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The Signs and Symbols in Nabokov's "Signs and Symbols"
by Alexander Dolinin

In his famous letter to Katharine A. White, the chief editor of The New Yorker, while explaining the intricate riddle-like structure of "The Vane Sisters," which had been rejected by the magazine, Nabokov mentioned that some of his stories written in the past had been composed according to the same system "wherein a second (main) story is woven into, or placed behind, the superficial semitransparent one."1 As an example, he named another story with such an "inside"--"Signs and Symbols," which had been published in The New Yorker.

Thanks to Nabokov's explanations, the "inner scheme" of "The Vane Sisters" has become a common property. It is a story of the intervention by gentle spirits (or ghosts) into the reality of the narrator, "a callous observer of the superficial planes of life," crowned by the secret message in the finale that can be decoded by the rules of acrostic reading. To quote the letter to Katherine A. White again, "everything in the tale leads to one recurving end, or rather forms a delicate circle, a system of mute responses, not realized by the Frenchman but directed by some unknown spirit at readers."2 Yet numerous critics of "Signs and Symbols" so far have failed to discover a similar "inside" in the story which, as everybody believes, should hinge upon a mystery of the third, unanswered telephone call at the very end and its interpretation. While one line of criticism has been to focus on the obvious patterning of images and incidents in the narration and to read them as ominous "signs and symbols" indicating that the third call is a death notice from the sanatorium,3 the majority--from William Carroll's pioneering article of 19744 up to Irvin Malin's recent coquettish blabber5 --has chosen the reader-response approach. Most of the critics have embraced William Carroll's provocative idea that those readers who interpret numerous "signs and symbols" in the story as clues allowing one to solve the puzzle are guilty of "referential mania" and therefore bear an "esthetic responsibility" for the boy's death. In spite of Nabokov's attesting to the presence of a "second (main) story" behind "the superficial semitransparent one" in "Signs and Symbols," they either deny its existence or question its relevance. Thus, in his book The Magician's Doubts Michael Wood writes that Nabokov's comment makes "the work sound more like a riddle than it probably is" and reads it as a vague metaphor. In his view, a second story in "Signs and Symbols" concerns not the characters--"the old Jewish couple and their sick boy"--but us, the readers, and our response to the mystery of the third telephone call: "In the second story, the young man's world invades ours; his clouds and trees become our telephone, and a new pain, the pain of a new uncertainty, is visited upon the innocent and the guilty alike."6

Contrary to the prevailing line of criticism, I take Nabokov at his word and argue in this article that "Signs and Symbols," like "The Vane Sisters," is constructed according to a specific "system" of concealment and does contain a neat soluble riddle whose function is similar to the acrostic puzzle in the later story.

To understand what Nabokov means by his "system" of two superimposed stories it can be helpful to recall a classical dichotomy of siuzhet (the plot) and fabula (the story) introduced by the Russian formalists. In their parlance fabula is the sum total of interconnected textual events (or motifs) in chronological and causal order, in contrast to siuzhet, which consists of the same events as they are actually presented in the narrative. As Boris Tomashevsky wrote, "the place in the work in which the reader learns of an event, whether the information is given by the author, or by a character, or by a series of indirect hints--all this is irrelevant to the story. But the aesthetic function of the plot is precisely this bringing of an arrangement of motifs to the attention of the reader."7

Nabokov' peculiar strategy that he used sparingly but persistently throughout his mature work is to create a discrepancy or a tension between siuzhet and fabula of a text through enigmatizing certain important elements of the latter. He constructs the narrative in such a way that it does not contain any direct or even indirect reference to an important, usually pivotal event (or a number of events) of the fabula and disguises this ellipsis. For example, instead of presenting such climatic events as death of the protagonist in "Lik," a betrayal and murder out of jealousy in "That in Aleppo Once..." or supernatural intervention in "The Vane Sisters," the plots of these short stories deliberately conceal them, superseding the textual "reality" with false or incomplete accounts of it. However, narration of this kind not only hides or masks the important event but also provides the reader with adequate means to deduce it and thereby construe the fabula in its entirety. Relevant information related to the omitted event (or events) is encrypted in the siuzhet as a kind of intratextual riddle (often supported by intertextual references), and specifically marked clues to the pertinent code are implanted into the text.

