Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0023538, Thu, 27 Dec 2012 00:43:59 +0100

Re: QUERY: Love and lust in VN's stories?

[Very intersting quotes, Jansy: it shows how a unique matrix in VN's imagination could spawn a whole family of images!]

Signs and Symbols as a short
story concerned with the dangers of lust is certainly not an obvious
reading but I'll do my best to 'prove' it; but first, I would like to
make a few remarks about the strange America they live in:

What is striking in Signs and
Symbols is that although the couple has successfully fled Nazi
Europe, they seem to be still living in the same oppressive
atmosphere. What they suffer from is NOT the discomfort of exile, as
might be expected, but the stiffling atmosphere of totalitarianism
where privacy and individuality are suspect, and weakness ruthlessly
trampled on.

Indeed, 'bright' nurses and German
psychiatrists and their insensitive remarks are eerily reminiscent of
the terrifying Nazi doctors 'experimenting' on Jews in concentration
camps (in Bend Sinister, a very similar team 'operates' on Krug's son
The 'garrulous high school children'
who jostle the old couple on the bus also have some affinities with
the Nazi bullies they had to mix with in old Europe (Elsa's bestial

The other sinister aspect of the
totalitarian world they are dwelling in is the lack of privacy: alien
lives, uncongenial to them, intrude upon their privacy: the sight of
an untidy stranger half undressed (no lovable arms here) is suddenly
imposed on the wife in the intimacy of home at night. A photo of a
German maid twice disturbingly pops up in the family album where it
doesn't belong.

This totalitarian world which is not
the doing of a totalitarian regime (they are in democratic America)
is Hell. This is where the story leaps from rational to metaphysical
plane. In Hell, reigns a perversion or inversion of all values:

Youth, spring and Nature are
represented by an old flirt, painted 'pink and mauve' and carrying an
artificial bouquet on her head. The light of spring days is neither
poetical nor inspiring but merely 'fault-finding'. Despair and
suicide are hailed as 'a masterpiece of inventiveness'. Medical care
consists in separation and isolation instead of comfort, affection
,concern. As for Science (psychology) it is mere indictment,
grotesque misinterpreting of the patient's actions: the son's refusal
to have anything to do with the residents of Hell is interpreted as
insane narcissism and aloofness ('He excludes real people from the
conspiracy - because he considers himself to be so much more
intelligent than other men'). And when he understandably tries to
escape from this ordinary but mighty Hell, he is prevented to do so
by envious patients.

In Hell, there is no room for beauty,
creation, pride, and of course tenderness.Therefore it is not
surprising that the only source of tenderness (the wife) gets lost in
the sterile sands of this barren land

Now, why are this poor family plunged
into Hell, unable to rid themselves of the noxious influence of
the land they have fled as if they had taken it with them, when the
husband's brother Isaac lives happily in America and far from having
compassion for the couple's hardships seem to have no patience with

My answer is that it is lust that has
kept them in Hell. But it's very late, so I'll come back in a day or
two to try and explicate

Laurence Hochard

Date: Wed, 26 Dec 2012 13:17:47 -0200
From: jansy@AETERN.US
Subject: Re: [NABOKV-L] QUERY: Love and lust in VN's stories?

Jansy Mello: [ ].Vladimir Nabokov short
stories concerned with the dangers of love, lust, beauty, or
Laurence Hochard: Odd as it may seem, I'd
suggest "Signs and Symbols", as a short story concerned with lust as the
threshold to Hell.
Jansy Mello: [LH] started by
noting that it would seem “odd” and I couldn’t agree more with him. Where lies
the lust of the lost in it? Perhaps Laurence could remind us of anything
particular he found in the photos, or does it lie in the similarity between a
vision of a lovable arm that connects it to a scene in Lolita? (I have no access
to the quotations now). I thought the original question was, itself, quite
intriguing once we agree that everything in life is positively dangerous.
Would any Nabokovian character have ever found himself hindered by the
dangers of love, lust or beauty?
Drescher: Odd? Certainly not obvious. Please
Laurence Hochard: "I'll do it willingly but
a few days after Christmas if you don't mind, as I won't have access to
Nabokov-L in the next few days and I don't have time right now. (to Jansy): Yes
it does have something to do with the photos As for the "lovable arm", I don't
see what scene in Lolita you have in mind, and the naked arm in Signs and
Symbols is not at all lovable."

Jansy Mello: How interesting. I couldn't
find now, while perusing Symbols and Signs, the reference to the
naked arm I had in mind - and which LH acknowledged (for him it "is not at
all lovable." ) I suppose he is referring to:
"Across the narrow courtyard, where the rain
tinkled in the dark against some ash cans, windows were blandly alight, and in
one of them a black-trousered man, with his hands clasped under his head and his
elbows raised, could he seen lying supine on an untidy bed. She pulled the blind
down and examined the photographs" (from the New Yorker edition on line),
and some other previous reference that gave a particular meaning to these

I associated it with Lolita's:
' I could list a great number of these one-sided diminutive
romances. Some of them ended in a rich flavor of hell. It happened for instance
that from my balcony I would notice a lighted window across the street and what
looked like a nymphet in the act of undressing before a co-operative mirror.
Thus isolated, thus removed, the vision acquired an especially keen charm that
made me race with all speed toward my lone gratification. But abruptly,
fiendishly, the tender pattern of nudity I had adored would be transformed into
the disgusting lamp-lit bare arm of a man in his underclothes reading his paper
by the open window in the hot, damp, hopeless summer night."

Although I now
have access to the necessary quotations, I must confess that the
connections I made were mainly the result of special vague recollections. In
this case, a similarity in spirit between the equivocal lovely arm, that turns
into something repulsive both in novel and in story. I'm alsmost certain
this theme has already come up once in the List, but couldn't reach it thru my
usual sources.

help to settle these matters is very welcome!

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