Signs and Symbols

For the fourth time in as many years they were confronted with the problem
of what birthday present to bring a young man who was incurably deranged
in his mind. He had no desires. 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 been married already for a long time; a
score of years had elapsed, and now they were quite old. Her drab gray
hair was done anyhow. 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 fault- finding
light of spring days. Her husband, who in the old country had been a
fairly successful businessman, was now wholly dependent on his brother
Isaac, a real American of almost forty years standing. They seldom saw him
and had nicknamed him ” the Prince.”
That Friday everything went wrong. The underground train lost its life
current between two stations, and for a quarter of an hour one could hear
nothing but the dutiful beating of one’s heart and the rustling of
newspapers.  The bus they had to take next kept them waiting for ages; and
when it did come, it was crammed with garrulous high-school children. It
was raining hard 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 blotched with acne,
ill-shaven, sullen, and confused), 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 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.
She waited for her husband to open his umbrella and then took his arm. He
kept clearing his throat in a special resonant way he had 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 half-dead unfledged bird was helplessly twitching in a
During the long ride to the subway station, she and her husband did not
exchange a word; and every time she glanced at his old hands (swollen
veins, brown-spotted skin), clasped and twitching upon the handle of his
umbrella, she felt the mounting pressure of tears. As she looked around
trying to hook her mind onto something, it gave her a kind of soft shock,
a mixture of compassion and wonder, to notice that one of the passengers,
a girl with dark hair and grubby red toenails, was weeping on the shoulder
of an older woman. Whom did that woman resemble? She resembled Rebecca
Borisovna, whose daughter had married one of the Soloveichik – in Minsk,
years ago.
The last time he had tried to do it, his method had been, in the doctor’s
words, a masterpiece of inventiveness; he would have succeeded, had not an
envious fellow patient thought he was learning to fly – and stopped him.
What he really wanted to do was to tear a hole in his world and escape.
The system of his delusions had been the subject of an elaborate paper in
a scientific monthly, but long before that she and her husband had puzzled
it out for themselves. “Referential mania,” Herman Brink had called it. In
these very rare cases the patient imagines that everything happening
around him is a veiled reference to his personality and existence. He
excludes real people from the conspiracy – because he considers himself to
be so much more intelligent than other men. Phenomenal nature shadows him
wherever he goes. Clouds in the staring sky transmit to one another, by
means of slow signs, incredibly detailed information regarding him. His
inmost thoughts are discussed at nightfall, in manual alphabet, by darkly
gesticulating trees. Pebbles or stains or sun flecks form patterns
representing in some awful way messages which he must intercept.
Everything is a cipher and of everything he is the theme. Some of the
spies are detached observers, such are glass surfaces and still pools;
others, such as coats in store windows, are prejudiced witnesses, lynchers
at heart; others again (running water, storms) are hysterical to the point
of insanity, have a distorted opinion of him and grotesquely misinterpret
his actions. He must be always on his guard and devote every minute and
module of life to the decoding of the undulation of things. The very air
he exhales is indexed and filed away. If only the interest he provokes
were limited to his immediate surroundings – but alas it is not! With
distance the to rents of wild scandal increase in volume and volubility.
The silhouettes of his blood corpuscles, magnified a million times, flit
over vast plains; and still farther, great mountains of unbearable
solidity and height sum up in terms of granite and groaning firs the
ultimate truth of his being.
When they emerged from the thunder and foul air of the subway, the last
dregs of the day were mixed with the street lights. She wanted to buy some
fish for supper, so she handed him the basket of jelly jars, telling him
to go home. He walked up to the third landing and then remembered he had
given her his keys earlier in the day.
In silence he sat down on the steps and in silence rose when some ten
minutes later she came, heavily trudging upstairs, wanly smiling, shaking
her head in deprecation of her silliness. They entered their two-room flat
and he at once went to the mirror. Straining the corners of his mouth
apart by means of his thumbs, with a horrible masklike grimace, he removed
his new hopelessly uncomfortable dental plate and severed the long tusks
of saliva connecting him to it. He read his Russian-language newspaper
while she laid the table. Still reading, he ate the pale victuals that
needed no teeth. She knew his moods ands was also silent.
When he had gone to bed, she remained in the living room with her pack of
soiled cards and her old albums. Across the narrow yard where the rain
