Brian Boyd and TheNabokovian.org are delighted to announce that the winner of last week’s Flash Contest is Pelagia Horgan. Heartfelt congratulations to Pelagia and a heartfelt thank you to David M. Rubin for agreeing to have his short story “Symbols, Signs and Saints” serve as the springboard for the contest.
The contest was posted on January 20, the Eve of St. Agnes. The importance of this clue for solving the riddle of the basket of fruit jellies in “Signs and Symbols” appears in David M. Rubin’s story and is glossed in Pelagia Horgan’s answer below.
As Brian Boyd, sponsor of the contest, writes:
Pelagia Horgan certainly deserves her prize: a wonderful response to both stories. She has profited from her immersion in Nabokov's details. As my eccentric 3rd-form (age 13) Latin teacher used to say when something went well in class: "A warm glow surfaces over my whole being."
Pelagia Horgan completed her Ph.D. at Harvard in 2012, and the title of her dissertation was "Nabokov's Details: making sense of irrational standards." These days she lives in New York with her husband and son. She published an essay on reading in The New Yorker in 2014 and an essay on sacred art in Aeon also in 2014.
Dr. Horgan has given permission to post her winning answer:
At the center of "Signs and Symbols" is a birthday gift, chosen by two aging parents for their troubled son: "a basket with ten different fruit jellies in ten little jars." It's a modest gift, "a dainty and innocent trifle," and they've chosen it precisely for its modesty; with it, they hope to avoid triggering their son's "referential mania," his tendency to see in the objects around him secret messages for and about himself. Yet the jars are also special in their way. A later description of the "luminous yellow, green, red little jars" with "eloquent labels: apricot, grape, beech plum, quince....crab apple" emphasizes their particular beauty.
The parents set out with their gift to the sanatorium where their son resides. On the way there, everything goes wrong. The subway stalls; the bus is late; it rains. When they finally arrive, they learn that their son has "again" tried to take his own life, and are sent home. The rest of their day is filled with misadventures and bad omens, including an encounter with "a tiny half-dead unfledged bird...helplessly twitching in a puddle." That night, having reached a crisis point, they resolve to bring their son home from the sanatorium to live with them, and their newfound determination seems to bring them a certain peace. But the reader fears for their happiness; and as the day's mishaps accrue -- locked doors, wrong numbers, midnight phone calls -- it seems more and more likely that the birthday gift will remain undelivered.
Precisely because the parents, thwarted in every way, have tried so hard to find a gift without any possible extra burden of meaning, one senses that the jars must, in fact, have such a meaning, or at least hold the possibility of referring to something beyond themselves. And in "Symbols, Signs and Saints," David Rubin shows one way they do. Rubin sets his story in the immediate aftermath of the young man's suicide attempt(s), and narrates it (mostly, if I understand the story right) from the son's point of view. The son has received his gift, perceived in the jars a pointed reference to the world of Keats's "The Eve of St. Agnes," and taken this to mean that he himself is, in fact, Porphyro, the romantic hero of Keats's poem.
What's interesting is that this connection seems to exist not just in the young man's mind but, is in fact, there, in the text of Nabokov's story itself, in the images, words, and the order of certain words in "Signs and Symbols." In Keats's description of the feast Porphyro prepares for Madeline, we find a precursor to Nabokov's basket of luminous jellies. In place of Nabokov's "plum, quince...crab apple," Keats offers
"[...] a heap/ Of candied apple, quince, and plum, and gourd;/ With jellies soother than the creamy curd,/ And lucent syrops...", "[...] delicates" "heap'd with glowing hand/ On golden dishes and in baskets bright/ Of wreathed silver [...]"
This is the parents' humble basket of jams, reflected in a bright, silvery mirror of high-romantic art.
Once we make this connection to Keats's poem, others become visible. It's hard not to see, in Nabokov's "tiny half-dead unfledged bird...helplessly twitching in a puddle," a connection to Keats's "dove forlorn and lost with sick unpruned wing," for example.
Nabokov is known for leaving metafictional markers in his books -- signs and symbols of his presence, and the artifice of the world he has created. Occasionally he offers his characters a glimpse of that higher order of things, as a source of comfort and reprieve from the "endless waves of pain" they've been made to endure -- I'm thinking of the end of Bend Sinister in particular. The metafictional elements of "Signs and Symbols" are, perhaps, meant to create a similar sense of comfort -- to imply the presence of a benevolent creator close at hand. Is that what Rubin's story is meant to explore? Not a dark descent into "referential mania," but, in fact, a Krug-like vision of the world that really does lie beyond the story he is currently in? A moment of revelation, and relief; a successful, but short-lived, effort to "tear a hole in his world and escape."