alexey Sklyarenko on Wed, 11/27/2019 - 16:36

In VN’s story Signs and Symbols (1948) the action takes place on the boy’s twentieth (or, perhaps, twenty-first) birthday. In his memoir essay Muni (1926) Hodasevich says that, when he and Muni met and became friends, they were only inexperienced boys of twenty or a little older and mentions les simvolov (a forest of symbols) in which they easily got lost:

 

Мы были только неопытные мальчишки, лет двадцати, двадцати с небольшим, нечаянно зачерпнувшие ту самую каплю запредельной стихии, о которой писал поэт. Но и другие, более опытные и ответственные люди блуждали в таких же потёмках. Маленькие ученики плохих магов (а иногда и попросту шарлатанов), мы умели вызывать мелких и непослушных духов, которыми не умели управлять. И это нас расшатывало. В "лесу символов" мы терялись, на "качелях соответствий" нас укачивало. "Символический быт", который мы создали, то есть символизм, ставший для нас не только методом, но и просто (хоть это вовсе не просто!) образом жизни, играл с нами неприятные шутки. Вот некоторые из них, ради образчика.

 

According to Hodasevich (who quotes Fet's poem "The Swallows" and Baudelaire's poem Correspondances), symbolism that for him and Muni had become not just a method but simply (although this is not simple at all!) a way of life played unpleasant tricks with them.

 

In the first of the two sonnets of his cycle Pro sebya (“About Myself,” 1918-19) Hodasevich compares himself to a garden-spider and, in the last line, mentions znak spiny ego mokhnatoy (the sign on its shaggy back):

 

Нет, есть во мне прекрасное, но стыдно

Его назвать перед самим собой,

Перед людьми ж — подавно: с их обидной

Душа не примирится похвалой.

 

И вот — живу, чудесный образ мой

Скрыв под личиной низкой и ехидной...

Взгляни, мой друг: по травке золотой

Ползёт паук с отметкой крестовидной.

 

Пред ним ребёнок спрячется за мать,

И ты сама спешишь его согнать

Рукой брезгливой с шейки розоватой.

 

И он бежит от гнева твоего,

Стыдясь себя, не ведая того,

Что значит знак его спины мохнатой.

 

In the sonnet’s first tercet (ll. 9-11) Hodasevich says that before the spider a child would hide himself behind his mother and that you yourself are eager to brush it off from your rosy neck with a squeamish hand. S sheyki rozovatoy (from rosy neck) brings to mind Ah-oo-neigh na-sheiky pah-ook (and she has a spider on her neck), a Russian phrase used by V. (the narrator and main character in VN’s novel The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, 1941) to expose Mme Lecerf:

 

It was then that I turned to my silent compatriot who was ogling his broken watch.

'Ah-oo-neigh na-sheiky pah-ook,' I said softly.

The lady's hand flew up to the nape of her neck, she turned on her heel.

'Shto?' (what?) asked my slow-minded compatriot, glancing at me. Then he looked at the lady, grinned uncomfortably and fumbled with his watch.

'J'ai quelque chose dans le cou.... There's something on my neck, I feel it,' said Madame Lecerf.

'As a matter of fact,' I said, 'I have just been telling this Russian gentleman that I thought there was a spider on your neck. But I was mistaken, it was a trick of light.' (Chapter 17)

 

In VN’s novel Mme Lecerf and Nina Rechnoy turn out to be one and the same person. The Russian name of Sebastian's mistress seems to hint at Nina Zarechnyi, a character in Chekhov’s play Chayka (“The Seagull,” 1896). At the end of Chekhov's play Treplev commits suicide:

 

Дорн (перелистывая журнал, Тригорину). Тут месяца два назад была напечатана одна статья... письмо из Америки, и я хотел вас спросить, между прочим... (берёт Тригорина за талию и отводит к рампе)... так как я очень интересуюсь этим вопросом... (Тоном ниже, вполголоса.) Уведите отсюда куда-нибудь Ирину Николаевну. Дело в том, что Константин Гаврилович застрелился...

