Tag Archives: Yuri Leving

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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Paratexts Gone Wrong

Today in my Intro to English Studies course we are talking about paratexts, the materials that surround the text (front and back matter, illustrations, book design, advertisements, etc.) but are not part of the text proper. Nabokov, as we know, was fascinated by paratexts. He liked to include sham versions of them within his novels (John Ray Jr.’s foreword in Lolita, Kinbote’s foreword, commentary, and index in PF, the editorial interruptions in Ada) and penned a number of authentic prefaces and afterwords, as well. Sometimes he intruded into the publisher’s paratext, as in the Putnam’s first edition of Pale Fire, where, as James Ramey has shown, he hid the crown jewels of Zembla, represented by a black crown on the title page, just below the author’s name and just above the Putnam’s logo.

When it came to cover illustrations, Nabokov strongly preferred plain text on a simple background to any kind of representative image of characters or situations, and the publishers of his first editions largely adhered to his wishes. Later editions, however, were beyond Nabokov’s control. In Lolita: The Story of a Cover Girl (Print Books, 2013), John Bertram and Yuri Leving present a brilliant overview of the ways book designers have molded, and been molded by, the public’s image of Lolita (the character). Also be sure to check out Dieter Zimmer’s web gallery of Lolita editions from around the world.

For all the egregious distortions and vulgarities apparent on the covers of books, we should not forget the damage that can be done by the blurbs and summaries on the back cover. One of the worst is from the 1989 Vintage paperback of Despair. (The whole Vintage 1989 reissue was, by the way, a design nightmare: awful photographs, ugly colors, inaccurate lepidoptera, etc.) The description reads thus:

Extensively revised by Nabokov in 1965–thirty years after its original publication–DESPAIR is the wickedly inventive and richly derisive story of Hermann, a man who undertakes the perfect crime: his own murder.

Immediately below this we find a blurb from Newsweek:

“A beautiful mystery plot, not to be revealed.”

But of course, one of the main elements of that plot–an element that is not fully revealed until quite late in the novel–is Hermann’s plan to murder his alleged double, Felix, and collect the insurance money. So the Vintage description does, in fact, reveal an essential element of the plot that Newsweek says should not be revealed!

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