I'm not sure we've had any discussion of the alleged story within the story of "Signs and Symbols".  The obvious story is an old couple with lots of "baggage" going to visit the institutionalized son, and then worry that their decision to remove him from the institution may be too late.  The telephone call with the possibly fatal announcement leaves us in the air.  The reader naturally wants closure, and spends time and thought trying to figure out what the telephone call was about.  But of course, it's impossible to know.  For every sign or symbol in one direction, one can find them in another.  So what is the second, transparent story?  I think it may be the couples failure to recognize the "beast" once again, akin to Krug's failure, which led to his son's death.  Fran Assa


Date: Tue, 29 Apr 2008 13:46:25 -0300
From: jansy@AETERN.US
Subject: [NABOKV-L] SIGNS: why "deranged in his mind" and "unreliable narrators".

Frances Assa: The parents are protective of the pots of jelly, but what about their son!  It is only through chance that he is still alive.
(Why brookside flowers? A reference to Ophelia?)... The underground train recalls Europe, and their   Aunt Rosa, an “old lady, who had lived in a tremulous world of bad news, bankruptcies, train accidents, cancerous growths—until the Germans put her to death together with all the people she had worried about.”...underground  because it was a train from hell.  Directly after Aunt Rosa, without a pause, we learn that “Age six—that was when he drew wonderful birds with human hands and feet”.  God like, and Sirin like creatures, which might save him from his Aunt Rosa’s fate, since he accurately sees  that his parents cannot protect him .. After four years, on this Friday, or by now Saturday, it occurs to his father to show some resolve:  To the devil with the doctors!  We must get him out of there quick!”  But it can wait until morning. His wife returns to her cards... the German maid, and her “bestial beau.”  

This, and much more she accepted—for after all living did mean accepting the loss of one joy after another, not even joys in her case—mere possibilities of improvement.  She thought of the endless waves of pain she and her husband had to endure; of the invisible giants hurting her boy in some unimaginable fashion; of the incalculable amount of tenderness contained in the world; of the fate of this tenderness which is either crushed, or wasted, or transformed into madness; of neglected children humming to themselves in unswept corners…”  The monster reappears as the “simian” shadow of a farmer who is reaping the field, but also mangling flowers  “as the monstrous darkness approaches.”  Monsters and beasts.  How does an old broken couple, like the broken flowers, stand a chance?

A.Stadlen quotes Don Stanley: maybe “incurably deranged in his mind”  is what the poor  parents were told,  layman’s language from the authorities that be. [...]not syntactically  stammering. And adds "a postscript to the discussion about whether we should see this narrator as "unreliable". He or she is reliable enough to tell a good "surface" story.. (And, as I conceded in December 2004, he or she may only be reporting the official diagnosis and prognosis, not necessarily accepting it as the parents have come to do.) The story works in its own terms. It moves from despair to hope, from  the father and mother's passive acceptance of the son's incarceration in the sanatorium to their decision to have him home. Whether the son lives or dies, they have redeemed their sin of despairingly giving up and accepting what the doctors say. In this sense, it is a moving story."

Jansy Mello:

(a) The young man might not have been suicidal, although his attempts to "escape" into anoather world might appear to everyone else as such ( a "common-sense" conclusion).

(b) Hermann Brink and brookside flowers remind me of Lucette's marsh-marigolds and lost rubber-doll, also of VN's various renderings of "on the brink of the brook" in ADA - written almost twenty years later (perhaps "brooks and brinks" might have been even earlier "symbols"?) .
"Bestial beau" could also precede various references, such as those in Lolita, to the "Beauty and the Beast" fairy-story.
(c) When the father shows enough resolve to send the doctors to the devil it is Saturday already ( he woke up soon after midnight). His wife might have been confused when she comforted him promising that "tomorrow" they would attend to that ( her words postponed the action to the Sunday) ;
(d) The simian monster that weeds the garden and the "monstrous darkness" suggest to me that even after WWII with Hitler and Stalin, man was still "homo homini lupus" even in the green pastures of ideally safe places;
(e) A.Stadlen might have been referring to the old man's words: "We must get him out of there quick. Otherwise we'll be responsible. Responsible!", to a "redemption" that became necessary by not having acted "responsibly" until then ( as must have been the case with many refugees).
( BTW, has VN ever alluded to the fate of his brother in his fiction?) 
A.Stadlen's post-script made me recall a somewhat "homeric narrator" stance on the part of R.M.Rilke, when he wrote "Geschichte vom Lieben Gott" ( Stories about Dear God?). The omniscient narrator ( Rilke disregarded chronology altogether) set out to inform us about conversations held bt. God, Angels and Santa Klaus or tell us about how God mused, felt and thought.
The curious point, though, refers to what is loosely considered to be "an omniscient narrator" or "an unreliable narrator" ( labels VN seem to have mocked all the time, with his often reliable unreliable narrators or his "partially omniscient" ones).
Rilke, in these stories, described how an omniscient God was oonce absent-minded enough to be unable to return a lost bird to its original forest. Because of this godly distraction an adolescent angel, who hovered around him  singing praises to the "All-seeing God", was rendered mute because he'd sung a lie. Still the faithful angel flew around and his lips continued to shape his soundless praise.

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