 

Dorn. [Looking through the pages of a magazine, to Trigorin] There was an article from America in this magazine about two months ago that I wanted to ask you about, among other things. [He leads Trigorin to the front of the stage] I am very much interested in this question. [He lowers his voice and whispers] You must take Madame Arkadina away from here; what I wanted to say was, that Konstantin Gavrilovich has shot himself. (Act Four)

 

In a letter of June 28, 1888, to Pleshcheev Chekhov compares the little naked soloveichiki (nightingales) that just hatched out from the eggs to undressed Jewish babies:

 

Именье Смагиных велико и обильно, но старо, запущено и мертво, как прошлогодняя паутина. Дом осел, двери не затворяются, изразцы на печке выпирают друг друга и образуют углы, из щелей полов выглядывают молодые побеги вишен и слив. В той комнате, где я спал, между окном и ставней соловей свил себе гнездо, и при мне вывелись из яиц маленькие, голенькие соловейчики, похожие на раздетых жиденят. На риге живут солидные аисты. На пасеке обитает дед, помнящий царя Гороха и Клеопатру Египетскую.

 

The Smagins’ estate is “great and fertile,” but old, neglected, and dead as last year’s cobwebs. The house has sunk, the doors won’t shut, the tiles in the stove squeeze one another out and form angles, young suckers of cherries and plums peep up between the cracks of the floors. In the room where I slept a nightingale had made herself a nest between the window and the shutter, and while I was there little naked nightingales, looking like undressed Jew babies, hatched out from the eggs. Sedate storks live on the barn. At the beehouse there is an old grandsire who remembers the King Gorokh [Translator’s Note: The equivalent of Old King Cole.] and Cleopatra of Egypt.

 

In Signs and Symbols one of the old couple’s fellow travelers in the subway resembles Rebecca Borisovna, whose daughter had married one of the Soloveichiks—in Minsk, years ago:

 

During the long ride to the subway station, she and her husband did not exchange a word, and every time she glanced at his old hands, clasped and twitching upon the handle of his umbrella, and saw their swollen veins and brown-spotted skin, she felt the mounting pressure of tears. As she looked around, trying to hook her mind onto something, it gave her a kind of soft shock, a mixture of compassion and wonder, to notice that one of the passengers—a girl with dark hair and grubby red toenails—was weeping on the shoulder of an older woman. Whom did that woman resemble? She resembled Rebecca Borisovna, whose daughter had married one of the Soloveichiks—in Minsk, years ago. (1)

 

Hodasevich’s friend Muni committed suicide in Minsk:

 

Под конец и приезды его стали тяжелы. В последний раз, уезжая из Москвы 25 марта 1916 года, он еще с дороги прислал открытку с просьбой известить об исходе одного дела, касавшегося меня. Но не только он не дождался ответа, а и открытка пришла, когда его уже не было в живых. По приезде в Минск, на рассвете 28 марта Муни покончил с собой. Сохранился набросок песенки, сочиненной им, вероятно, в вагоне. Она называется "Самострельная".

Однажды, осенью 1911 года, в дурную полосу жизни, я зашёл к своему брату. Дома никого не было. Доставая коробочку с перьями, я выдвинул ящик письменного стола, и первое, что мне попалось на глаза, был револьвер. Искушение было велико. Я, не отходя от стола, позвонил Муни по телефону.

- Приезжай сейчас же. Буду ждать двадцать минут, больше не смогу.

Муни приехал.

В одном из писем с войны он писал мне: "Я слишком часто чувствую себя так, как - помнишь? - ты в пустой квартире у Михаила".

Тот случай, конечно, он вспомнил и умирая: "наше" не забывалось. Муни находился у сослуживца. Сослуживца вызвали по какому-то делу. Оставшись один, Муни взял из чужого письменного стола револьвер и выстрелил себе в правый висок. Через сорок минут он умер.

 

According to Hodasevich, Muni shot himself dead at daybreak on March 28, 1916 (OS). VN’s father and grandfather died on March 28:

 

He [Vladimir Dmitrievich Nabokov, VN's grandfather] would lapse for ever-increasing periods into an unconscious state; during one such lapse he was transferred to his pied-à-terre on the Palace Quay in St. Petersburg. As he gradually regained consciousness, my mother camouflaged his bedroom into the one he had had in Nice. Some similar pieces of furniture were found and a number of articles rushed from Nice by special messenger, and all the flowers his hazy senses had been accustomed to were obtained, in their proper variety and profusion, and a bit of house wall that could be just glimpsed from the window was painted a brilliant white, so every time he reverted to a state of comparative lucidity he found himself safe on the illusory Riviera artistically staged by my mother; and there, on 28 March 1904, exactly eighteen years, day for day, before my father, he peacefully died. (Speak, Memory, Chapter Three, 1) 

 

VN's father was assassinated on March 28, 1922, in Berlin (VN was reading to his mother Blok's poem about Florence, when the telephone rang). Among the cities mentioned in Signs and Symbols is Berlin:

