“Here’s the news: I am going to sue the Brown & Williamson Tobacco Company, manufacturers of Pall Mall cigarettes, for a billion bucks! Starting when I was only twelve years old, I have never chain-smoked anything but unfiltered Pall Malls. And for many years now, right on the package, Brown & Williamson have promised to kill me.
But I am eighty-two. Thanks a lot, you dirty rats. The last thing I ever wanted was to be alive when the three most powerful people on the whole planet would be named Bush, Dick and Colon.” - Kurt Vonnegut, (November 11, 1922 - April 11, 2007) A Man Without a Country
Let’s just take a moment to appreciate the fact that Pooh has just shoved the equivalent of his own internal organs back into his body like it was no big deal.
No bothers were given that day.
No bothers given.
Pooh is totally METAL.
Reblogging for priceless commentary, and because I think “Look at all the bothers I give” is going to make it into my everyday language.
HAHAHA NO BOTHERS
This saved my crappy day. Ohh Phoo
We enter a little coffeehouse with a friend of mine and give our order. While we’re aproaching our table two people come in and they go to the counter:
‘Five coffees, please. Two of them for us and three suspended’ They pay for their order, take the two and leave.
I ask my friend: “What are those ‘suspended’ coffees?”
My friend: “Wait for it and you will see.”
Some more people enter. Two girls ask for one coffee each, pay and go. The next order was for seven coffees and it was made by three lawyers - three for them and four ‘suspended’. While I still wonder what’s the deal with those ‘suspended’ coffees I enjoy the sunny weather and the beautiful view towards the square infront of the café. Suddenly a man dressed in shabby clothes who looks like a beggar comes in throught the door and kindly asks
‘Do you have a suspended coffee ?’
It’s simple - people pay in advance for a coffee meant for someone who can not afford a warm bevarage. The tradition with the suspended coffees started in Naples, but it has spread all over the world and in some places you can order not only a suspended coffee, but also a sandwitch or a whole meal.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have such cafés or even grocery stores in every town where the less fortunate will find hope and support ? If you own a business why don’t you offer it to your clients… I am sure many of them will like it.
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 theinformation 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 fabulaand 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.
Let us see how this system works in “Signs and Symbols,” a story that in comparison to “The Vane Sisters” presents a much more difficult case, because it alludes, both directly and obliquely, to several interpretative codes, and our primary task is to select the one that can be applied to a riddle hidden in the text. Critical attention so far has been focused, of course, on the “referential mania” of the insane protagonist, who believes that “everything happening around him is a veiled reference to his personality and existence:”
Phenomenal nature shadows him wherever he goes. Clouds in the staring sky transmit to one another, by means of slow signs, incredibly detailed information regarding him. His inmost thoughts are discussed at nightfall, in manual alphabet, by darkly gesticulating trees. Pebbles or stains or sun flecks form patterns representing in some awful way messages which he must intercept. Everything is a cipher and of everything he is the theme. <…> He must be always on his guard and devote every minute and module of life to the decoding of the undulation of things (595-596).
Some critics argue that Nabokov, planting patterned, symbolically charged details, deliberately entraps the reader of “Signs and Symbols” into a sort of over-interpretation similar to the “referential mania” of the insane character, making us read the story as if everything in it were a cipher. Yet the idea of seeing a model for the reader’s response in the boy’s pan-semiotic approach to reality, however tempting, should be rejected from the very start for several simple reasons. First, “referential mania” is limited to natural phenomena (clouds, trees, sun flecks, pools, air, mountains) and random artifacts (glass surfaces, coats in store windows) but “excludes real people from the conspiracy,” while the story deals with human beings in the urban setting and focuses upon cultural systems of communication and transportation: the underground train, the bus, the Russian-language newspaper, the photographs, the cards, the telephone, the labels on the jelly jars. The only exception is the image of “a tiny half-dead unfledged bird” helplessly twitching in a puddle “under a swaying and dripping tree”—a symbolic parallel to the sick boy’s situation and his parents’ perception of him.
Second, the boy’s reading of the world is auto-referential and egocentric (every alleged signifier refers only to the boy himself), while the story concerns three major characters and a dozen minor ones, whether named or unnamed.
