“Symbols and Signs,” a story by Vladimir Nabokov

“Symbols and Signs”

by

Vladimir Nabokov


 

For the fourth time in as many years, they were confronted with the problem of what birthday present to take to a young man who was incurably deranged in his mind. Desires he had none. 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 his abstract world. After eliminating a number of articles that might offend him or frighten him (anything in the gadget line, for instance, was taboo), his parents chose a dainty and innocent trifle—a basket with ten different fruit jellies in ten little jars.

At the time of his birth, they had already been married for a long time; a score of years had elapsed, and now they were quite old. Her drab gray hair was pinned up carelessly. She wore cheap black dresses. Unlike other women of her age (such as Mrs. Sol, their next-door neighbor, whose face was all pink and mauve with paint and whose hat was a cluster of brookside flowers), she presented a naked white countenance to the faultfinding light of spring. Her husband, who in the old country had been a fairly successful businessman, was now, in New York, wholly dependent on his brother Isaac, a real American of almost forty years’ standing. They seldom saw Isaac and had nicknamed him the Prince.

That Friday, their son’s birthday, everything went wrong. The subway train lost its life current between two stations and for a quarter of an hour they could hear nothing but the dutiful beating of their hearts and the rustling of newspapers. The bus they had to take next was late and kept them waiting a long time on a street corner, and when it did come, it was crammed with garrulous high-school children. It began to rain as they walked up the brown path leading to the sanitarium. There they waited again, and instead of their boy, shuffling into the room, as he usually did (his poor face sullen, confused, ill-shaven, and blotched with acne), a nurse they knew and did not care for appeared at last and brightly explained that he had again attempted to take his life. He was all right, she said, but a visit from his parents might disturb him. The place was so miserably understaffed, and things got mislaid or mixed up so easily, that they decided not to leave their present in the office but to bring it to him next time they came.

Outside the building, she waited for her husband to open his umbrella and then took his arm. He kept clearing his throat, as he always did when he was upset. They reached the bus-stop shelter on the other side of the street and he closed his umbrella. A few feet away, under a swaying and dripping tree, a tiny unfledged bird was helplessly twitching in a puddle. Continue reading ““Symbols and Signs,” a story by Vladimir Nabokov”

Advertisements

Tomer Hanuka’s film posters for Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita

lolita_reg72.jpglolita_var72.jpg

Happy Thanksgiving! Here’s a bunch of literary recipes and a painting

Merry Family, Jan Steen, 1688
Merry Family, Jan Steen, 1688

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Turkey Twelve Ways

Gordon Lish’s Chicken Soup

Zora Neale Hurston’s Mulatto Rice

Roberto Bolaño’s Brussels Sprouts with Lemon

Ian McEwan’s Fish Stew

James Joyce’s Burnt Kidney Breakfast

Herman Melville’s Whale Steaks

Ernest Hemingway’s Absinthe Cocktail, Death in the Afternoon

Vladimir Nabokov’s Eggs à la Nabocoque

Thomas Pynchon’s Banana Breakfast

Cormac McCarthy’s Turtle Soup

Robert Crumb’s Macaroni Casserole

Truman Capote’s Caviar-Smothered Baked Potatoes with 80-Proof Russian Vodka

Emily Dickinson’s Cocoanut Cake

Thomas Jefferson’s Vanilla Ice Cream

Charles Dickens’s Own Punch

Ben Jonson’s Egg Wine

Willam Faulkner’s Hot Toddy

Christmas Bonus:  George Orwell’s Recipes for Plum Cake and Christmas Pudding

Eggs à la Nabocoque

Vladimir Nabokov’s recipe for eggs (à la Nabocoque, natch)–

Boil water in a saucepan (bubbles mean it is boiling!). Take two eggs (for one person) out of the refrigerator. Hold them under the hot tap water to make them ready for what awaits them.

Place each in a pan, one after the other, and let them slip soundlessly into the (boiling) water. Consult your wristwatch. Stand over them with a spoon preventing them (they are apt to roll) from knocking against the damned side of the pan.

If, however, an egg cracks in the water (now bubbling like mad) and starts to disgorge a cloud of white stuff like a medium in an oldfashioned seance, fish it out and throw it away. Take another and be more careful.

After 200 seconds have passed, or, say, 240 (taking interruptions into account), start scooping the eggs out. Place them, round end up, in two egg cups. With a small spoon tap-tap in a circle and hen pry open the lid of the shell. Have some salt and buttered bread (white) ready. Eat.

V.N.
November 18, 1972

Happy Thanksgiving! Here’s a bunch of literary recipes and a Bosch painting

Enjoy Thanksgiving with this menu of literary recipes:

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Turkey Twelve Ways

Gordon Lish’s Chicken Soup

Zora Neale Hurston’s Mulatto Rice

Ian McEwan’s Fish Stew

James Joyce’s Burnt Kidney Breakfast

Herman Melville’s Whale Steaks

Ernest Hemingway’s Absinthe Cocktail, Death in the Afternoon

Vladimir Nabokov’s Eggs à la Nabocoque

Thomas Pynchon’s Banana Breakfast

Cormac McCarthy’s Turtle Soup

Robert Crumb’s Macaroni Casserole

Truman Capote’s Caviar-Smothered Baked Potatoes with 80-Proof Russian Vodka

Emily Dickinson’s Cocoanut Cake

Thomas Jefferson’s Vanilla Ice Cream

Charles Dickens’s Own Punch

Ben Jonson’s Egg Wine

Willam Faulkner’s Hot Toddy

Christmas Bonus:  George Orwell’s Recipes for Plum Cake and Christmas Pudding

What did Nabokov do to prepare himself for the ordeals of life?

