Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0024636, Sat, 28 Sep 2013 09:27:02 -0400

Vladimir Nabokov’s “Signs and Symbols” …


SEPTEMBER 27, 2013

My suggestion for this weekend’s reading is Vladimir Nabokov’s short story “Signs and Symbols,” which ran in the magazine sixty-five years ago with the title “Symbols and Signs.” The story, which centers on an elderly couple’s attempt to visit their son in a sanitarium, is one of the best examples of Nabokov’s multilayered narrative style. In a letter to Katharine A. White, The New Yorker’s fiction editor at the time, Nabokov described this style as one in which “a second (main) story is woven into, or placed behind, the superficial semitransparent one.”

As a writer, Nabokov was fascinated by doubling and mimicry. (As he explains in “Speak, Memory,” one of the reasons he was so drawn to lepidopterology, or the study of butterflies, was their penchant for imitation and camouflage.) In “Symbols and Signs,” the couple’s son suffers from a rare condition known as “referential mania,” in which life’s everyday events seem “a veiled reference to his existence.” The qualities of the son’s illness—paranoia, superstition—are replicated in the reader’s experience as the couple time and again encounter various obstacles and delays en route to—and returning from—the sanitarium. Are these obstacles signs, or simply coincidences? Ultimately, the reader’s search for meaning appears to mimic their son’s mania.

Nabokov sold his first piece to The New Yorker, a humorous poem titled “Literary Dinner,” in 1942, and “Symbols and Signs” was his fourth short story for the magazine. The story also signalled his deepening relationship with The New Yorker. Over the next few decades, he would go on to contribute the “Pnin” stories, as well as many of the chapters that would ultimately make up “Speak, Memory.” If you’d like to know more about Nabokov and his writing for The New Yorker, you can check out this podcast, from 2008, in which the novelist Mary Gaitskill and the magazine’s fiction editor, Deborah Treisman, discuss “Signs and Symbols.”

Erin Overbey is the magazine’s deputy archive editor

Sandy Pallot Klein

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