Last but not least, “referential mania,” unlike the “allusions to trick-reading” in “The Vane Sisters,” does not point at any applicable code, as the boy himself is unable to decipher secret messages: he surmises only their “theme” (himself), their intent (evil, malicious, threatening) and their validity (they misinterpret and distort), but not their actual content. So the description of “referential mania” can not serve as a “prompt” suggesting some way of identifying and solving a textual riddle; instead of providing a specific clue, it sets metafictional guidelines, introducing a group of semiotic motifs that refer to the structure of the text itself. If cleared of their psychiatric smoke screen, the key words in the passage form a kind of instruction for the reader to “puzzle out” an inherent “system” of the story, to look for a “veiled reference” to the boy’s fate—its central “theme,” to “intercept” and “decode” some “transmitted” message containing “information regarding him,” to crack a “cipher” encrypted “in manual alphabet.” The boy’s paranoia (and, by implication, a fallacy of symbolic reading) lies not in the processes of his thought, but in their misapplication: to comprehend any sign one must first ascertain the signifying system in which it functions.
The metafictional commentary is complemented by Nabokov’s stock auto-allusions. It has been noted that the boy’s cousin, a “famous chess player” (597), “is perhaps a projection of Luzhin in Nabokov’sDefense, who is also a victim of referential mania.”11 A metaphorical description of the boy’s failed suicide as an attempt “to tear a hole in his world and escape” (595) parallels the final episode of The Defense in which Luzhin makes a “black, star-shaped hole” in the frosted window glass and “drops out of the game.”12 In addition, the image of “wonderful birds with human hands and feet” that the boy drew at the age of six (597) can be interpreted as a “veiled reference” to Nabokov’s Russian penname Sirin derived from the name of a fairy-tale bird with a human head and breast.13 This implies a connection between the character and the author of the story but, again, does not allow us to deduce a hidden event.
There is also a strong hint at a divinational code, as the three cards that slip from the couch to the floor are conspicuously named (knave of hearts, nine of spades, ace of spades) and form a standard fortune-telling packet or triad. If interpreted according to a traditional Russian system, they seem to foretell some tragic loss (ace of spades), grief and tears (nine of spades) with respect to a single young man (knave of hearts).14 At first glance, the triad refers to the boy and therefore predicts his imminent death, to be announced by the third telephone call. Yet in cardomancy, to quote the Encyclopedia Britannica, “the same ‘lie’ of the cards may be diversely interpreted to meet different cases” and much depends on the position of a card representing the object of fortune telling. It is significant that Nabokov’s divinational “packet” of three cards is “laid” side by side with photographs of the couple’s German maid Elsa and her “bestial beau,” who in the context of the story personify forces of evil responsible for the suffering of the innocent, for the death of Aunt Rosa and “all the people she had worried about,” and for the Holocaust. Their representations then should be regarded as an integral part of the whole “lie”—as quasi-cards standing for the “inquirers” of fortune telling. It is to the dismal fate of blondes Besties at the end of the World War Two that the ominous combination of spades refers: the cards foretell the “monstrous darkness” of disaster and death not to the boy and his parents but to their torturers and butchers, while the fate of the innocent remains untold.
The sequence of three cards and two photograph, however, brings us to the last potential code suggested by the text—to numerical cryptography and numerology. From the very start the narration in “Signs and Symbols” registers and emphasizes numbers (cf.: “For thefourth time in as many years,” “a basket with ten different fruit jellies in ten little jars,” “a score of years,” “of forty years standing”); all the major incidents, images and motives in the text are arranged into well ordered patterns or series. There are allusions to and short sequences of three based on the universal paradigm of birth/life/death and corresponding to the three sections of the story. The couple lives on the third floor; they go through three misfortunes on their way to the hospital (Underground, bus, rain) and encounter three bad omens on their way back (a bird, a crying girl, and misplaced keys); the name of Soloveichik (from the Russian for nightingale) the old woman’s friend, is echoed twice in the truncated, Americanized versions Solov and Sol;15 as we have seen, three cards fall to the floor and, of course, there are three telephone calls in the finale.