IMG_8335

From a slim profile based on Nabokov published in The New York Times Book Review in 1972. You can read the whole thing here—however, the NYTBR’s edit is different from the text above, which comes from Strong Opinions. In his brief preface to the Strong Opinions version of the interview, Nabokov notes that the questions’ presentation in the NYTBR’s “version would have been perfect had they not been interspersed with unnecessary embellishment (chitchat about living writers, for instance).

Who are the great American writers Nabokov most admired?

img_8263

From a 1966 interview between Vladimir Nabokov and Alfred Appel, Jr., originally published in Wisconsin Studies in Contemporary Literature and reprinted in Strong Opinions. 

If Nabokov ruled any modern industrial state absolutely, what would he abolish?

image

From Vladimir Nabokov’s 1969 interview with James Mossman for BBC2’s Review. Reprinted in the same year in The Listener, and collected in Strong Opinions.

Nabokov’s Strong Opinions (Book acquired, 7.30.2015–and an Iris Murdoch book I should’ve acquired)

image

I picked up a hardback copy of Strong Opinions a few weeks back. I was browsing Nabokov titles as I was coming to the end of Pale Fire. I’ve shared some excerpts from this collection of interviews (&c.) and will likely share more.

I only know the specific date because I tweeted a pic of an Irish Murdoch novel I should’ve picked up while I was there.

One of the functions of all my novels is to prove that the novel in general does not exist (Nabokov)

image

From a 1968 interview with Nicholas Graham. Reproduced in Strong Opinions.

Did Nabokov know Samuel Beckett in Paris?

IMG_8157

From Vladimir Nabokov’s 1970 interview with Alfred Appel. Originally published in Novel, A Forum on Fiction and republished in Strong Opinions. 

Is it true that Nabokov called Hemingway and Conrad “writers of books for boys”?

IMG_7929

From a 1964 Playboy interview. Republished in Strong Opinions.

Nabokov, in answer to the question: What scenes one would like to have filmed

IN ANSWER TO THE QUESTION: WHAT SCENES ONE WOULD LIKE TO HAVE FILMED

Shakespeare in the part of the King’s Ghost.

The beheading of Louis the Sixteenth, the drums drowning his speech on the scaffold.

Herman Melville at breakfast, feeding a sardine to his cat.

Poe’s wedding. Lewis Carroll’s picnics.

The Russians leaving Alaska, delighted with the deal. Shot of a seal applauding.

From a 1966 interview with Alfred Appel Jr., originally published in Wisconsin Studies and reprinted in the collection Strong Opinions (1973).

Nabokov/Hardwick/Lispector (Books acquired, 7.21.2015)

I picked up Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Pale Fire on a weird whim. I mean, I quite literally passed by it in the bookshop I frequent; it was misshelved, or unshelved, really. Someone had left it in sci-fi, near the “Bs” (B-for-Ballard, if you must know). Pale Fire, eh? I thought. Can’t remember this one. Because I had never read it, somehow. An amazing novel, one I dove into after sampling a bit of Clarice Lispector’s Selected Cronicas (still sampling—this is one of those books that’s lovely to dip gently into between selections) and after failing to get through the first essay in Elizabeth Hardwick’s Seduction and Betrayal. Not sure if I can (should?) muster a “review” of Pale Fire, but it’s one of the better prepostmodern-postmodernist novels I’ve ever read—very very funny and a beautiful mindfuck.

What if we awake one day, all of us, and find ourselves utterly unable to read? (Nabokov’s Pale Fire)

We are absurdly accustomed to the miracle of a few written signs being able to contain immortal imagery, involutions of thought, new worlds with live people, speaking, weeping, laughing. We take it for granted so simply that in a sense, by the very act of brutish routine acceptance, we undo the work of the ages, the history of the gradual elaboration of poetical description and construction, from the treeman to Browning, from the caveman to Keats. What if we awake one day, all of us, and find ourselves utterly unable to read? I wish you to gasp not only at what you read but at the miracle of its being readable (so I used to tell my students). Although I am capable, through long dabbling in blue magic, of imitating any prose in the world (but singularly enough not verse – I am a miserable rhymester), I do not consider myself a true artist, save in one matter: I can do what only a true artist can do – pounce upon the forgotten butterfly of revelation, wean myself abruptly from the habit of things, see the web of the world, and the warp and the weft of that web.

From Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Pale Fire.

Man’s life, etc. (Nabokov’s Pale Fire)


From Vladimir’s novel Pale Fire.

Lolita (Nabokov’s Pale Fire)

IMG_7865