Anatomy of a Short Story: Nabokov’s Puzzles, Codes, ‘Signs and Symbols’

By | May 30, 2012

   Short story

      We are delighted to announce the publication of editor Yuri Leving’s “Anatomy of a Short Story: Nabokov’s Puzzles, Codes, ‘Signs and Symbols,’” a book that unites Nobokov’s “Signs and Symbols” as a primary text, with a collection of articles investigating the question of symbolism, “Referential mania,” and “riddles” in “Signs and Symbols,” one of Nabokov’s shortest stories and called “one of the greatest short stories ever written.”

    Vladimir Nobokov opens his short story “Signs and Symbols” with a husband and wife deciding what to bring their “incurably deranged” son for his birthday in a “sanotorium.” The pair decides on a “dainty and innocent trifle”—a collection of fruit jellies. Why, we wonder, fruit jellies for a “deranged” son? Given the story’s title, naturally we might take a seemingly random detail like fruit jellies to symbolize something greater in the story. As Nabokov’s tale unravels, it is revealed that the son is in the sanotorium for his “Referential mania,” an invented term described by a fictional doctor as causing a patient to imagine “that everything happening around him is a veiled reference to his personality and existence.” For a person suffering Referential mania, “Pebbles or stains or sun flecks form patterns representing in some awful way messages which he must intercept. Everything is a cipher and of everything he is the theme.” Nabokov’s inclusion of an illness symptomatized by over-analysis calls to mind the reader’s search for deeper meaning and symbolism in literature. Are we, as careful readers searching for the meaning in a detail like “fruit jellies,” suffering from our own literary form of Referential mania, the search for symbolic meaning in everything around us?

            The anthology begins with the primary text “Signs and Symbols,” with line numbers for academic discussion. Nabokov’s text is followed by an intellectual forum exploring the significance and meaning of the short story in the context of five disciplines: film, theater, mathematics, psychiatry, and literary studies. In the forum, UCLA screenwriter Hal Ackerman posits the questions “What is seen?” and “What is heard?” in the story, and suggests that the meaning of Nabokov’s miniature masterpiece lies in the negative space of the story—what is not seen, what is not heard—revealing a second layer of the story which is at first obscured. Of “Signs and Symbols,” Ackerman states, “All of the power and intensity of the story is laid under the surface, in the back-story, in repressed and fractured and delusional hopes, in off-screen implied events. The compression with which Nabokov expresses all of this in spare prose is his genius.” Mathematician John N. Crossley elaborates upon Ackerman’s ideas about the implicit aspects in “Signs and Symbols” by contrasting literary symbols and mathematic symbols, proposing that in fiction all symbols must be highly contextualized and can yield various interpretations, versus in mathematics, where symbols are stable and “context free.” For Crossley, Nabokov’s “Signs and Symbols” has an unsolvable quality, whereas in mathematics, even the most “unsolvable” equation still has the viable and singular answer “no solution.” Editor Yuri Leving synthesizes the forum by asking all contributors about the final moment of “Signs and Symbols,” in which the parents of the “deranged” son receive a phone call which is either a wrong number, or a call about the suicide of their son. The identity of the caller is never revealed—ultimately, Nabokov leaves it up to us to determine the outcome of the call, whether we decide the follow his symbols, and how symbols in the text may or may not be interpreted depending on our own degree of “Referential mania.”

            A charming and enlightening two-year long correspondence between Nabokov and The New Yorker editor Katherine Sargeant Angel White—the longest Nabokov-The New Yorker correspondence for any of the writer’s stories—follows the forum. In the exchange, we see that White questioned whether “Signs and Symbols” was a parody or straight fiction, and that for White, overly “realistic” details signaled satire. Questions about Nabokov’s literary intentions bring to mind larger questions about realistic fiction, leading readers of Anatomy of a Short Story to reconsider Nabokov’s inclusion of those so-called “real” and “gruesome” details in the story, and also to consider what constitutes a realistic fiction in the first place, and the degree to which readers are willing to accept “real” details about life in fiction categorized as “realism.”

            The correspondence is followed by a range of scholarly debates about “Signs and Symbols,” the most recent piece published in 2011 by Meghan Vicks, who has recently finished her phD dissertation discussing narratives of zero in modern and post-modern literature, and the earliest critical essay by William C. Carroll, first published in 1974, and the first critical article ever published about “Signs and Symbols.”

            An illumination of both “Signs and Symbols” and how we understand fiction, Anatomy of a Short Story is described as a “challenging exercise of ‘Practical Criticism’ which touches upon the bone and structure of Nabokov’s work.”

Hilary Reid

Editorial Intern

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