Story Playlist 32: Signs and Symbols

Vladimir Nabokov: “Signs and Symbols” (1948) It’s a little depressing when arguably the best modern prose writer in the English language is a Russian. Perhaps there’s something to be said for writing in a foreign language, for the language feels fresh and new to the writer, a series of signs and symbols to be deployed without the weight of over-familiarity dragging the words down or making them feel recycled? Whatever you think about Nabokov, the dude can write.

“Signs and Symbols” is as good an example of his mastery as any, not only of prose, turning ordinary words into inky butterflies, but also of his ability to sketch character with a few strokes of his typewriter/brush, and his injection of dread into normal-seeming situations. I’ve already written of how much I enjoy the feeling of dread—the way it propels stories, no matter their genre. A tale needn’t be a thriller to use a sense of foreboding to the writer’s advantage. Nabokov does not write thrillers, but his literary character studies thrill with a certain general menace.

This story, first published in The New Yorker in 1948, follows an elderly immigrant couple in New York who plan to visit their son on his birthday. The son has been confined in a sanitarium for years, as he suffers from a mental disorder in which he thinks that all of the natural world is speaking to him, and about him, in a coded language that he must decipher. It’s a lot like paranoid schizophrenia, as described, but it also seems a great literary disease because it immediately prompts the reader to understand that everything happening in the story, the grace notes of details that we might easily pass over, may have a hidden symbolic meaning for us to discover: that everything in the story might be “signs and symbols.”

Nabokov stories regularly feature ex-pat characters, exiles much as Nabokov was himself. An elderly Belarussian couple, who were important back home, must now rely on the largesse of a more-established uncle. Without extensive details, Nabokov is able to paint the back story of his characters, the little rituals of their life together, a life that has passed through astonishing changes. We feel just how worn down the couple is, not sure how to deal with their beloved son, whose condition was indulged as artistic up to a point it passed long ago. When they arrive at the sanitarium, carrying a basket of fruit jams as a gift, they learn that the son has, again, tried to kill himself, and that it might be better if they did not visit him that day.

The couple returns home, but the father cannot sleep. That night he bursts into the living room in his bathrobe and announces to the mother that their son must not remain at the sanitarium, that they should bring him home. The mother acquiesces, and they make plans to bring him home the next morning. But then the phone rings, though the hour is late. When the mother picks up, though her English is not strong, she understands that the caller is asking for Charlie, and must therefore have the wrong number. There is a kick of dread in the late-night phone call, for such calls are rarely the bearers of good news. We are relieved when it was a wrong number. But then the phone rings again. It is the same woman, asking for Charlie. Again, she is told that it is the wrong number. Then the phone rings a third time…

By that time we fear that it is the right number, that perhaps the mother has misunderstood, and that news has come that their son has killed himself—just before he would have come home. But none of this is made explicit, and it is the stronger for it. If an author can plant just what he wants to plant in the minds of his reader, essentially trick them into thinking what he wants them to think, without having to write it out explicitly, then he wields a powerful tool. Like the best teachers, who do not tell students the answer and expect them to memorize it, but help lead students to the answer themselves, the best writers likewise set up the situation and allow the reader to complete it for them. Of course, with an author as slippery as Nabokov, the actual intention might be quite different, for if he wanted us to understand only one possible interpretation, he would have written it that way. We are told what the caller says, seemingly without distortion.  Do we assume the unanswered third call is the same caller? Why?

The point of the story could be said to be the recreation in the reader of something like the “referential mania” the unnamed son suffers from. Then again, knowing Nabokov, there is likely a story behind the story that only someone who knows the code can read. Nabokov told New Yorker editor Katharine White, in a letter: “a second (main) story is woven into, or placed behind, the superficial semitransparent one.” In that second story, the phone call might simply be the random wrong number it seems to be, and some other detail in the story, easily overlooked, is more essential to the story's meaning.

When reading Nabokov, one feels in the hands of a great master, much like listening to a virtuoso violinist in concert. Knowing that we are in skillful hands, all we need do is remain attentive. All the “signs and symbols” are there in the beautiful riddle Nabokov has painted for us are there. It’s up to us to finish the puzzle.