‘Signs and Symbols’ by Vladimir Nabokov

Nabokov is a favourite writer of mine and his stories are slices of perfection. This story, on the surface, is very slight – an elderly couple return from visiting their son in a sanatorium on his birthday, after he has attempted to take his own life, and they sit at their table at midnight and eat some jam – and yet not one word is wasted. Small details devastate (their son’s unopened birthday present on the table, the realisation that knives need to be kept in a locked drawer if he returned home) During the story, the couple receive two apparently misdialled telephone calls from a girl asking for Charlie; and the story ends abruptly when the phone rings for a third time. It is, frustratingly, never answered and the delicious ambiguity of it means that, whenever I re-read it, I’m always slightly hopeful that this time the father will pick up the phone. 

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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