Currently David Roberts and I are co-leading an online discussion group. We’re discussing two stories; one is Vladimir Nabokov’s “Symbols and Signs,” first published in the New York in May of 1948. I believe this is Nabokov’s post-Holocaust story. I asked the group (80 or so people from around the world) to help compile historical and geopolitical references. At the bottom of this post you will see the helpful contributions of Jacqueline Schaalje, who is Dutch (I believe). Above that (just below) are my thoughts.
To my mind, the main reason to picking up the historical clues Nabokov left for us is to get some help in deciding whether the son’s Referential Mania is meant to be understood as a response to historical trauma.A key phrasing is this:“…until the Germans put her to death, together with all the people she had worried about…”It’s possible that Nabokov could mean something other than the genocide of the early 1940s but this “all” is a pretty definitive marker. Did the Germans put Slavs, non-Jewish communists, and “the insane” (forgive the phrase—it’s theirs) to death in the holocaust? Yes, but Borisovna and Soloveichik are both Jewish family names from the Minsk area, and when Nabokov gives the mother of the bride the name “Rebecca” he seems to be sending us yet another sign. “Isaac” and “Rebecca” became names anti-Semites attached stereotypically to any Jew at a certain point during the war—more arbitrary signs. So indulge me, please: what if these are Jews, whose family suffered genocide, now having fled to America and attempting, unsuccessfully, to integrate and assimilate? Could that traumatic history cause “Referential Mania” (in a story whose title beckons toward not referentiality but symbolism)? The wrong number (oh, that modern [late 1940s] young voice on the phone, asking impolitely/ungrammatically for “Charlie”) is a frightening intrusion. What might in another context seem normal American talk (“Can I speak to Charlie?”) is a cause for further eerie alienation. Mary Armour wrote: “The family is described as what we would now call severely traumatised. They are polylingual (Russian, French, German, English) and possibly no language is adequate now, no system of signification helps.” What does it mean—as a matter of understanding the mental illness of an individual—for a family as a whole to be “severely traumatized”? This is a story published in 1948, in what we call “the immediate aftermath.” I think this is Nabokov’s post-Holocaust story.
I’m making a list of the European references for our convenience:1) “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.”
From this we know the family hasn’t been long in New York, not as long as his brother anyhow, and the husband hasn’t been able to establish himself as well as “The Prince,” perhaps because of the language problem or because of the problems with the son, we don’t know. There are a few references to the couple’s struggles with English later on: “Since she knew more English than he, she always attended to the calls.” And: “His clumsy, moist lips spelled out their eloquent labels—apricot, grape, beach plum, quince. He had got to crab apple when the telephone rang again.” The husband reads English slowly. Note: We shouldn’t assume that the family is Jewish, because of the Biblical names; besides, some people change their name in a new country.
2) “Whom did that woman resemble? She resembled Rebecca Borisovna, whose daughter had married one of the Soloveichiks—in Minsk, years ago.”Years ago they probably lived in Minsk. Minsk is now in Belarus. The family could have lived in another country before coming to the US — again, we don’t know that at this point. Nabokov’s own family moved to England, then lived in Berlin and Nabokov ended up in France, before they all emigrated to the US.3) “He read his Russian-language newspaper while she laid the table.” The husband still prefers to read his news in Russian.4) “When he had gone to bed, she remained in the living room with her pack of soiled playing cards and her old photograph albums.” Both those cards and her old albums are probably important relics brought from their former life abroad.5) “She pulled the blind down and examined the photographs. As a baby, he looked more surprised than most babies. A photograph of a German maid they had had in Leipzig and her fat-faced fiancé fell out of a fold of the album. She turned the pages of the book: Minsk, the Revolution, Leipzig, Berlin, Leipzig again, a slanting house front, badly out of focus. Here was the boy when he was four years old, in a park, shyly, with puckered forehead, looking away from an eager squirrel, as he would have from any other stranger. Here was Aunt Rosa, a fussy, angular, wild-eyed old lady, who had lived in a tremulous world of bad news, bankruptcies, train accidents, and cancerous growths until the Germans put her to death, together with all the people she had worried about. The boy, aged six—that was when he drew wonderful birds with human hands and feet, and suffered from insomnia like a grown-up man. His cousin, now a famous chess player. The boy again, aged about eight, already hard to understand, afraid of the wallpaper in the passage, afraid of a certain picture in a book, which merely showed an idyllic landscape with rocks on a hillside and an old cart wheel hanging from the one branch of a leafless tree. Here he was at ten—the year they left Europe.”So here we get the whole family history at last, including their stay in Germany where they had to flee the war again, “a tremulous world”. (They fled Russia because of the Revolution, then Germany from the Nazis — again this is like Nabokov’s own family, but Nabokov’s family was upper class from St Petersburg.).We also learn the year they left Europe. If they left when the son was ten, and they came straight to the US from Germany: “She remembered the shame, the pity, the humiliating difficulties of the journey, and the ugly, vicious, backward children he was with in the special school where he had been placed after they arrived in America.” — they must have been in the US for at least eight years? I don’t know how old the son is at the present moment in the story. “his poor face sullen, confused, ill-shaven, and blotched with acne.” The son is a young man that needs to shave but he still has acne, so he could be about 18-20?