‘Signs and Symbols’ by Vladimir Nabokov

I need to read this story at least once every few months and it never fails to move me each time. ‘Signs and Symbols’ is about an elderly Russian couple who have emigrated to America and live in straitened circumstances. They visit their mentally unstable son in a sanatorium and return without seeing him. They take him a modest birthday gift, a selection of jams. At first glance, the story seems a quiet meditation on old age, parental love and the sorrow of the exiled, but it has so many layers and depth to it. We learn that the son suffers from a rare mental illness that makes him hallucinate. He has attempted to take his life a few times. The elderly parents live a frugal life, Nabokov lingers over the details of their straitened circumstances, the mother looking through the photograph albums, longing for the home she’s left behind, and the father’s embittered gratitude towards his more successful brother who has brought them over. 

Hanging over their nightly rituals is a sense of impending foreboding and doom. Yet this is not a sentimental story. The ‘signs’ and ‘symbols’ of their predicament are presented in carefully crafted sentences, without a single superfluous image or sentence.

That Friday, their son’s birthday, everything went wrong. The subway train lost its life current between two stations… During the long ride to the subway station, she and her husband did not exchange a word, and every time she glanced at his old hands, clasped and twitching upon the handle of his umbrella, and saw their swollen veins and brown-spotted skin, she felt the mounting pressure of tears.

The ending is deliberately ambiguous. The couple receive two misdialled phone calls from a girl who is looking for someone called Charlie and the story ends when the phone rings for a third time. The reader never knows whether it is another wrong call or whether it is the hospital, ringing to say their son had succeeded in committing suicide. 

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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