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Anatomy of a Short Story: Nabokov's…
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Anatomy of a Short Story: Nabokov's Puzzles, Codes, Signs and Symbols

by John Banville

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Signs and Symbols is the shortest short story Nabokov ever published. It is a little over 2000 words in length. John Banville says that it is also the saddest story he ever wrote, in his afterword to this book of essays devoted to Signs and Symbols. Two elderly, impoverished Russian émigrés in an unidentified US city go to an asylum to visit their son, evidently schizophrenic, who suffers from 'referential mania', a term coined by Nabokov, for a condition in which the entirety of the world in which he lives is a malignant web of signs and symbols of which he is the central theme. His parents bring him a present, ten little jars of fruit jellies in a basket, chosen as the least likely to to convey some meaning that would feed his paranoia. When they arrive a brisk nurse tell them that they cannot see their son, because he has just attempted to suicide and a visit would upset him. They return home, taking the jars of jelly with them lest they be lost by the slack asylum administration. The husband, overcome by the continuing desperation of their son's life, suddenly announces that they must bring him home to live with them in their cramped apartment. He is not dangerous to others, and they can keep the knife draw locked. The wife prepares a supper of bland soft food, for her husband removed his painful dental plate once they were home. It is past midnight when the telephone rings. The wife, momentarily frightened, answers the call and a young woman with a flat, dull voice asks for 'Charlie'. The wife tells the young woman she has the wrong number and hangs up. The telephone rings again and the same voice asks once more for Charlie. The wife tells the caller that she is mistaken. She has dialled the letter O, rather than the Zero. Husband and wife eat their supper and he puts on his spectacles to inspect the jelly jars and begins to mumble their labelled names when the telephone rings for the third time. And there the story ends.

The Anatomy collects more than thirty mostly short essays or reflections on Signs and Symbols, some previously published, some written especially for this volume. Signs and Symbols appears in its brief entirety. The title metaphor of an 'anatomy' is carried through the book, with essays collected in sections labelled 'nervous system', 'muscles', DNA and so on. The connection between the essays and their section headings is rarely apparent. The overall impression of the collection is one of a general sameness of tone, style and content with a great deal of repetition. If you read the collection in its entirety, and I abandoned only a few of the essays, the repeated summaries of Signs and Symbols will inscribe the story forever in some fold of your brain. Quite a few of the essays are tedious and one or two seemed to me quite mad. But there are wonderfully illuminating contributions from William Carroll, Paul Rozenzweig, Joanna Trzeciak, John Hagopian, among others, and a fascinating correspondence between Nabokov and the editorial department of the New Yorker, where Signs and Symbols was first published in 1948. It is quite evident that the New Yorker editorial staff knew that they were in to something when they agreed to publish the story, but didn't have much idea just what it was that they were on to. That was my impression, too, when I read Signs and Symbols for the first time. Though there is much repetition of content, some tedious disputation and occasional wild forays into unintelligibility, the Anatomy does convince that Signs and Symbols is an unexhaustible subject for reflection and central to an understanding of Nabokov, whose own strange life becomes increasingly central to an understanding of his books. If you want to re-visit Nabokov territory, read the studies in Banville's Anatomy with rests between for Andrea Pitzer's wonderful Secret History of Vladimir Nabokov and Nabokov's own Pnin, which emerges as a far more significant book than it seemed when it was first published.

One thing more. If you are not familiar with the way a US telephone dial looked in 1948, do a Google Image search. I'm not convinced by the numerological excursions of some of Banville's essayists, but it does help to have a visual image of the telephone, which is so central a mechanism in the story. ( )
  LeaderElliott | Aug 13, 2013 |
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