Mrs. Sol, Prince & incorrect number in Signs and Symbols

Submitted by Alexey Sklyarenko on Mon, 11/18/2019 - 16:11

In VN’s story Signs and Symbols (1948) the hat of Mrs. Sol (the old couple's next-door neighbor) is a cluster of brookside flowers:


At the time of his birth, they had already been married for a long time; a score of years had elapsed, and now they were quite old. Her drab gray hair was pinned up carelessly. She wore cheap black dresses. Unlike other women of her age (such as Mrs. Sol, their next-door neighbor, whose face was all pink and mauve with paint and whose hat was a cluster of brookside flowers), she presented a naked white countenance to the faultfinding light of spring. Her husband, who in the old country had been a fairly successful businessman, was now, in New York, wholly dependent on his brother Isaac, a real American of almost forty years’ standing. They seldom saw Isaac and had nicknamed him the Prince. (1)


“A cluster of brookside flowers” brings to mind fantastic garlands mentioned by Gertrude as she describes Ophelia’s death in the weeping brook in Shakespeare’s Hamlet (Act IV, scene 7). Sol is Latin for “sun.” In his letter to Ophelia (read by Polonius) Hamlet (Prince of Denmark) mentions the sun:


Doubt thou the stars are fire;
Doubt that the sun doth move;
Doubt truth to be a liar;
But never doubt I love.


'O dear Ophelia, I am ill at these numbers; I have not art to reckon my groans: but that I love thee best, O most best, believe it. Adieu.

 'Thine evermore most dear lady, whilst

 this machine is to him, HAMLET.' (Act II, scene 2)


In one of his “Octaves” (1933-35) Mandelshtam mentions Hamlet who thought in terms of timid steps:


И Шуберт на воде, и Моцарт в птичьем гаме,
И Гёте, свищущий на вьющейся тропе,
И Гамлет, мысливший пугливыми шагами,
Считали пульс толпы и верили толпе.
Быть может, прежде губ уже родился шопот
И в бездревесности кружилися листы,
И те, кому мы посвящаем опыт,
До опыта приобрели черты.


Both Schubert on the waters and Mozart in birds’ chirping,
And Goethe whistling on a winding path,
And even Hamlet, whose thoughts were fearfully stepping,
All trusted in the crowd and felt its pulse.

Perhaps the whisper was born before lips,
And the leaves in treelessness circled and flew,
And those, to whom we impart our experience as bliss,
Acquire their forms before we do.

(tr. Ian Probstein)


In his poem Telefon (“The Telephone,” 1918) Mandelshtam mentions solntse (the sun):


Асфальта чёрные озёра

Изрыты яростью копыт,

И скоро будет солнце — скоро

Безумный петел прокричит.


The asphalt blackened lakes are pitted
As angry horse hooves clatter by,
Comes soon the sun; then soon emitted
Will be the senseless ashen cry.


and calls the telephone izbavlenie (deliverance) and zarnitsa samoubiystva (a sheet lightning of suicide):


И только голос, голос-птица

Летит на пиршественный сон.

Ты — избавленье и зарница

Самоубийства — телефон!


Its birdsong voice with all is clashing,
It sends to sleep, its mournful drone.
You are salvation, lightning’s flashing.
It’s suicide – the telephone.

(tr. R. Moreton)


At the end of Signs and Symbols the telephone rings several times:


The telephone rang. It was an unusual hour for it to ring. He stood in the middle of the room, groping with his foot for one slipper that had come off, and childishly, toothlessly, gaped at his wife. Since she knew more English than he, she always attended to the calls.

”Can I speak to Charlie?” a girl’s dull little voice said to her now.

“What number do you want? . . . No. You have the wrong number.”

She put the receiver down gently and her hand went to her heart. “It frightened me,” she said.

He smiled a quick smile and immediately resumed his excited monologue. They would fetch him as soon as it was day. For his own protection, they would keep all the knives in a locked drawer. Even at his worst, he presented no danger to other people.

The telephone rang a second time.

The same toneless, anxious young voice asked for Charlie.

“You have the incorrect number. I will tell you what you are doing. You are turning the letter ‘o’ instead of the zero.” She hung up again.