 

When he had gone to bed, she remained in the living room with her pack of soiled playing cards and her old photograph albums. Across the narrow courtyard, where the rain tinkled in the dark against some ash cans, windows were blandly alight, and in one of them a black-trousered man, with his hands clasped under his head and his elbows raised, could he seen lying supine on an untidy bed. She pulled the blind down and examined the photographs. As a baby, he looked more surprised than most babies. A photograph of a German maid they had had in Leipzig and her fat-faced fiancé fell out of a fold of the album. She turned the pages of the book: Minsk, the Revolution, Leipzig, Berlin, Leipzig again, a slanting house front, badly out of focus. Here was the boy when he was four years old, in a park, shyly, with puckered forehead, looking away from an eager squirrel, as he would have from any other stranger. Here was Aunt Rosa, a fussy, angular, wild-eyed old lady, who had lived in a tremulous world of bad news, bankruptcies, train accidents, and cancerous growths until the Germans put her to death, together with all the people she had worried about. The boy, aged six—that was when he drew wonderful birds with human hands and feet, and suffered from insomnia like a grown-up man. His cousin, now a famous chess player. 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. Here he was at ten—the year they left Europe. She remembered the shame, the pity, the humiliating difficulties of the journey, and the ugly, vicious, backward children he was with in the special school where he had been placed after they arrived in America. And then came a time in his life, coinciding with a long convalescence after pneumonia, when those little phobias of his, which his parents had stubbornly regarded as the eccentricities of a prodigiously gifted child, hardened, as it were, into a dense tangle of logically interacting illusions, making them totally inaccessible to normal minds. (2)

 

It seems that the boy in Signs and Symbols was born on March 28, 1926 (or 1927), in Leipzig. In 1936 (or 1937), when the boy was ten, the family moved to America. The action in VN's story takes place on March 28, 1947 (Friday), a week before Good Friday. Rebecca Borisovna (whose daughter married one of the Soloveichiks) brings to mind Revveka (Rebecca) in Pushkin's poem Khristos voskres ("Christ is risen!" 1821):

 

Христос воскрес, моя Реввека!
Сегодня следуя душой
Закону бога-человека,
С тобой целуюсь, ангел мой.
А завтра к вере Моисея
За поцелуй я, не робея,
Готов, еврейка, приступить —
И даже то тебе вручить,
Чем можно верного еврея
От православных отличить.

 

Rebecca, darling, Christ is risen!

Today my soul, as best it can,

Pursues the Law of God-the-Man

In your embrace. My angel, listen:

Tomorrow, lovely Jewish miss,

The faith of Moses for your kiss

I will embrace with all my heart,

And even give that thing to you,

By which one tells a faithful Jew

From all the Christian men apart.

(tr. G. Gurarie)

 

It seems that Rebecca of this poem was a model of Virgin Mary in Pushkin's frivolous poem Gavriiliada ("The Gabrieliad," 1822) also written in Kishinev.

 

Rebecca Borisovna's patronymic seems to hint at Pushkin's drama Boris Godunov (1825). In VN's novel Dar ("The Gift," 1937) Boris Shchyogolev (Zina Mertz's step-father) tells Fyodor Godunov-Cherdyntsev (the narrator and main character in "The Gift") that, if he moves in, he will live kak Khristos za pazukhoy (snug as a thug in a jug). Khristos is the Russian name of Christ. Shchyogolev's pun is a play on the idiom kak u Khrista za pazukhoy (as a bug in a rug). The three telephone calls at the end of Signs and Symbols bring to mind the mysterious telephone calls in "The Gift." The action in "The Gift" begins on April 1, 1926 (when the hero of Signs and Symbols is four days old).

"Forest of symbols" is a famous phrase from Fleurs du Mal, where Baudelaire says:

L’homme y passe à travers des forêts de symboles
Qui l’observent avec des regards familiers.

As for the latter line (variously rendered as): "Nature regards us familiarly", I think VN has something to say about that from Ultima Thule:

"Indifferent nature,” says Pushkin. Nonsense! A continuous shying-away would be a more accurate description."

Question: Where does Pushkin mention "indifferent nature?"

PS - A Follow-up Question (though its bit off topic): In which chapter of Glory does Weinstock, the eccentric Jewish bookseller from The Eye make an appearance? I vaguely remember something along these lines (2-3 years back) but I can't locate him right now for the life of me. Did he have conversation with Martin somewhere?