tinkled in the dark against some battered ash cans, windows were blandly
alight and in one of them a blacktrousered man with his bare elbows
raised could be seen lying supine on a untidy bed. She pulled the blind
down and examined the photographs. As a baby he looked more surprised than
most babies. From a fold in the album, a German maid they had had in
Leipzig and her fat-faced fiance fell out. Minsk, the Revolution, Leipzig,
Berlin, Leipzig, a slanting house front badly out of focus. Four years
old, in a park: moodily, shyly, with puckered forehead, looking away from
an eager squirrel as he would from any other stranger. Aunt Rosa, a
fussy, angular, wild-eyed old lady, who had lived in a tremulous world of
bad news, bankruptcies, train accidents, cancerous growths–until the
Germans put her to death, together with all the people she had worried
about. Age 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. He again, aged about eight, already difficult 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 branch of a leafless tree.
Aged ten: the year they left Europe. The shame, the pity, the humiliating
difficulties, the ugly, vicious, backward children he was with in that
special school. And then came a time in his life, coinciding with a long
convalescence after pneumonia, when those little phobias of his which his
parents had stubbornly regarded as the eccentricities of a prodigiously
gifted child hardened as it were into a dense tangle of logically
interacting illusions, making him totally inaccessible to normal minds.
This, and much more, she accepted – for after all living did mean accepting
the loss of one joy after another, not even joys in her case – mere
possibilities of improvement. She thought of the endless waves of pain
that for some reason or other she and her husband had to endure; of the
invisible giants hurting her boy in some unimaginable fashion; of the
incalculable amount of tenderness contained in the world; of the fate of
this tenderness, which is either crushed, or wasted, or transformed into
madness; of neglected children humming to themselves in unswept corners;
of beautiful weeds that cannot hide from the farmer and helplessly have to
watch the shadow of his simian stoop leave mangled flowers in its wake, as
the monstrous darkness approaches.
It was past midnight when from the living room she heard her husband moan;
and presently he staggered in, wearing over his nightgown the old overcoat
with astrakhan collar which he much preferred to the nice blue bathrobe he
“I can’t sleep,” he cried.
“Why,” she asked, “why can’t you sleep? You were tired.”
“I can’t sleep because I am dying,” he said and lay down on the couch.
“Is it your stomach? Do you want me to call Dr. Solov?”
“No doctors, no doctors,” he moaned, “To the devil with doctors! We must
get him out of there quick. Otherwise we’ll be responsible. Responsible!”
he repeated and hurled himself into a sitting position, both feet on the
floor, thumping his forehead with his clenched fist.
“All right,” she said quietly, “we shall bring him home tomorrow morning.”
“I would like some tea,” said her husband and retired to the bathroom.
Bending with difficulty, she retrieved some playing cards and a photograph
or two that had shipped from the couch to the floor: knave of hearts, nine
of spades, ace of spades, Elsa and her bestial beau. He returned in high
spirits, saying in a loud voice:
“I have it all figured out.  We will give him the bedroom. Each of us will
spend part of the night near him and the other part on this couch. By
turns. We will have the doctor see him at least twice a week. It does not
matter what the Prince says. He won’t have to say much anyway because it
will come out cheaper.”
The telephone rang. It was an unusual hour for their telephone to ring.
His left slipper had come off and he groped for it with his heel and toe
as he stood in the middle of the room, and childishly, toothlessly, gaped
at his wife. Having more English than he did, it was she who attended to
“Can I speak to Charlie,” said a girl’s dull little voice.
“What number you want? No. That is not the right number.”
The receiver was gently cradled. Her hand went to her old tired heart.
He smiled a quick smile and immediately resumed his excited monologue.
They would fetch him as soon as it was day. Knives would have to be kept
in a locked drawer. Even at his worst he presented no danger to other
The telephone rang a second time. The same toneless anxious young voice
asked for Charlie.
“You have the incorrect number. I will tell you what you are doing: you
are turning the letter O instead of the zero.”
They sat down to their unexpected festive midnight tea. The birthday
present stood on the table. He sipped noisily; his face was flushed; every
now and then he imparted a circular motion to his raised glass so as to
make the sugar dissolve more thoroughly . The vein on the side of his bald
head where there was a large birthmark stood out conspicuously and,
although he had shaved that morning, a silvery bristle showed on his chin.
While she poured him another glass of tea, he put on his spectacles and
re-examined with pleasure the luminous yellow, green, red little jars.
His clumsy moist lips spelled out their eloquent labels: apricot, grape,
beech plum, quince. He had got to crab apple, when the telephone rang
written by Vladimir Nabokov


2 thoughts on “Signs and Symbols

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