‘Signs and Symbols’ by Vladimir Nabokov

I’m fascinated by the notion of the “story behind the story” in fiction – the great and terrible truth being revealed piece by piece as the surface narrative unfolds. ‘Signs and Symbols’ feels like a near-perfect example of this. The surface narrative concerns an aged couple who attempt to visit their mentally ill son, but cannot, because he has tried to kill himself (again). They are Jews who have lived through the first half of the Twentieth Century; and it is this terrible story that we as readers are directed through, again and again – the true signified of all the signs. My favourite interpretation is that the son is not truly mad. In the context of the persecution to which the family has been exposed, the “referential mania” that plagues him is not a pathology but in fact a logical reaction to the world in which they live. In the context of genocide, it is reasonable to corelate the “invisible giants” persecuting the son and the same monstrous forces that have thrown the family across Europe and around the world. 

First published – as ‘Symbols and Signs’ –  in The New Yorker, May 15, 1948, and available to subscribers to read here. Collected in Nabokov’s Dozen, Doubleday, 1958 and Collected Short Stories, Knopf, 1995. Also in the Penguin 70 Cloud Castle Lake, 2005

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