They sat down to their unexpected, festive midnight tea. He sipped noisily; his face was flushed; every now and then he raised his glass with a circular motion, so as to make the sugar dissolve more thoroughly. The vein on the side of his bald head stood out conspicuously, and silvery bristles showed on his chin. The birthday present stood on the table. While she poured him another glass of tea, he put on his spectacles and reexamined with pleasure the luminous yellow, green, and red little jars. 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. (3)


What number, the wrong number and the incorrect number seem to hint at Hamlet who is ill at these numbers.


In a dialogue with Polonius Hamlet mentions the sun, plum-tree gum and a crab:



For if the sun breed maggots in a dead dog, being a god kissing carrion,--Have you a daughter?


I have, my lord.


Let her not walk i' the sun: conception is a blessing: but not as your daughter may conceive. Friend, look to 't.


[Aside] How say you by that? Still harping on my daughter: yet he knew me not at first; he said I was a fishmonger: he is far gone, far gone: and
truly in my youth I suffered much extremity for love; very near this. I'll speak to him again. What do you read, my lord?


Words, words, words.


What is the matter, my lord?


Between who?


I mean, the matter that you read, my lord.


Slanders, sir: for the satirical rogue says here that old men have grey beards, that their faces are wrinkled, their eyes purging thick amber and
plum-tree gum and that they have a plentiful lack of wit, together with most weak hams: all which, sir, though I most powerfully and potently believe, yet I hold it not honesty to have it thus set down, for yourself, sir, should be old as I am, if like a crab you could go backward.


[Aside] Though this be madness, yet there is method in 't. Will you walk out of the air, my lord?


Into my grave. (Act Two, scene 2)


Russian for "word," slovo, brings to mind Dr. Solov (mentioned in Signs and Symbols by the boy's mother). In his poem Slovo ("The Word," 1921) Gumilyov mentions solntse (the sun) and chisla (numbers):


В оный день, когда над миром новым

Бог склонял лицо своё, тогда

Солнце останавливали словом,

Словом разрушали города.


И орёл не взмахивал крылами,

Звезды жались в ужасе к луне,

Если, точно розовое пламя,

Слово проплывало в вышине.


А для низкой жизни были числа,

Как домашний, подъяремный скот,

Потому, что все оттенки смысла

Умное число передаёт.


Патриарх седой, себе под руку

Покоривший и добро и зло,

Не решаясь обратиться к звуку,

Тростью на песке чертил число.


Но забыли мы, что осиянно

Только слово средь земных тревог,

И в Евангелии от Иоанна

Сказано, что Слово это - Бог.


Мы ему поставили пределом

Скудные пределы естества.

И, как пчёлы в улье опустелом,

Дурно пахнут мёртвые слова.


In olden days, when above the new world

God inclined his face, then

The sun was halted with a word,

A word could destroy citites.


And the eagle would not flap its wings,

The terrified stars would cling to the moon,

If, like a pink flame,

The word floated in the heavens.


And for lowly life there were numbers,

Like domestic, yoked cattle,

Because an intelligent number expresses

Every shade of meaning.


The graying Patriarch, who bent

Good and evil to his will,

Dared not make use of sound, but drew

A number in the sand with his cane.


But we have forgotten the word alone

Is numinous among earthly struggles,

And in the Gospel According to John

It is said that the word is God.


We have chosen to limit it

To the meager limits of nature,

And, like bees in a deserted hive,

Dead words smell bad.


In his poem Iz Pindemonti ("From Pindemonte," 1836) Pushkin quotes Hamlet's "words, words, words:"


Не дорого ценю я громкие права,
От коих не одна кружится голова.
Я не ропщу о том, что отказали боги
Мне в сладкой участи оспоривать налоги
Или мешать царям друг с другом воевать;
И мало горя мне, свободно ли печать
Морочит олухов, иль чуткая цензура
В журнальных замыслах стесняет балагура.
Всё это, видите ль, слова, слова, слова.
Иные, лучшие, мне дороги права;
Иная, лучшая, потребна мне свобода:
Зависеть от царя, зависеть от народа —
Не всё ли нам равно? Бог с ними.
Отчёта не давать, себе лишь самому
Служить и угождать; для власти, для ливреи
Не гнуть ни совести, ни помыслов, ни шеи;
По прихоти своей скитаться здесь и там,
Дивясь божественным природы красотам,
И пред созданьями искусств и вдохновенья
Трепеща радостно в восторгах умиленья.
Вот счастье! вот права…


I value little those much vaunted rights

that have for some the lure of dizzy heights;

I do not fret because the gods refuse

to let me wrangle over revenues,

or thwart the wars of kings; and 'tis to me

of no concern whether the press be free

to dupe poor oafs or whether censors cramp

the current fancies of some scribbling scamp.