That is exactly what Nabokov had in mind when he wrote to Katharine White that the reader of "The Vane Sisters" "almost automatically slips into" the discovery of an encrypted message from the other world if he pays attention to "various allusions to trick-reading" in the story.8 Actually the narrator of "The Vane Sisters" refers to the forming of words from the initials of words three times. First, he mentions the acrostic puzzle in connection with the death of Cynthia's friend, an eccentric librarian called Porlock who had been engaged in examining old books for miraculous misprints such as the substitution of "l" for the second "h" in the word "hither." When Cynthia, "on the third day after his death," read a quotation from Coleridge's "Kubla Khan," "it dawned upon her that "Alph" is a prophetic sequence of "the initial letters of Anna Livia Plurabelle ... while the additional "h" modestly stood, as a private signpost, for the word that so hypnotized Mr. Porlock."9 After that the narrator talks about a "novel or short story (by some contemporary writer, I believe) in which, unknown to the author, the first letters of the words in its last paragraph formed, as deciphered by Cynthia, a message from his dead mother" (622). When a friend informs the narrator of Cynthia's death, he finds himself plunging into Shakespeare's sonnets and "idiotically checking the first letters of the lines to see what sacramental words they might form" (625). These allusions to procedures of deciphering and acrostical reading conjoint with the theme of death serve as invitations to decoding: they are supposed to alert the reader to the acrostical code used for encrypting the relevant information and make him apply it to the stylistically marked passage at the very end of the story. Likewise, numerous allusions to anagrams in Bend Sinister signalize the presence of a hidden anagrammatic message in the novel that can be found and deciphered by the reader.10 Of course, omitted or veiled events and codes used for solving an intratextual riddle would be different in each text, but "the system" of encrypting always remains the same: the text itself incorporates a set of clues that indicate which code is needed to decipher encrypted information and to fill a gap in the fabula.

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1. Vladimir Nabokov, Selected Letters 1940-1977. Ed. by Dmitri Nabokov and Matthew J. Bruccoli, (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1989), 117.

2. Ibid.

3. See, for example, John Hagopian, "Decoding Nabokov's 'Sign and Symbols'," Studies in Short Fiction, 18 (Spring 1981), 115-119; Gennady Barabtarlo, "Nabokov's Little Tragedies, (English Short Stories)," in his Aerial View: Essays on Nabokov's Art and Metaphysics (New York: Peter Lang, 1993), 91-93.

4. William Carroll, "Nabokov's 'Signs and Symbols'," in A Book of Things About Vladimir Nabokov. Ed. by Carl R. Proffer (Ann Arbor, Michigan: Ardis, 1974), 203-217.

5. Irving Malin, "Reading Madly by Irving Malin," in Torpid Smoke: The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov. Ed. by Steven G. Kellman and Irving Malin (Amsterdam; Atlanta, Ga: Rodopi, 2000), 219-227. See also: Paul Rosenzweig, "The Importance of Reader Response in Nabokov's 'Sign and Symbols'," Essays in Literature, 7 (Fall 1980), 255-260; Larry R. Andrews, "Deciphering 'Sign and Symbols'," in Nabokov's Fifth Arc: Nabokov and Others on His Life's Work. Ed by J. E. Rivers and Charles Nicol (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1982), 139-152; David H. Richter, "Narrative Entrapment in Pnin and 'Sign and Symbols'," Papers on Language and Literature, 20 (Fall 1984), 418-430; Leona Toker, "'Sign and Symbols' in and out of Contexts," in A Small Alpine Form: Studies in Nabokov's Short Fiction. Ed. by Charles Nicol and Gennady Barabtarlo (New York: Garland Pub., 1993), 167-180; Dzh. Trez'iak. "Razgadyvaia stradanie," in V.V. Nabokov: Pro et Contra. Antologiia. T.2. SPb., 2001. S. 852-863.

6. Michael Wood, The Magician's Doubts: Nabokov and the Risks of Fiction. (London: Chatto & Windus, 1994), 74.

7. Boris Tomashevsky, "Thematics," in Russian Formalist Criticism: Four Essays. Translated by Lee T. Lemon and Marion J. Reis (Lincoln: Univesity of Nebraska Press, 1965), 68.

8. Vladimir Nabokov, Selected Letters 1940-1977, 116-117.

9. The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995), 622. All the subsequent references to this edition are given in the text.

10. See my paper "O nekotorykh angarammakh v tvorchestve Nabokova" in Kul'tura russkoi diaspory: Nabokov--100 (Tallinn: TPU KIRJASTUS, 2000).

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