NABOKV-L post 0022933, Wed, 6 Jun 2012 13:45:18 -0700

Re: Take-offs, Ripoffs, Homages, etc
There's not anything wrong with Moore's story from a moral standpoint; Nabokov
did this sort of thing himself, echoing, re-working, parodying all manner of
sources (as others have noted), even himself--Look At The Harlequins! is so
auto-referential the reader in the know may have a hard time enjoying anything
beyond recognizing the Nabokovian variations, and this is what happens to
Moore's story I think--One finds oneself looking for, and anticipating, points
of contact between the stories; the effect of this is that the more
sophisticated you are the less life the present story has--Clearly the links
between works, in effect whole passages, is meant to mirror the kooky mania of
Nabokov's story, literally put the reader into the position of N's insane boy,
with everything signs and symbols of something else beyond--The problem is that
this element hasn't really been wired into her own story's themes as it is in
Nabokov, just hangs there a gimmicky byproduct, probably because she removed the
subtly paranoid uncanny element of the original's ending, making her work a
dull, if occasionally well written piece of
this-is-the-way-we-live-now-realism--If one doesn't know Nabokov I suspect
Moore's story's emotional situation--the boy in the mental hospital, the mother,
the wayward boyfriend--will probably be more affecting, though the end just
comes across as an unlikely ironic twist thrown in to score points off the
boyfriend character and make the mother seem more putupon--The mother's little
intuitive leap about who made the phone call is just miles away from the stakes
of the creeping dread in Nabokov, and leaves slightly confused as to who exactly
we should feel for in this story, and why--

An interesting tidbit: in the issue of The New Yorker before the one with
Moore's story (May 21, 2012), she had printed a review of Richard Ford's latest
novel Canada in which she makes a gratuitous reference to Nabokov (pg73), saying
Ford's lyrical writing is "the reverse of, say, Nabokov's tight, pebble-hearted
poetry" which I wasn't sure how to take: was this a cut or was it laudatory? Was
it even apposite? I was still thinking about this when the issue with
"Referential" came out and realized the phrase must have been intended by Moore
to describe Nabokov's jeweled precision and economy as a poet, despite the
"pebble-hearted"'s connoting a quality of heartless cruelty--The slightly off
quality of this remark hovers over her story as well, which though it has has
not been fully worked through--Now I'm off to read her interview--

From: Nabokv-L <nabokv-l@UTK.EDU>
Sent: Wed, June 6, 2012 1:12:49 PM
Subject: Re: [NABOKV-L] Take-offs, Ripoffs, Homages, etc

A few thoughts on homages, tributes, adaptations, take-offs, and the like:

I am really not much of a fan of the art of the review. It's a bias I have.
For me, the perfect and complete content of an artistic or literary review would
be either: a) must see (read); b) maybe skip, or not; or c) silence.

In her interview with Deborah Treisman, Lorrie Moore makes it extremely clear
that her intent with this story was to pay an open homage to Nabokov, for those
who can recognize it. I'll discuss those who can't recognize it in a moment.

Seems to me there are a few different topics worth considering.

1. The story's merits, as a piece of literary art and as homage: I'm surprised
that some are offended that the story is not as good as VN's original. Moore
calls "Signs and Symbols" "perfect" and Nabokov "unparalleled." She does not
seem to have pretenses that she is on Nabokov's level. I felt that some of her
original formulations and images were exquisite in their own right, while some
others were a bit flat. On the whole, flashes of verbal brilliance, I thought,
but not really close to Nabokov's level. I don't think that's surprising or
necessarily bad (that the New Yorker should publish lesser fiction than VN's).
How many living authors are there who write at that level? I have no idea, but
I would bet, in English, it is between zero and three. Other, more mortal
voices can also produce things of beauty and worthy of attention. As someone
with knowledge of the original, I felt that I was being asked specifically to
re-appreciate that story, and to consider its translation into slightly
different contexts, with one example provided. I don't feel like or have time
for enumerating its specific strengths (which would be worth doing) or
weaknesses (probably not worth doing), but I did feel that the story has its own
legitimacy, its own coherence, and its own set of concerns, separate from VN's,
but always acknowledging his presence. On the whole, a worthwhile read. (I
think any "adaptation"--including, especially, film--is always very hard to take
for a true devotee of the original; it is nearly impossible to suspend one's
devotion, I think. Whatever its merits, the Marleen Gorris Luzhin Defense
drives me nuts with its departures).

2. Tradition: the tradition of spinning a yarn from someone else's is a long
one. Recent examples include Roger's Version by John Updike (after The Scarlet
Letter), and in some respects Lolita itself, although Nabokov both hid his
sources more deeply and expanded upon them more exuberantly than is typical in
this particular tradition. Matei Calinescu discusses Updike's multiple
approaches to Hawthorne in his article "Secrecy in Fiction: Textual and
Intertextual Secrets in Hawthorne and Updike" Poetics Today, Vol. 15, No. 3
(Autumn, 1994), pp. 443-465; Stable URL:, as
an example of "rereading for the secret," but also as a call to reread
Hawthorne. Significantly to the present discussion, Calinescu reports that
Updike's acknowledgments of his source are in out-of-the-way paratexts, and are
not (or at least were not, for several years) included in mass-market editions
of Roger's Version.

3. "Genius has only itself to copy," VN said in response to a comment by
Clarence Brown. Gogol, legend has it (as Gogol himself reported), got his
plot-problems for Dead Souls and The Government Inspector from Pushkin.
Perhaps Despair's Ardalion is our best guide here: maybe finding what is unique,
new, and worthy of attention in Moore's story (what makes it different from
Nabokov's, rather than its [convincing or unconvincing] similarities) is the
most enriching task. And then, I'm sure Moore would suggest, we should reread
the original.

4. What about the reader who doesn't recognize or know Nabokov's story behind
Moore's? Let's imagine such a reader, or maybe two such readers. Reader A,
quickly disposed of, reads the story, has little reaction to it, soon forgets it
and moves on. Reader B loves the story, rereads it, but forgets to follow up on
the New Yorker web site to learn that it is based on Nabokov. This reader
mentions the story to a few friends, or seeks out more information about the
author, and one way or another learns about "Signs and Symbols," and, perhaps,
the whole world of Nabokov's short-story writing. Curiosity does its job and is

The interview with the author is here:

There are currently 11 comments following the interview.

Stephen Blackwell

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