Book review week: Signs and Symbols by Vladimir Nabokov


This is the final in the book review week. I debated which review to include – I was tossing up between two – and then I read this one and started crying. Had to be this one. I trust my tears to tell me the truth about art. There’s something about contemplating the parents of a child with a disability that affects me like no other topic. I think of their dreams and hopes for their beloved child and their fears for the child’s suffering. And Nabokov is magnificent here.

His short stories are generally inferior to his novels. He needs the latitude of a novel to give full rein to his spectacular virtuosity of observation and language. And this virtuosity can be so dazzling that the emotional impact is muted. Not so here. It’s a tiny story, just a few pages, and it’s a masterpiece. It’s the devastating Signs and Symbols, about an elderly couple going off to visit their son in an asylum on his birthday. O my bleeding heart …


Faced with the problem of finding him a present – man-made objects being “hives of evil, vibrant with a malignant activity that he alone could perceive” – they settle on “a dainty, innocent trifle: a basket with ten different fruit jellies in ten little jars.”

Everything goes wrong. The bus is late, the train breaks down – “for a quarter of an hour one could hear nothing but the dutiful beating of one’s heart” – it rains, and when they arrive at the place, they are told a visit might disturb him as “he had again attempted to take his life.”

They re-trace their steps wearily, he “clearing his throat in a special resonant way he had when he was upset”, she looking around “trying to hook her mind onto something.” They ponder his delusion in which “everything is a cipher and of everything he is the theme”, and the signs and symbols he sees writ in the clouds and in

pebbles or stains or sun flecks.

They arrive home. She cooks fish, he reads the Russian language newspaper and then goes to bed. She reviews her photo albums – “As a baby he looked more surprised than most babies”, “from a fold in the album, a German maid they had had in Leipzig … fell out”, “Aunt Rosa, a fussy, angular, wild-eyed old lady, who had lived in a tremulous world of bad news, bankruptcies, train accidents, cancerous growths, until the Germans put her to death”,

he again, aged about eight, already difficult to understand, afraid of the wallpaper in the passage … and an old cart wheel hanging from the branch of a leafless tree.

Her husband staggers in, unable to sleep and wearing over his nightgown the overcoat that he preferred to “the nice blue bathrobe” he had.

“We must get him out of there quick. Otherwise we’ll be responsible,” he says. “I have it all figured out. We will give him the bedroom. Each of us will spend part of the night near him and the other part on this couch. By turns.” It’ll only come out cheaper for “the Prince,” their nickname for his brother on whom they’re now wholly dependent.

Fired with false hope and the relief of a wrong number at midnight – “It frightened me,” she says – they feel unexpectedly festive. The birthday present is on the table. They have tea. He puts on his spectacles and re-examines

with pleasure the luminous yellow, green, red little jars.

The phone rings again.

And that’s it.




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