Vladimir Nabokov. Signs and Symbols
© 1948 Copyright by Vladimir Nabokov
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
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
sanatorium. There they waited again; and instead of their boy
shuffling into the room as he usually did (his poor face
botched 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 puddle.
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 Soloveichiks-- 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 as
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 torrents 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
streetlights. 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 and 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 black-trousered man with his bare elbows raised could be
seen lying supine on an 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
housefront 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 had.
"I can't sleep," he cried.
"Why," she asked, "why can't you sleep? You were so
"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
"I would like some tea," said her husband, and retired to
Bending with difficulty, she retrieved some playing cards
and a photograph or two that had slipped 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 calls.
"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
"It frightened me," she said.
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 people.
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 reexamined 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 again.