Tag Archives: Short story

On a Sentence in Nabokov’s ‘Signs & Symbols’

I don’t know when I’ll have time to read it all, but I have been picking through Yuri Leving’s Anatomy of a Short Story: Nabokov’s Puzzles, Codes, “Signs and Symbols,” a collection of 33 essays, primary sources, and other items related to Nabokov’s most celebrated short story. I’m loving it so far.  Leving includes Alexander Dolinin’s well-known essay in which he argues that the numbers six and zero are the keys to understanding the secret message of the story: that the son has died, but that eternity is not a zero (not nothing) but a six (a tangible, though unseen, continuation of a series, in which life as we know it is 1-5–the named jelly jars–and eternity is the numbers beyond that, starting with six). This is why zero and six are the numbers mixed up by the unknown caller at the end of the story. Got it?  Add to this essays by Mary Tookey and Meghan Vicks, both of whom argue, to different ends, that zero is at the heart of the story.

I mention these articles in particular (there may be more on similar topics that I have not yet read) because they relate to an oddity that I noticed on one of my first readings of the story–namely, the repetition of certain letters in the story’s third sentence. Here it is:

Man-made objects were to him either hives of evil, vibrant with a malignant activity that he alone could perceive, or gross comforts for which no use could be found in the abstract world.

The sentence contains two branching, parallel predicate phrases, the first affirming meaning (albeit malignant) and the second negating it. What I noticed about these phrases is that the first contains a series of “iv” and “vi” letter combinations (in fact, fittingly, five of them). For its part, the second phrase contains nine uses of the letter “o.” If we read the “v” and “i” as Roman numerals, they add up to six, Dolinin’s sign for meaning, while the preponderance of the letter “o” points to the zero (nothingness). Is it possible that Nabokov planted these numbers in the story’s first paragraph as a foreshadowing of the larger story’s numerical code? Or have I succumbed to the “referential mania” that so afflicts the unfortunate son?

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Can the “I” Die?

Last week, I promised I would advance a new interpretation of one of VN’s short stories. As I mentioned, this may seem (or may in fact be) an act of interpretive hubris, given that the story, “The Visit to the Museum,” was first published more than 80 years ago and has received its fair share of critical attention over the years. Yet I can’t help thinking that interpreters, perhaps because of the fantastic elements of the story, have missed a subtle, yet essential detail in the story’s literal plotline.

The basic description of the plot, as it has been understood, goes something like this: the narrator, an exile from Russia now living in France, travels to a small village and, as a favor to a friend, attempts to purchase a painting displayed in a museum there (the painting’s subject is one of his friend’s ancestors). The museum director, M. Godard, first denies that the painting is in the museum’s collection, but then is shown its presence, just as narrator claimed. After deferring the sale of the painting, the director takes the narrator on a tour of the bizarre museum, a tour which quickly becomes a surreal, nightmarish journey through a seemingly endless succession of rooms containing a vast array of artifacts and landscapes, until at last the narrator finds himself outside, on a snow-covered street that turns out to be not France, but contemporary Soviet Russia. Realizing his predicament, the man strips off his clothes and all signs of identification, but he is arrested and, he tells us in summary, suffers greatly before he is able to escape once more abroad.

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