Even more prominent are sequences of five, some of which result from addition (three cards + two photos; three “nightingale names” + two images of birds). The story begins on Friday, the fifth day of the week; the life of the couple has passed through five locations (Minsk, Leipzig, Berlin, Leipzig, New York); the woman looks at five photographs of her son that represent five stages of his descent into madness—from a sweet baby to a sour insane boy of ten, “inaccessible to normal minds”; in the end the father reads five “eloquent labels” on the fruit jelly jars—apricot, grape, beech plum, quince, and crab apple: a series that mimics the deterioration of the boy from the sweetest to the sourest (598-599).
At last, there is the longest and singular sequence of “ten different fruit jellies in ten little jars” (594), which is connected to a theme of birth (after all, it is the birthday present) and is mentioned five times in the text.16 Critics have noted that the recurrence of the motif and its conspicuous placement at the most marked points of the text—in the first paragraph, in the beginning of section two, and in the finale—suggest some symbolic significance, but so far have offered mostly vague and sometimes preposterous interpretations.17 Only Gene Barabtarlo, who was the first to notice that the five named flavors of the jellies “are arranged in the order of rising astringency and somehow answer the five photographs of her son that the woman examined an hour earlier,” has ingeniously suggested that the set of ten jellies serves as “the key to an invisible over-plot” of the story, though he stopped short of using the master key to unlock a hiddenfabula.18
Discussing the enigma of the little jars, it is necessary to keep in mind that the sequence of labels is “spelled out”19 only to the middle point, and we do not know what fruit comes after crab apple. In numerical terms it means that ten is presented here as the double of five, which implies the duality of being, its split into the known/unknown halves. The only thing we can more or less safely bet on is that the jellies in the jars from no. 6 on won’t be bitterer than crab apple in the fifth one. If projected upon the life-stories of the insane boy and his parents, this duality infers a jarring question: is there anything for them beyond the misery of their present situation but “the monstrous darkness of death”? As in the case of the ten jars, we know the meaning of the five stages in their lives but do not seem to have any clue to their future.
However, I believe that there is such a clue in the story and that it is succinctly “spelled out” by the old woman when she answers two after-midnight telephone calls from a nameless girl:
“Can I speak to Charlie,” said a girl’s dull little voice.
“What number you want? No. That is not the right number.” <…>
The telephone rang for a second time. The same toneless anxious young voice asked for Charlie.
“You have the incorrect number. I will tell you what you are doing; you are turning the letter O instead of the zero.” (598)
The very word “number” repeated three times by the old woman indicates that the reader should give more consideration to her seemingly casual remarks than it has been done in previous criticism. What is most amazing about the old woman’s response is that she confronts the nuisance as a kind of a numerical riddle. The woman actually subjects Charlie’s number misdialed by the girl to scrutiny and notices that it differs from their own only by the presence of zero in it (in Arabic, by the way, zero means cipher). So she comes to the conclusion that the cause of the mistake is the replacement of the needed numeral by the letter O—or, in other words, a substitution of a sign for a symbol as, according to dictionary definitions, letters or alphabetical characters are signs while figures and numerals (ciphers) are symbols.
Looking for a plausible explanation of the wrong number, the old woman, in fact, draws attention to the properties of a standard American telephone dial as a crude coding system that consists of 10 (!) symbols (digits from one to zero) and 24 or 26 signs (the English alphabet, sometimes without Q and Z). Since every numeral on the dial from 2 to 9 is equivalent to three or four letters, it can be used for converting letters into digits and vice versa—that is, for enciphering and deciphering. While the woman converts a digit into the letter O, the reader can (and must) go backwards and find out what “cipher” the girl “is turning.” With the help of a telephone, this riddle is easily solved: instead of the “empty” zero the girl dials six, which on the telephone dial corresponds to three letters—M, N, and O.
