‘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

‘Pnin’ by Vladimir Nabokov

His complete surrender to his own merriment would prove irresistible…with abrupt barks of clockwork hilarity coming from Charles, and a dazzling flow of unsuspected lovely laughter transfiguring Josephine, who was not pretty, while Eileen, who was, dissolved in a jelly of unbecoming giggles.

These lines, in their richness, flow and descriptive sleight of hand, the laughter, along with the prettiness of one girl conservatively used to describe the lack-of of the other, became something to aspire to in the realm of imagery and description. The story as a whole presents a challenge to the usual narrative construction, in that the collusive ‘we’ narration at the beginning, becomes an ‘I’ around halfway through the story. This is discussed in the podcast.

First published as a short story in The New Yorker, 1953. Later published as the first chapter of the novel, Pnin. You can listen to the short story on The New Yorker podcast here

‘The Fight’ by Vladimir Nabokov, translated by Dmitri Nabokov

‘The Fight’ is a story from Nabokov’s Berlin period. Oddly structured, it begins with a lengthy description by the first-person narrator—an émigré in Berlin, presumably someone like Nabokov himself—of the excursions he regularly makes to a lake near the city, where he swims and lolls in the sun. There the narrator regularly sees an older man, with whom he can only haltingly converse, but who seems genial and pleasantly anarchic. Later, while strolling through an unfamiliar neighbourhood, he stops at a bar which, it turns out, the man, one Krause, owns. The narrator becomes a regular, and takes pleasure in watching the developing romance between Krause’s daughter and a young electrician named Otto. On a sultry day, with a storm about to break, the narrator watches as Krause and Otto argue over whether the latter, who thinks of himself as one of the family, should have to pay for his drinks. Matters escalate and in a matter of a sentence or two the men are fighting with bare fists on the street, to the glee of a crowd that has gathered from nowhere. Krause knocks the electrician out. The narrator vainly, rather heartlessly, attempts to comfort the girl with a kiss. And that’s it. The story’s over.
For me, ‘The Fight’ is a parody of the chart known to every high school student, Freytag’s Pyramid, the one that details initial exposition followed by gradually rising action leading to climax and descending to resolution. Instead of these hoary conventions, this story asks instead: In what way does a climactic action need to be prepared for? What happens if that action isn’t resolved?
There’s delight, too, in Nabokov’s language, nicely apparent in his son Dmitri’s translation: as a class, we always linger in wonder over the narrator’s description of a barfly with “appetizing folds of fat on his nape” and his offhanded revelation that the fight reminds him of “a splendid scuffle I had once had in a seaport-dive with a beetle-black Italian, during which my hand had somehow got into his mouth and I had fiercely tried to squeeze, to tear, the wet skin inside his cheek.” Beetle-blackSomehow. Decorous, mandarin Nabokov is, as always, unsettling and sordid.

First published in Russian in 1925. Published in English in The New Yorker, February 10, 1985Collected in The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov, Knopf 1995

‘First Love’ by Vladimir Nabokov

A stand-alone short story, but also a chapter later incorporated into the autobiographical Speak, Memory, this is a brilliant and knowingly Proustian evocation of adolescent love in Paris. The narrator recalls his ten-year-old self, so no middle-aged Humbert here. The innocence is two-fold: one related to young love, the other an unstated prelapsarian sense of the world set to experience the trauma of the Russian Revolution and the First World War. As always with Nabokov, it’s the details that make the story a success. The ending is precisely observed, its recollections accelerating in a cinematic montage. As a treatment of piercing memory, it echoes MacNeice’s poem ‘Soap Suds’ and the coda to Lytton Strachey’s memoir of Queen Victoria. Achingly beautiful. 

First published in The New Yorker as ‘Colette’, July 1948. First collected in Nabokov’s Dozen, 1958. Most recently collected in Collected Stories, Penguin Modern Classics, 2017. Read it online here

‘Cloud, Castle, Lake’ by Vladimir Nabokov

This story, written in 1937 and set in a parallel Germany of enforced leisure and institutional bullying, might easily be passed over as a straightforward political allegory, were it not for the fact that it’s by Nabokov, and is therefore studded with precise observations that remind us of his greatness as a comic writer: the cigarette butt Vasili is made to eat, for instance, or the lacquered nose of the trip’s leader. Vasili, the somewhat Pnin-like central character who’s clearly an authorial avatar – he’s introduced at the beginning as “my representative”, and at the tale’s end, “of course, I let him go” – is obliged to take a tiresomely upbeat journey with a bunch of grotesques who first won’t let him read in silence, then chuck his prized cucumber out of the train’s window. On the trip, Vasili sees the scene of the story’s title, which looks, in the mind’s eye, a little like a Claude landscape, whose transcendent beauty is the source of the story’s spring of joy and horror. The title’s cadence and rhythm captures that imprinting of a sight upon the memory. It stays with you as though it’s your own.

First published in The Atlantic, June 1941, and collected in Nabokov’s Dozen, 1958 and Collected Short Stories, 1995, and available online here

‘The Vane Sisters’ by Vladimir Nabokov

This story of Nabokov’s, with its infamous acrostic in the final paragraph, the device that according to the author ‘can only be tried once in a thousand years of fiction’, was rejected by the New Yorker.

