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April 21, 2017 12:13 PM   Subscribe

Friday fiction: Symbols and Signs by Vladimir Nabokov. In a letter to Katharine A. White, The New Yorker’s fiction editor at the time, Nabokov said that “a second (main) story is woven into, or placed behind, the superficial semitransparent one.” What that story is, he never specified. Enjoy it for its graceful evocation of everyday life, of the struggle to find footing amidst loss and for the mysterious chill of its ending.

Mary Gaitskill reads the story followed by a discussion with fiction editor Deborah Treisman.

Sidenotes from that discussion: When the story was first published in the New Yorker, the fiction editor re-titled it to "Symbols and Signs", Nabokov would later recorrect it to "Signs and Symbols." Also the reference in the story to the painting of cartwheels on trees? It could well be Breughel's Triumph of death.
posted by storybored (9 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
 
It seems like we always assume that the concealed or deep meaning of a piece of literature is more important than the surface one. Surely some meta-fictionalist has experimented with embedding a red herring beneath the surface?
posted by thelonius at 1:14 PM on April 21 [3 favorites]


I always took that story as an extended riff on readers who look for symbology and hidden meanings when none is intended.
posted by The Whelk at 1:59 PM on April 21 [3 favorites]


The walrus was Vladimir.
posted by Sangermaine at 2:12 PM on April 21


As I wrote here, that's one of the best stories Nabokov (or anyone) ever wrote; that link has discussion of both the story and the reading. Also, as I said there, I find it highly implausible that the “picture in a book” is Breughel’s Triumph of Death—one look at it makes it impossible to imagine its being called “an idyllic landscape.”
posted by languagehat at 2:24 PM on April 21 [4 favorites]


Surely some meta-fictionalist has experimented with embedding a red herring beneath the surface?

By what standard would it be a "red herring?" This assumes some final, settled "truth" about the story can be objectively assessed.
posted by kewb at 3:46 AM on April 22 [1 favorite]


languagehat, I'm curious to hear why you think it's one of the best stories ever written. In your blog post, I mainly see a discussion of some of the language... unless that's what you meant?

I don't even disagree: it's beautifully phrased and it certainly feels like there's something hidden under the surface, but I don't have enough short story experience to compare! So I'd love to hear a more informed opinion on the story and its significance.
posted by archagon at 10:21 PM on April 22


GOh it's beautiful, it's very easily in the top tier of short stories in English
, and I think part of that is ...part of the joke? It's so evocative and imagery laden and shimmery and lovely and it has to has to be about to something other. But it's not. It's like this extended riff on beautiful prose and symbolic phrasing all leading to something, but there isn't anything! It's just two parents going to visit their son in an institution. It's your madness to see symbols everywhere and connections making it anything other then that. The red herring is a red herring,
posted by The Whelk at 10:54 PM on April 22 [2 favorites]


> languagehat, I'm curious to hear why you think it's one of the best stories ever written. In your blog post, I mainly see a discussion of some of the language... unless that's what you meant?

Well, that's part of it—great use of language is vitally important to me (I'm not a fan of writers with lousy sentences but exciting stories)—and The Whelk has a good description of another part of it, but I don't think I can define it for you any better than that. It's like falling in love: you read a story or poem and you just know. Also, you read it again and again and never get tired of it.
posted by languagehat at 11:49 AM on April 23


Like that's part of the joke? You can't take a beautifully written little story about a simple thing you need a whole web of meta mystery and symbols and red herrings and well-

what if everything was exactly as it seems.
posted by The Whelk at 11:58 PM on April 23 [2 favorites]


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