I don’t think that the shadow of OMEN in this combination is just a coincidence, because if we look at the numerical value of letter O as a cipher, the girl’s mistake becomes literally ominous (in the meaning of “having the significance of an omen”). She knows the correct number for Charlie,20 she is anxious to talk to him, she calls after midnight—which implies the matter is urgent—yet she dials a six instead of a zero not once but twice—which is hardly plausible. It seems that she is acting like a medium (hence her toneless voice), transmitting a secret message in code, the cipher 6, addressed directly to the old woman and her husband. The very fact that the misdialed digit is not named in the text but must be deduced by a simple decoding procedure turns her mistake (like most mistakes in Nabokov’s fiction) into the most important clue leading us to the hidden central event of the story, to its “inner scheme.”
In the context of “Signs and Symbols,” with its emphasis on numerical sequences and patterning, the transmitted six acquires several meaningful connections and implications. It should be noted at once that the ciphered message comes after midnight, when Saturday, the sixth day of the week, has already begun. The Holocaust background of the story suggests an association with the Star of David, a six-pointed symbol that signifies a union of man with a divine principle. The cipher obviously alludes to the photo of the boy “aged six <…> when he drew wonderful birds with human hands and feet and suffered from insomnia like a grown-up man,” which not only evokes his dream of a flight and a bird-headed Sirin, but also echoes the old man’s insomnia during the immediate present of the narration. What is even more significant, though, is the relation of the sixth slot on theten-digit telephone dial to the set of ten jars and, by implication, to the future of the boy and his parents. It parallels the sixth, unread “eloquent label” of the series that comes after “crab apple” and presumably promises a sweeter continuation21—the next stage of metamorphosis that will follow the misery of madness, persecution, old age, and despair. The cipher seems to tell the old woman (and the reader) that her fears (and ours) for “the fate of tenderness” and love in the world are premature, and that her thinking of death as “monstrous darkness” is shortsighted. In other words, it informs her (and the reader) of the central event of the fabula—the eventual death of the boy, though not as annihilation, the meaningless and empty zero, but as transformation, the mystery of rebirth (hence the motive of birthday and the “conspicuous” birthmark in the final paragraph), the meaningful, albeit unnamed “sixth step” in the open, incomplete, unfolding sequence.
The last question to be answered is who is sending the secret message from the other world. The text itself offers the reader only two options. We can choose either the boy or 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” (597). The characterization of Aunt Rosa gives some ground for supposing that she is trying to intervene from the beyond and to warn her relatives about a death in the family—all the more so that a parallel to Aunt Maud’s sending encoded messages in Pale Fire is self-evident. Yet the connection between the telephone code and the birthday present points to the boy, whose mind is felt in the cunning use of the available signs and symbols. His obsession with codes, alphabets, veiled references, and secret messages makes him capable of inventing an ingenious and simple method to transmit the news of his rebirth, using the available means of communication and the set of ten jars chosen for him as a token of love and care—the last symbolic bond uniting him and his parents. If the boy has escaped, flown away from the prison of his madness and reached a mysterious beyond, in Nabokov’s world this would imply that he has regained and expanded his consciousness, and with it, his ability to love, to feel compassion. He sends the message to his parents at a moment when they are planning a reunion with him, and the cipher six reciprocates their selfless sacrifice, indicating that the reunion will soon happen—only not in this life.
This reading of the story is strongly supported by its poetical subtext, alluded to at the end of the second part when the old woman is thinking 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; of beautiful weeds that cannot hide from the farmer and helplessly have to watch the shadow of his simian stoop leave mangled flowers in its wake, as the monstrous darkness approaches” (597). The image of helpless, innocent children as beautiful but useless flowers mowed or reaped by the simian farmer echoes Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem “The Reaper and the Flowers,” which Nabokov must have read in his childhood (a volume of Longfellow’s complete poetical works is listed in the catalogue of V. D. Nabokov’s St. Petersburg library):
There is a Reaper whose name is Death,
And, with his sickle keen,
He reaps the bearded grain at a breath,
And the flowers that grow between.
“My Lord has need of these flowers gay,”
The Reaper said, and smiled;
“Dear tokens of the earth are they,
Where He was once a child.”
“They shall all bloom in the fields of light,
Transplanted by my care,
And saints, upon their garments white,
These sacred blossoms wear.”
And the mother gave, in tears and pain,
The flowers she most did love;
She knew she should find them all again
In the fields of light above.