These things are words, words, words. My spirit fights

for deeper Liberty, for better rights.

Whom shall we serve—the people or the State?

The poet does not care—so let them wait.

To give account to none, to be one's own

vassal and lord, to please oneself alone,

to bend neither one's neck, nor inner schemes,

nor conscience to obtain some thing that seems

power but is a flunkey's coat; to stroll

in one's own wake, admiring the divine

beauties of Nature and to feel one's soul

melt in the glow of man's inspired design

—that is the blessing, those are the rights!

(VN's tramslation)


In the draft Pushkin’s poem has the date under the text: July 5. In VN's novel Pale Fire (1962) July 5 is Shade's, Kinbote's and Gradus's birthday (while Shade was born in 1898, Kinbote and Gradus were born in 1915). The day on which the action in Signs and Symbols takes place is the boy's twentieth birthday:


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)


Solntse Russkoy poezii ("the sun of Russian poetry"), Pushkin died on Friday (Jan. 29, 1837, OS). The fifth day of the week, pyatnitsa (Russian for "Friday") comes from pyat' (five). The boy's father has got to the fifth fruit jelly (crab apple), when the telephone rings again.


The boy's parents have problems with choosing a birthday present:


For the fourth time in as many years, they were confronted with the problem of what birthday present to take to a young man who was incurably deranged in his mind. Desires he had none. 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)


The author of Smert' Poeta ("Death of the Poet," 1837), Lermontov outlived Pushkin by just four years. Lermontov's duel with Martynov took place near Pyatigorsk in July 1841. Lermontov (1921) is a cycle of four sonnets by Balmont, the author of Budem kak solntse ("Let's Be Like the Sun," 1902).


Btw., it seems that the title of VN's story can be traced back to the beginning of Vyacheslav Ivanov's essay Dve stikhii v sovremennom simvolizme ("The Two Elements in Modern Symbolism," 1908):


Символ есть знак, или ознаменование. То, что он означает, или знаменует, не есть какая-либо определенная идея. Нельзя сказать, что змея, как символ, значит только «мудрость», а крест, как символ, только: «жертва искупительного страдания». Иначе символ — простой гиероглиф, и сочетание нескольких символов — образное иносказание, шифрованное сообщение, подлежащее прочтению при помощи найденного ключа. Если символ — гиероглиф, то гиероглиф таинственный, ибо многозначащий, многосмысленный. В разных сферах сознания один и тот же символ приобретает разное значение. Так, змея имеет ознаменовательное отношение одновременно к земле и воплощению, полу и смерти, зрению и познанию, соблазну и освящению.

Подобно солнечному лучу, символ прорезывает все планы бытия и все сферы сознания и знаменует в каждом плане иные сущности, исполняет в каждой сфере иное назначение. Поистине, как все нисходящее из божественного лона, и символ, — по слову Симеона о Младенце Иисусе, — σημεῖον ἀντιλεγόμενον, «знак противоречивый», «предмет пререканий». В каждой точке пересечения символа, как луча нисходящего, со сферою сознания он является знамением, смысл которого образно и полно раскрывается в соответствующем мифе. Оттого змея в одном мифе представляет одну, в другом — Другую сущность. Но то, что связывает всю символику змеи, все значения змеиного символа, есть великий космогонический миф, в котором каждый аспект змеи-символа находит свое место в иерархии планов божественного всеединства.

Символика — система символов; символизм — искусство, основанное на символах. Оно вполне утверждает свой принцип, когда разоблачает сознанию вещи как символы, а символы как мифы. Раскрывая в вещах окружающей действительности символы, т.е знамения иной действительности, оно представляет её знаменательной. Другими словами, оно позволяет осознать связь и смысл существующего не только в сфере земного эмпирического сознания но и в сферах иных. Так, истинное символическое искусство прикасается к области религии, поскольку религия есть прежде всего чувствование связи всего сущего и смысла всяческой жизни. Вот отчего можно говорить о символизме и религиозном творчестве, как о величинах, находящихся в некотором взаимоотношении.


