AW: [NABOKV-L] RES: [NABOKV-L] QUERY: Signs and Symbols
Michael Maar <>
3/12/2014 3:32 AM
'Vladimir Nabokov Forum' <NABOKV-L@LISTSERV.UCSB.EDU>

Dear list,


if I’m permitted to quote from my book “Speak, Nabokov”, Verso 2009, as I think my points are still valid:


“He had got to crab apple, when the telephone rang again.


That is the final sentence. And this time, we know, it is the call from the clinic, which will notify them of the death of their all-too-lucid son, who just managed to escape the world before his parents could bring him home. From the start, everything in the story – which reflects the theme of referential mania so artfully that everything conspires in it as well – converges on this horrible blank space.[i]

Read from the vantage of the ending, everything in the tale is ominous. As in the son’s mania, in which even trees and clouds whisper about him, all the details on these five pages combine into a portent: The plot takes place on a rainy Friday; the underground train gets stuck; in the bus a girl is weeping on the shoulder of an older woman; a half-dead bird is twitching in a puddle; a key is forgotten; the nine and ace of spades fall from a deck of cards; a photo of a German maid with her fat fiancé slips out of an album; in the opposite window there is a man dressed in black – a chain of signs and symbols at the end of which a telephone ring rends the silence for the third time.


[1] This reading is regarded as unsubtle, but unlike most scholars, I find it compelling. According to the subtle interpretation, we as readers have already fallen for Nabokov’s metafictional game if we, like the insane son, piece together the signs and symbols into an unambiguous message and combinationally close the gap with which the story ends. The narrative’s elemental rhythmic effect testifies against this metafictional pluralism, which seems strangely pallid in the face of this anti-theodicy disguised as a story. As in the story of Job – or Flaubert’s Un cœur simple, which might have provided the rhythm for Nabokov’s tale – in “Signs and Symbols” one loss inexorably follows another: “for after all living did mean accepting the loss of one joy after another, not even joys in her case – mere possibilities of improvement.” (Stories, 601.) That is the logic of the story, which breaks off before the last hope is annihilated. In addition to the ominous foreshadowings, Nabokov leaves ample realistic clues that the plot ends with the suicide. From the beginning the tale suggests that the son will repeat the suicide attempt. We learn that he comes up with new methods all the time and is prevented by his fellow patients from carrying them out only by chance. We learn that the sanatorium is understaffed. Thus there is an objective danger that the son, only poorly supervised in his room, will seize the opportunity once again. Moreover, we know that the third late-night phone call can no longer be from the girl dialing the wrong number: the frightened mother has explained to her about her mix-up of the zero and the O. Nabokov did not have to include this tiny plot-point if he had wanted to leave the ending open. But who else would be calling the lonely couple after midnight? And the interpretation that the ending is only apparently left open is further supported by the compositional doubling of a related work: “On the night of March 28, 1922 around ten o’clock, in the living room where as usual my mother was reclining on the red-plush corner couch, I happened to be reading to her Blok’s verse on Italy – had just got to the end of the little poem about Florence, which Blok compares to the delicate, smoky bloom of an iris, and she was saying over her knitting, ‘Yes, yes, Florence does look like a dïmnïy iris, how true! I remember – ’ when the telephone rang.” – That is how Nabokov describes in his autobiography receiving the news of his father’s murder. Or rather: that is how he omits the description. The passage ends abruptly with the ringing telephone, which brings the news of death. As in “Signs and Symbols,” no explanation follows; the next paragraph begins with a new subject. (See Speak, Memory, 49 and Priscilla Meyer, “Nabokov’s short fiction” in: The Cambridge Companion to Nabokov, 131ff. For the motif of the telephone as a memento mori in The Gift, see Maria Malikova: “V. V. Nabokov and V. D. Nabokov: ‘His Father’s Voice’” in: Nabokov’s World 2, 25. For the pluralistic interpretations of the story, see Michael Wood, The Magician’s Doubts and Joanna Trzeciak, “‘Signs and Symbols’ and Silentology” in: Nabokov at Cornell, 58-67.)


Michael Maar
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