Oh, not in cruelty, not in wrath,
The Reaper came that day;
‘Twas an angel visited the green earth,
And took the flowers away.22
Nabokov’s imagery reworks, refreshes and to a certain extent subverts Longfellow’s sentimental and trite rhetoric, but the concealed “inside” of the story retains and even strengthens the theodicy of the poem. Like the Reaper whose name is death, Nabokov takes the sick boy away not in cruelty, not in wrath, but in hope for his meeting his loving parents in “the fields of light.” This is what the protagonists, unaware, celebrate by their “unexpected festive midnight tea,” enjoying “the luminous yellow, green, red little jars.” As is often the case with Nabokov’s narratives, “Signs and Symbols” plays a cunning trick upon the reader, making him mad at some unnamed malign force of cruel chance, “friend of giants and farmers” that “is using the mistaken girl” to torture the poor helpless old people. The culprit is, of course, the omnipotent author who inflicts pain upon the innocent and lets them (and us) remain forever suspended in anxiety and fear when the ominous telephone rings for the third time. Is it that stupid girl again? Is it the hospital with news of death?23 Breaking out of this trap and finding the hidden “inside” encrypted in the plot reverses our perception of the story and reveals Nabokov’s design. The very wrongness of the telephone number that seemed so cruel becomes benevolent if we discover the secret encoded promise—the ultimate sign and symbol of the text; and the uncertainty about the third call becomes irrelevant, because whoever dials the number this time, the message we have already received and deciphered will never change.24 If it is the girl, it means that the cipher 6 is being sent again; if it is the hospital—well, we have already heard the news from the dead man’s mouth, which makes it not so bad, after all. As for the old man and the woman who, in contrast to the reader, are unable to decipher the message, their tears and pain for the son “they most did love” will be real, but their sorrow won’t last long. Having broken the code, we can be certain that in the fictional universe where Nabokov is God, they too will be allowed to pass through and meet the sender of the secret message.
In the final analysis, the inner scheme of “Signs and Symbols” is,mutatis mutandis, similar to that of “The Vane Sisters,” though the earlier text is much more dramatic and artistically complex. While “The Vane Sisters” seems to have been composed for the sake of an elegant puzzle, the elegant riddle in “Signs and Symbols” was composed for the sake of the narrative. Discovering and solving it does not undermine existing ethical, historicist and psychological interpretations but challenges stale clichés of reader-response criticism. Those who refuse to look for a hidden closure beneath the deceptive openness of “Signs and Symbols” are more guilty of a “referential mania” than their opponents because they, like the insane boy, believe that everything in the world created by Nabokov refers to them and they are free to project their own doubts, uncertainties, and fears upon it. As “clouds in the staring sky” do not “transmit to one another” any information regarding the deranged boy, so Nabokov’s texts with an “inside” do not refer to the smug, theory-clad critic—but only to themselves and their creator, though they do allow a “peep unto glory” for the reader who is ready to accept and obey the rules of their game.
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.
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’,” inNabokov’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 inPnin 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.
13. Cf. also Nabokov’s self-portrait in his poem “Fame” that, to quote his note, contains an allusion “to the sirin, a fabulous fowl of Slavic mythology, and ‘Sirin,’ the author’s penname”: “To myself I appear as an idol, a wizard / bird-headed, emerald gloved, dressed in tights / made of bright-blue scales” (Vladimir Nabokov, Poems and Problems [New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co.,1970], 105, 113).
14. It is interesting that in Mlle. le Normande’s fortune-telling system, popular in Western Europe, the meaning of these cards is entirely different: the ace of spades represents a female inquirer, the nine of spades—a successful voyage, faithfulness or illusions, and the knave of hearts—love and happiness. See: Mrs. John King Van Rensselaer,Prophetical, Educational and Playing Cards (London: Hurst & Blackett, 1912), 369-372.
