Symbols and Signs – Responding to Nabokov

The first thing I noticed were the pronouns. ‘They’ were a unit, a couple, a team. Their tragedies, like their lives, were shared, as they leave the world alone to deal with them together. ‘She’ slips into a world that she never acknowledges is hers, and yet, cannot be anything but, for he exists only in it. ‘He’ is a role –as we suspect she is, too- but he is unaware of the role he has become in her eyes, as she is unaware that he was born this role, while she will always play hers. Willingly, unsuccessfully –how else?-, earnestly.

Each pronoun has a different story and history. I was reminded of Bleak House. Dickens introduces us to Lady Dedlock. First, we learn that she is at ‘the new place’. Later, we learn that the new place is her town home. Finally, we are told that she is with her husband, at the new place, which is their town home. The details are weaved into the narrative in a way that forces the reader to question the assumptions that they bring to the story. The contours of Lady Dedlock’s character are shaded with every detail that is revealed. The details only work because of the assumptions they are carved from.

What Dickens does with place, and situation, Nabokov appears to do with pronoun. The many contours of the (nameless) wife are shaped by the pronouns she inhabits. ‘They’ is a joint decision that she has made alone.

Everything is possible in Nabokov’s story; all is believable. The twitching bird is real because everyone notices it, but for a second it is as if only she does, and then they walk away. ‘Symbols and Signs’ might have well been called ‘Snapshots of a Day’. Nabokov collects the details that are so easily discarded, or forgotten; the existence we deny, the textures we ignore, or deem insignificant, are the ones he writes his characters with. It was like he was saying, “Look here. We all know you think you see the world a certain way. But remember this?”

His words unnerve, but they soothe, as well. I remember a time when I was a child, when I measured the air I breathed in and out. I saw it in its volume, as it entered my mouth and rounded itself to fill the form, becoming moister the longer I held it. I calculated a certain amount, a particular mass of it that was just wholesome enough – in how perfect the ratio of air to space was; how well-utilised. Nothing was wasted. When I breathed out, I watched it rise and diffuse, disappearing into the nothingness of everything else. Nabokov writes, “The very air he exhales is indexed and filed away”.

Around the same time, I became convinced of the importance of saying a number of phrases in even numbers. I would say goodnight to my mother. She would say goodnight to me. I would say goodnight to her, again; softer, this time, afraid of suspicion, but nevertheless firm in my resolution to stick to a structure of twos, praying as I finished the words that she would not respond again, because then I would have to, and that would make it three. And four times is just asking to be found out, but if it came to it, I would have said a fourth goodnight.

It was also customary for us to say “sleep well”, after wishing each other goodnight. One day, I had said it twice when she asked, “Why did you say it again?” When I was quiet, she gently said, “Sleep well”, and I walked to my room, where I said it to myself twice more.

Over the last year I’ve grown more and more convinced that writing is a process of creation, not representation. But ‘Symbols and Signs’ welcomed me into Mr and Mrs Nameless’ apartment, where such a notion seemed almost blasphemous. The streets and subways, sanatorium receptions and stairways that Nabokov talks off are perfectly, adequately real. He writes as Mrs Nameless sees, and she sees her husband close the umbrella, then open it; she sees the swollen veins of his hand as it holds it, she feels the beating of her heart, only to notice the rustling of newspapers a second later. Almost as if in response to what is created to remember, Nabokov seems to write what so often exists, but is forgotten.

The reader detects what can only be described as a feeling of defiance in his writing. The referential mania that he describes seemed to me the most elegantly-delivered criticism of the nature of writing. Whose writing, when writing, I do not know. “The clouds in the sky which transmit to each other incredibly detailed information regarding him”, say far less than the picture which was “badly out of focus”, or the weight with which the photograph of “her fat-faced fiancé fell out of a fold of the album”. That the writer strives to create a form that the reader may inhabit is what I believe Nabokov is quick to call hogwash – there already exists a world that they are so far removed from; reintroduce them to it, remind them of its colours and shapes; its sounds and movements; show them what they already see.

We are never told anything about the wife, but we become acquainted with how she sees places, and people, and details, and we begin to believe that that is the best, most authentic description of a character. However, when “she put the receiver down gently, and her hand went to her heart”, and she says, “It frightened me”, one can only wonder whether Nabokov’s idea of the most honest story-telling can come from only a certain kind of character, and thus, a certain kind of writer – a character who is removed enough, ignored enough, insignificant enough, that she sees everything. A character who would be frightened by the ringing of the phone, by having to speak, to say words which were simple, clear; words which were in response to something she was asked, words which had to be said, not thought of, like Mrs Sol, Isaac, Rebecca Borisovna, or Aunt Rosa.

There is only one way to read this story; there is only way to inhabit this world, and I am soon acutely aware of the fact that I have dressed myself in the pronouns she has so carefully amassed.

In the small, two-bedroom apartment, I become the wife on the couch. I hold the pictures between softly wrinkled palms, watching my son grow up, seeing, as I had seen years before, what I was told by the world years later. Mine is an anticipated existence that time long ago washed its hands off. There is no beginning, middle, or end to this story, because they only exist when they can say that they have caught their character off-guard.

Read the piece here – http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1948/05/15/symbols-and-signs

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