A Symbolist poet and philosopher, V. Ivanov (1866-1948) compares a symbol to a ray of sunlight that pierces all planes of existence and all spheres of consciousness. According to V. Ivanov, symbols are the signs of some other (otherworldly) reality. A combination of several symbols form an allegory, a coded message that should be read with the help of a found key. V. Ivanov's essay ends with his famous formula: a realibus ad realiora.


If I may offer my interpretation of a coded message in Signs and Symbols:


When the old couple comes to the sanatorium, their son is dead. He managed to tear a hole in his world and escaped. Therefore a nurse who tells his parents that he is all right is not a liar. This is confirmed by the third phone call (even if it is again the girl who wants Charlie) at the end of the story. In Hamlet the Ghost appears three times.

Just finished reading the post. I'm sure that you are aware that VN's Signs and Symbols has been over-analyzed to death. I feel your reading is reasonable and sympathetic but -- the young man of the story is a bit too remote and, from my reading of VN's entire corpus, suicides are not so common (I don't wish to sound like a hardened cynic here) and in this particular young man's case - I mean what else can you expect? I certainly wouldn't wish him a fate like Aunt Maud (in her old age):

. . . . . .            There she’d sit
In the glassed sun and watch the fly that lit
Upon her dress and then upon her wrist.
Her mind kept fading in the growing mist.
She still could speak. She paused, and groped, and found
What seemed at first a serviceable sound,
But from adjacent cells impostors took
The place of words she needed, and her look
Spelt imploration as she sought in vain
To reason with the monsters in her brain.

if he had continued to exist in the "fictional plane." So, it is better for him to tear a hole from the "fictional plane" and escape (in this case, death or like Martin Edelweiss (though that's a bit different) disappearing into a picture-frame). Again, at the risk of being labelled cynical, I would consider it as an act of mercy, a stab of pity. 

To me, the suicide of Hazel Shade is far more mysterious and ultimately inexplicable; and (as I've mentioned before) two parallel lines of reasoning come to mind:

"Commonsense has trampled down many a gentle genius whose eyes had delighted in a too early moonbeam of some too early truth" --(VN's Art of Lit. & Commonsense)              &

"He [Hugh] did not heed his shadow, and fundamentally he may have been right. We thought that he had in him a few years of animal pleasure; we were ready to waft that girl into his bed, but after all it was for him to decide, for him to die, if he wished."  -- Ch. 25 of Transparent Things

And I'm also sure you are aware of Alex. Dolinin's correlation of the ten 'fruit' jars and

"the old woman, in fact, draws attention to the properties of a standard American telephone dial as a crude coding system that consists of 10 (!) symbols (digits from one to zero) and 24 or 26 signs (the English alphabet, sometimes without Q and Z)."

It's indeed an ingenious explanation but here I would implore an "aerial view", a zooming out and seeing the bigger picture which means seeing "death as question of style" (in fiction) as well as Delalande's injunction that "I refuse to see in a door more than a hole, and a carpenter’s job”.

I might have complicated matters here (obscure) by such a string of disparate quotations, but this is the best I can do right now. Maybe I should have followed the famous philosophical paraphrase: "what can be said at all can be said clearly, and what we cannot talk about we must pass over in silence". ;)

And I forgot to thank you for drawing my attention to Hamlet's "Words, words and words" to Pushkin's "These things are words, words, words." -- VN closes his lecture Russian Writers, Censors and Readers with the same poem in his translation.

Pale Fire has also been over-analyzed to death, but nobody managed to solve the novel's main riddle.