Shakeeb, you missed the opportunity to correct my mistake. The action in Signs and Symbols takes place on March 28, 1947 (Friday), a week before Good Friday (April 4).

Weinstock does not appear in "Glory."

Pushkin mentions "indifferent nature" in his poem Brozhu li ya vdol' ulits shumnykh ("Whether I wander along noisy streets") analyzed in class by Pnin, the title character of a novel (1957) by VN.

 

Btw., do you know Krylov's fable about two barrels (the empty barrel is louder)? 

No, I'm not familiar with Krylov's tale of two barrels but the English proverb is common enough. Googlebooking helped though. The Russian La Fontaine for better or worse, will forever be associated in my mind with a passage from Dostoevsky's Devils (alluded to as The Inquisitive Man: the one about the man in the museum and an elephant).

Since last week, I keep imagining Martin meeting up Weinstock (in some bookstore) who suspects him of being "on a espionage mission" towards the end of Glory. Haven't been able to locate any such passage, hence the query.

Didn't get why Friday is so important. This is not VN's earlier short story, Christmas.

That Friday, their son’s birthday, everything went wrong. The subway train lost its life current between two stations and for a quarter of an hour they could hear nothing but the dutiful beating of their hearts and the rustling of newspapers. The bus they had to take next was late and kept them waiting a long time on a street corner, and when it did come, it was crammed with garrulous high-school children. It began to rain as they walked up the brown path leading to the sanatorium. There they waited again, and instead of their boy, shuffling into the room, as he usually did (his poor face sullen, confused, ill-shaven, and blotched with acne), a nurse they knew and did not care for appeared at last and brightly explained that he had again attempted to take his life. He was all right, she said, but a visit from his parents might disturb him. The place was so miserably understaffed, and things got mislaid or mixed up so easily, that they decided not to leave their present in the office but to bring it to him next time they came. (1)

 

If the boy's birthday is March 28 (as I suspect), then the action in the story takes place in 1947 (because that year March 28 was Friday). Btw., in a letter to Vyazemski Pushkin says that Vyazemski's best poem is Sem' pyatnits na nedele ("Seven Fridays in the Week," 1826). Vyazemski is the author of "The Song on the Birthday of V. A. Zhukovski" (1849). Zhukovski's birthday, January 29 (OS), is the day of Pushkin's death. Like Jesus Christ, Pushkin died on Friday. In the last lines of his poem January 29, 1837 Tyutchev says that Russia's heart, like first love, will never forget Pushkin. First Love (1948) is a story by VN. In Tyutchev's poem Bliznetsy ("The Twins," 1851) the two pairs of twins are Dream and Death and Suicide and Love. Pushkin was Bliznetsy (Gemini) by horoscope.

 

I notice that Fools Die on Friday (1947) is a mystery novel by Erle Stanley Gardner.

 

In VN's play Sobytie ("The Event," 1938) Antonina Pavlovna (who recently read a book by a Hindu who cites some striking examples) says that in India there is a superstition that only great people die on their birthday, zakon tselykh chisel (the law of whole numbers):

 

Антонина Павловна. За себя я спокойна. В Индии есть поверье, что только великие люди умирают в день своего рождения. Закон целых чисел.
Любовь. Такого поверья нет, мамочка. (Act Two)

 

According to Lyubov' (Antonina Pavlovna's daughter), such a superstition does not exist. The action in VN's play takes place on Antonina Pavlovna's fiftieth birthday. The name and patronymic of Lyubov's and Vera's mother hint at A. P. Chekhov (1860-1904), a writer (and doctor) who died at the age of forty-four. At the beginning of Signs and Symbols the numeral 4 is repeated twice:

 

For the fourth time in as many years, they were confronted with the problem of what birthday present to bring a young man who was incurably deranged in his mind. He had no desires. Man-made objects were to him either hives of evil, vibrant with a malignant activity that he alone could perceive, or gross comforts for which no use could be found in his abstract world. After eliminating a number of articles that might offend him or frighten him (anything in the gadget line, for instance, was taboo), his parents chose a dainty and innocent trifle—a basket with ten different fruit jellies in ten little jars. (1)

 

Btw., Chekhov's birthday is January 29 (NS). A German spa where Chekhov died, Badenweiler brings to mind Baden-Baden, a German spa mentioned by Vyazemski in his Song on the Birthday of V. A. Zhukovski:

 

Будь наш тост ему отраден,
И от города Петра
Пусть отгрянет в Баден-Баден
Наше русское ура!

 

Also, see above my addendum about Rebecca Borisovna.