‘Everything is a cipher and of everything he is the theme.’
The above quote could easily be something Nabokov would use to untangle a literary chess move, describing Gogol’s Madman perhaps, or even his own invention: Pnin. But it fact it’s a quote directly from the story, collected in Nabokov’s Dozen, Signs and Symbols. It is a story that bring the idea of Fabula, in the uniquely Russian sense of a story lying beneath a story (in a pretty lame nutshell), to a conclusive point. Everything hidden beneath the texture of the story in fact becomes the major theme of the story. But let me untangle this all a little first.
The story beings with a couple deciding what to choose as a birthday present for their son, who happens to be ‘incurably deranged in his mind.’ In that opening quote it is this same son, at the time closed away in an institution. He is suffering from a form of schizophrenia. It is much more commonly thought about today, the type of paranoid delusion in which everything around the sufferer becomes part of a message, a form or persecution, a sign and symbol relating and addressed to them alone. The couple visit their son, leave having not seen him – he attempted suicide – and decide to bring him home at any cost. Later that night they receive two mysterious phone calls. The last, in which we only hear the ring, may or may not be the hospital to tell them that their son had killed himself. We don’t know, but it is overtly implied that it is one of the possibilities. It may also be another missed call. We don’t know, but we are told the answer may lie somewhere else in the text.
Nabokov was always a master tactician; it could often be infuriating but only in the sense that enemies become confused by an opponent breaking all the rules and winning. ‘Never emulate a former victory’ – a badly quoted aphorism from ‘The Art of War’, illustrates how this dynamic works. For Nabokov the reader-writer relationship means more than entertaining, enlightening – for Nabakov there was as much emphasis on the reader as the writer, to interpret, understanding nuances, spot indicators, signs and symbols. When you let yourself participate it makes reading something more than registering, it becomes more like re-writing the piece yourself, placing this sentence here, that reference there and in this story Nabokov condenses this interplay into one 6 page story.
There are exhaustive notes and analyses of this story online, many of which seem to get caught up in their own investigation to the point we lose any site of the remaining story. Some illuminate parts of the text and enhance a re-reading. Nabokov always said that there is no such thing as reading, only re-reading. And in a story like this we can understand perfectly what he means. Although we may read this story once with no knowledge of an underlying story, then read it a second time and learn a little more but are still puzzled, then gradually – after reading it over and over – this is a story that will only ever become more and more interesting, will transmogrify magically as we are more aware of the Signs and Symbols flittering beneath, the marine life of the story beneath the Mum, Dad, deranged son coming home, not coming home story.
Aside from the chess master’s clever two-games-at-once theme of the story there are also some beautiful passages, many reminiscent of all Nabokov’s immigrant’s new to America. The awe and wonder, desperation and thanks all combined. But stories of other characters, summed up better in one sentence than many other author’s characters in a novel, like the aunt for instance:
‘Aunt Rosa, a fussy, angular, wild-eyed 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’
Note here the ingenious exclusion of the word ‘cared.’ What a different woman she becomes when we learn that she had ‘worried’ about people, not so much cared. In this one sentence we can see the Nabokov of perfect, unrivalled character dissection, where in one word we are told enough to know the person entire, or as much as Nabokov wants us to know.
Other glimpses (I read Nabokov for these glimpses), such as ‘a tiny half-dead unfledged bird was helplessly twitching in a puddle.’ The bird could be any one of the main characters, twitching in their own struggles but blindly, unconditionally, helplessly hopeful.
Another one, a summary sentence, one that speaks for each character – through their son:
‘What he really wanted to do was to tear a hole in his world and escape.’
Such a simply constructed sentence and capturing so pointedly the one big shape, the big fish of a symbol of the entire story – escape.
Listen to Signs and Symbols on the New Yorker Podcast.