The young man in Signs and Symbols seems a bit too remote, because VN has remote objects. In a letter of Nov. 25, 1892, to Suvorin Chekhov writes:


Вас нетрудно понять, и Вы напрасно браните себя за то, что неясно выражаетесь. Вы горький пьяница, а я угостил Вас сладким лимонадом, и Вы, отдавая должное лимонаду, справедливо замечаете, что в нём нет спирта. В наших произведениях нет именно алкоголя, который бы пьянил и порабощал, и это Вы хорошо даёте понять. Отчего нет? Оставляя в стороне Палату № 6 и меня самого, будем говорить вообще, ибо это интересней. Будем говорить об общих причинах, коли Вам нескучно, и давайте захватим целую эпоху. Скажите по совести, кто из моих сверстников, т. е. людей в возрасте 30--45 лет, дал миру хотя одну каплю алкоголя? Разве Короленко, Надсон и все нынешние драматурги не лимонад? Разве картины Репина или Шишкина кружили Вам голову? Мило, талантливо, Вы восхищаетесь и в то же время никак не можете забыть, что Вам хочется курить… Вспомните, что писатели, которых мы называем вечными или просто хорошими и которые пьянят нас, имеют один общий и весьма важный признак: они куда-то идут и Вас зовут туда же, и Вы чувствуете не умом, а всем своим существом, что у них есть какая-то цель, как у тени отца Гамлета, которая недаром приходила и тревожила воображение. У одних, смотря по калибру, цели ближайшие -- крепостное право, освобождение родины, политика, красота или просто водка, как у Дениса Давыдова, у других цели отдалённые -- бог, загробная жизнь, счастье человечества и т. п.


It is easy to understand you, and there is no need for you to abuse yourself for obscurity of expression. You are a hard drinker, and I have regaled you with sweet lemonade, and you, after giving the lemonade its due, justly observe that there is no spirit in it. That is just what is lacking in our productions―the alcohol which could intoxicate and subjugate, and you state that very well. Why not? Putting aside "Ward No. 6" and myself, let us discuss the matter in general, for that is more interesting. Let us discuss the general causes, if that won't bore you, and let us include the whole age. Tell me honestly, who of my contemporaries—that is, men between thirty and forty-five—have given the world one single drop of alcohol? Are not Korolenko, Nadson, and all the playwrights of to-day, lemonade? Have Repin's or Shishkin's pictures turned your head? Charming, talented, you are enthusiastic; but at the same time you can't forget that you want to smoke… Let me remind you that the writers, who we say are for all time or are simply good, and who intoxicate us, have one common and very important characteristic; they are going towards something and are summoning you towards it, too, and you feel not with your mind, but with your whole being, that they have some object, just like the ghost of Hamlet's father, who did not come and disturb the imagination for nothing. Some have more immediate objects—the abolition of serfdom, the liberation of their country, politics, beauty, or simply vodka, like Denis Davydov; others have remote objects—God, life beyond the grave, the happiness of mankind, and so on.


An envious fellow patient who thought that the boy was learning to fly and stopped him brings to mind an envious sliver that broke in Hamlet.


At six the boy drew wonderful birds with human hands and feet:


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. (2)


In PF Kinbote quotes the words of his Zemblan nurse:


Many years ago--how many I would not care to say--I remember my Zemblan nurse telling me, a little man of six in the throes of adult insomnia: "Minnamin, Gut mag alkan, Pern dirstan" (my darling, God makes hungry, the Devil thirsty). Well, folks, I guess many in this fine hall are as hungry and thirsty as me, and I'd better stop, folks, right here.


Kinbote (who was born in 1915) was six in 1921, the year of Blok's and Gumilyov's death. In his poem Pamyat' ("Memory," 1920) Gumilyov mentions muki goloda i zhazhdy (the pains of hunger and thirst). One of Blok's poems begins: "I'm Hamlet. Freezes blood..." (1914). Blok's poem Sirin and Alkonost, the Birds of Joy and Sorrow (1899) brings to mind VN's Russian nom de plume. To paraphrase the title of a book by Balmont: Budem kak Sirin! (Let's be like Sirin!)

I know you're not quite done with your reply -- but the Chekhov letter you quoted made me feel somewhat rueful (if we have the same object in mind), immediately bringing to mind what VN had said somewhere: "Here I have no intention of hitting bystanders with a swing of the thurible"  which on following the asterisk brings this note into view:

"The metaphor is borrowed from a poem by Baratynski (1800–1844) accusing critics of lauding Lermontov (1814–1841) on the occasion of his death with the unique object of disparaging living poets."

You will be more familiar with this than I; so I better start raking off the snow that has inadvertently fallen on an innocent bystander.

[insert here] We'll have talk someday. 

Your quote is from VN's essay On Hodasevich (1939). I'm afraid, Shakeeb, you did not understand me at all.