I first read, and was bamboozled by, ‘The Vane Sisters’ shortly after I first read, and was bamboozled by, Pale Fire. But whereas I still love Pale Fire, I don’t know if I much like this story any more. Nabokov’s conspicuous intellectual presence in ‘The Vane Sisters’ strikes me as just the sort of thing that would have delighted me when I was 22 but now I can see is possibly a dead end, even a trap. Nevertheless in this context I hope you can see the correspondences: the humour, the supernatural twist and the author insolently needling the lazy reader.

First published in The Hudson Review, 1958, and in Nabokov’s Quartet, Phaedra, 1966; Collected in The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov, Alfred A. Knopf, 1995, now Penguin Modern Classics, 2001

‘Spring in Fialta’ by Vladimir Nabokov

Nabokov’s story bears a passing resemblance to Chekhov’s in that it is about a man who meets a woman in a seaside resort, but this time the man reflects on an affair already over rather than one about to begin. In Fialta, a fictional Mediterranean town on the Riviera, the narrator bumps into Nina, a fellow Russian exile who moves in the same social circles, and the meeting prompts him to recount to us the previous eight or nine encounters between them over the past 15 years. What follows is a kaleidoscopic portrayal of a love affair that never quite happens and, reading very carefully between the lines, it soon becomes clear that, although the highly-unreliable narrator claims the attraction was mutual, Nina has obviously been trying to avoid the narrator’s attempts at ardour from day one. It’s a fabulous, ever-shifting mix of time past and time present with the usual Nabokovian linguistic acrobatics.

First published in 1936. In My Mistress’s Sparrow is Dead: Great Love Stories from Chekhov to Munro, ed. Jeffrey Eugenides, Harper Perennial, 2009. Also in Collected Stories, Penguin Modern Classics, 2001, and Nabokov’s Dozen, Penguin Modern Classics, 2017.

‘Signs and Symbols’ by Vladimir Nabokov

I worked in mental health for nine years. For double that time I’ve had a mental illness that I felt was best managed by working in mental health settings. It is not hyperbolic to say that no encounter with a therapist, as a patient, nor with a patient, as a practitioner, helped me understand mental illness so much as ‘Signs and Symbols’ by Vladimir Nabokov. I recently read a relative’s psychiatric records from the 1950s and the main symptom the doctor was concerned about was the patient’s bibliophilia. They recommended that he read less. Nabokov knew acutely the experiences of plenitude and penury. It was key that plentitude came first. Had Nabokov just kept his associations in his head, and not on the page, then his life experience would have been markedly different. There’s a type of mania called apophenia, which involves the sufferer making incessant spontaneous connections between unrelated phenomena. Nabokov takes a brand of this, and describes the condition more solipsistically as ‘referential mania’. This story reminds me again of how obsessed we are with functionality. I once stood in a boardroom where graphic designers discussed for hours the shape of a bird’s tail that was due to appear on a book cover. Transplant that conversation to a bus stop, give it no outcome and witness how it’s interpreted. The world puts us in our boxes and in our little jars. The boy that the parents visit at the asylum in ‘Symbols & Signs’, who has made several attempts on his life, wants to ‘tear a hole in his world and escape’. But for me, the fissures are already there. Human beings are the tears in the world. And it is the categorisations that make this story heartbreaking. A tear can be seen from both sides of the surface. There is a confluence to it but Nabokov shows us how looking out from the tear and looking into it are essentially two different languages.

First published in The New Yorker, 1948 [as ‘Symbols and Signs’], and collected in Nabokov’s Dozen, 1958 and Collected Short Stories, 1995.

‘Spring in Fialta’ by Vladimir Nabokov

A beautifully constructed story about memory and loss, full of sensory detail and luxurious imagery. While on holiday in a fictional Mediterranean resort, the narrator, Victor, an exiled Russian, bumps into Nina, a fellow exile, for whom he has carried a torch since they first met at a party in 1917, just before fleeing their homeland. They first kiss in the snow: “Windows light up and stretch their luminous lengths upon the dark billowy snow…I was already kissing her neck, smooth and quite fiery hot from the long fox fur of her coat collar…”. She has flitted through his life ever since but, despite a mutual attraction, they have never quite connected. The tragic ending comes as a shock, although you suddenly realise that it has been foreshadowed throughout with clever little clues.

(from Nabokov’s Dozen, Penguin, 1958, or it can be read here)

‘Razor’ by Vladimir Nabokov

Generally I’d say one should read Nabokov to experience language as a release of birds but my relationship to ‘Razor’ is not really representative of this. I had been reading pieces of his thick, lush prose and feeling heady with the sheer exhilaration of it—thank god for short stories, where you can sustain momentary whiplash from a plot or sentence and pretend it’s giddiness. This story centres on the chance encounter of two old acquaintances, and a shift of power that occurs in front of a mirror and beneath a lathered brush.

Reading ‘Razor’ is to feel the testing of metal across your throat.

First published, in Russian, as ‘Britva’ in 1926. Read in Collected Stories as part of Penguin Modern Classics in 2001. Translated by Dmitri Nabokov, the writer’s son, in 1995