Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0025170, Sun, 9 Mar 2014 12:01:04 -0400

Re: RES: [NABOKV-L] QUERY: Signs and Symbols

I think none of us can get away from the sense that there is
a message imbedded in the names of the jellies in “Signs and Symbols.” The mistaken telephone call for “Charlie” and
the mother’s response (turn 0 not O) gives us more clues. Charlie is a common military term, which set
me thinking about codes used in the military.
According to Wikipedia, Morse code was an indispensable method of
communication in WWII and was also used by ships to signal distress until
1999. The correspondence between Nabokov
and Edmund Wilson show that both were intensely interested in the “beat” of
words. Morse code is also a kind of
beat. Using an on-line Morse Code translator I entered the dot or dash sound of the beat of each jelly. (http://morsecode.scphillips.com/jtranslator.html) Thus, for the word "apricot" the "a" syllable, the "pri" syllable and the "cot" syllable of "apricot" can be sounded out
as three longish equal beats (dash dash
dash) or possibly three short equal beats (dot dot dot). 3 dashes translates from Morse to English as
the letter O, while 3 dots translates as S. If we
heed the mother in the story the O should cancel out to zero, leaving only the
S option.

Similarly, “grape” translates to either T (dash) or E (dot).

“beech plum” , as dash dot becomes N

“quince” as dot
becomes E, as dash, T

“crab apple” , dash dot dot, is D, or as two words, crab is
O which cancels out, leaving Apple which is I.

One obvious reading of these 5 letters is "I SENT."

If the son sent a message, it was probably through the caller. I checked for anagrams of Charlie and found “chialer” and “heliarc”, among others that were all names. “Chialer” is French, “informal, usually
derogatory” meaning “to cry” and
informally in French Canadian, “to complain.” “Heliarc” shows up on an anagram
solver on the internet, but I couldn’t find it on the online dictionary. Nevertheless,
the two parts of the word suggest an arc in the sky, or a rainbow.

If any of this was intentional on the part of Nabokov, I
would say that the message was a complaint from the son, but at the same time
the rainbow, a classic sign, possibly the most potent sign in history, signifies that everything is all right. I'm sure other listers can find lots of other interpretations! Best, Fran

Date: Sat, 8 Mar 2014 17:20:02 -0300
From: jansy.nabokv-L@AETERN.US
Subject: [NABOKV-L] RES: [NABOKV-L] QUERY: Signs and Symbols

RES: [NABOKV-L] QUERY: Signs and Symbols

Eric Hyman: “It occurred to me that in "Signs and Symbols" the mysterious phone calls that baffle the old couple and many readers might be some kind of communication, especially the last four words in the story, from their newly dead son, sort of like the last paragraph of “The Vane Sisters.” Has this occurred to anyone else?”

Jansy Mello: An instigating query. There’s one obstacle in relation to the interpretation of the last four words in S&S (1948) as compared to the last paragraph of “The Vane Sisters”(1951). According to wiki “Nabokov himself described this device as something that 'can only be tried once in a thousand years of fiction’ ” while referring to “The Vane Sisters” and the same assertion is made again in a letter, dated April 1959 (as underlined below): "The coded message is: Icicles by Cynthia. Meter from me, Sybil."* …"The implication is that the ghost of Cynthia, who had been such a good painter of frost and thaw…supplied the brilliant icicles which the narrator saw on the first page of the story**, just before he learned that Cynthia was dead. On the same Sunday, a little later, he noticed the strange ruddy umbra cast upon the snow by a parking meter; this came from dead Sybil.***/ Unless the acrostic is as accidental as ATOM in Shakespeare’s sonnet…, Cynthia has proved the correctness of her theory (…) My difficulty was to smuggle in the acrostic without the narrator's being aware that it was there, inspired to him by the phantoms. Nothing of this kind has ever been attempted by the author."# (SLHarvest HBJ book,1989,p.286. This might indicate that V.Nabokov hadn’t attempted to use these same resources before writing “The Vane Sisters”.

The narrator in “The Vane Sisters” confessed that: “I was appealing to flesh, and the corruption of flesh, to refute and defeat the possible persistence of discarnate life. Alas, these conjurations only enhanced my fear of Cynthia's phantom.” The old lady in S&S seems to be equally afraid of something (news about her son’s death or of any attempt of his to reach her after his demise?)

The mysterious chapter 3 reads: “ The telephone rang. It was an unusual hour for their telephone to ring… Having more English than he did, it was she who attended to calls/ "Can I speak to Charlie," said a girl's dull little voice./ "What number you want? No. That is not the right number."[ ] "It frightened me," she said[ ] 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."/ They sat down to their unexpected festive midnight tea. 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, red little jars. His clumsy moist lips spelled out their eloquent labels: apricot, grape, beech plum, quince. He had got to crab apple, when the telephone rang again.”##

If there’s any message from a dead boy it must refer to those ten little jelly jars (the colors mentioned indicate jumbled traffic lights). If we get inspiration from the initial clues in “The Vane Sisters” we’d have to pay attention to specific items about manifestations from the otherworld coming in already at the beginning (but, contrary to the sisters the “fledgling” boy wasn’t dead yet…) The message could also have been conveyed by the old lady’s observation about dialing O instead of 0 (Zero). There’s been a rich discussion about “Charlie” ( standing for the letter C) and city telephone-codes in the VN-L.

Nevertheless, if we abandon the link to “The Vane Sisters”, we have an apparently unexplored lead when we admit that the mad youngster was not always hallucinating (like Aqua, in “Ada”, in relation to “Terra”) but being contacted by unknown spirits (would they be related to his parents’s friends who suffered death at the hands of the Nazi?)

Jansy Mello


#- One may read “Symbols and Signs” here:


* - "She, a painter of glass-bright minutiae—and now so vague! I lay in bed, thinking my dream over… I set myself to reread my dream—backward, diagonally, up, down—trying hard to unravel something Cynthia-like in it, something strange and suggestive that must be there.// I could isolate, consciously, little. Everything seemed blurred, yellow-clouded, yielding nothing tangible. Her inept acrostics, maudlin evasions, theopathies—every recollection formed ripples of mysterious meaning. Everything seemed yellowly blurred, illusive, lost.”

**- “The day, a compunctious Sunday after a week of blizzards, had been part jewel, part mud… I had stopped to watch a family of brilliant icicles drip-dripping from the eaves of a frame house. So clear-cut were their pointed shadows on the white boards behind them that I was sure the shadows of the falling drops should be visible too. But they were not…I did not chance to be watching the right icicle when the right drop fell… this brought me to Kelly Road, and right to the house where D. used to live… I was rewarded at last, upon choosing one, by the sight of what might be described as the dot of an exclamation mark leaving its ordinary position to glide down very fast—a jot faster than the thaw-drop it raced. This twinned twinkle was delightful but not completely satisfying…I walked on in a state of raw awareness …”

*** - “Night had fallen without sound or ceremony when I came out again. The lean ghost, the elongated umbra cast by a parking meter upon some damp snow, had a strange ruddy tinge; this I made out to be due to the tawny red light of the restaurant sign above the sidewalk; and it was then—as I loitered there…it was then that a car crunched to a standstill near me and D. got out of it with an exclamation of feigned pleasure.”

## - Opening paragraph related to the jelly jars: “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…. 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.”

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