15. This triad is charged with numerous possibilities for multilingual word-play. In Russian the initial solovei (nightingale), losing a syllable, turns into solov (a form of the adjective solovyi—dull, dazed, limp; cf. also the verb osolovet’—to become dazed) and then into sol’ (salt). The paronomasia on solovei / osolovet’ was used by Marina Tsvetaeva in her poem “A i prostor u nas tatarskim strelam” (1922): “Ne kurskim solov’em osolovelym.” The word solov is a palindrome of volos (hair; cf. a line in Khlebnikov’s palindromic verse “Koni, topot, inok:” “Solov zov, voz volos”) as well as an anagram of slovo(word). In Nabokov’s drafts of the second volume of The Gift, Fyodor puns upon slovo / solovyi, exclaiming: “O russkoe slovo, solovoe slovo…” (O the Russian word, the dull word…). In Englishsolov can be read as so love while sol suggests solitude (from Latinsolus as in the title of Nabokov’s story “Solus Rex”), the sun (and gold as used in alchemy) and, palindromically, a loss. Therefore, the triad allows two contradictory interpretations. On the one hand, it parallels the boy’s pitiful devolution from the “bird phase” to the dazed state of insanity and the ultimate loneliness of death but, on the other, heralds a metamorphosis through Logos and Love to the sun/gold of spiritual rebirth.
16. According to The Penguin Dictionary of Symbols, ten “possesses a sense of totality, of fulfillment and that of a return to oneness after the evolution of the cycle of the first nine digits. The Pythagoreans regarded ten as the holiest of numbers. It was the symbol of universal creation <…> If all springs from ten and all returns to it, it is therefore also an image of totality in motion” (Jean Chevalier and Alain Cheerbrant, A Dictionary of Symbols. Translated from the French by John Buchanan-Brown [London, England; New York, N.Y., USA: Penguin Books, 1996], 981).
17. See, for example, Larry R. Andrews’s strange idea that the jellies are linked to the parents’ feelings of self-assurance and hence “are in some mysterious way a cause of the supposed death” (Larry R. Andrews, “Deciphering ‘Signs and Symbols’,” 140).
20. The man’s name also hints at decoding, because Charlie is a communication code word for the letter c, which, in its turn, signifies a cipher or the numerical value of a cipher letter (for example O=6).
21. The list of five jellies by itself looks rather artificial and because of that requires serious examination. Curiously enough, in all editions of the story there is a misprint in the third letter of the third label—beech plum instead of the correct beach plum—but it is impossible to tell whether this was intended or not. As Carol M. Dole observs, “the last letters of the four jellies in the list (apricot, grape, beech plum, quince) form the word theme” (Carol M. Dole, “Innocent Trifles, or ‘Signs and Symbols’,” Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. XXIV, No.3 [Summer 1987], 303-305), but again this could be a coincidence. If it is indeed an anagram, one should not overlook the fact that last letters of crab apple would form the beginning of a word in an unfinished phrase—most probably to be (as an answer to Hamlet’s question), being (the last word of section two), or beyond. It is tempting to conjecture something like “[the] theme’s a beyond” using the last letters of a plausible list such as cherry, mango, lemon, guava, mixed berries.
22. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Poetical Works in Six Volumes(Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1904), I, 21-22. The poem was inspired by Henry Vaughan’s elegy “They are all gone into the world of light!,” a meditation on “beauteous death” and after-life that could be a source for Nabokov’s image of an “unfledged bird” under a tree that, as we can guess, fell out of its nest. Cf.: “He that hath found some fledged bird’s nest, may know / At first sight, if the bird be flown; / But what fair well, or grove he sings in now, / That is to him unknown. // And yet, as Angels in some brighter dreams / Call to the soul, when man doth sleep: / So some strange thoughts transcend our wonted themes, / And into glory peep” (Henry Vaughan, The Complete Poems (London: Penguin Classics, 1995), 247).
24. “Signs and Symbols” is not the first text by Nabokov in which a wrong number is connected to the theme of communication with the dead. In Chapter Five of The Gift, such a call triggers Fyodor’s fatidic dream of his father’s return. The next morning Fyodor finds out that “the luckless person who was getting their number by mistake, had rung up the previous night: this time he had been tremendously agitated, something had happened—something which remained unknown” (Vladimir Nabokov, The Gift [New York: Vintage Books, 1991], 355-356).