The Cruelty of Chance: Bend Sinister, 'Signs and Symbols,' 'The Vane Sisters.'

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Author: Michael Wood
Date: 1994
From: In The Magician's Doubts: Nabokov and the Risks of Fiction
Publisher: Chatto & Windus
Reprint In: Short Story Criticism(Vol. 86. )
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 12,305 words

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[(essay date 1994) In the following essay, Wood discusses connections between Bend Sinister, "Signs and Symbols," and "The Vane Sisters."]

No, wait a minute. Each mortal in the room must, momentarily, have died. But just as the fledgling artists put their own faces on their canvases, so they had perished in their own particular ways.--Jean Stafford, 'The Philosophy Lesson'1


Nabokov regularly told his readers there were no symbols in his work, and in one rather limited sense this is true, or nearly true. More precisely, what we have in Nabokov's work, as elsewhere in life, is a choice of symbolisms. We make some structures of meaning literal in relation to others; the end of the tether may be a literal or a figurative place. Nabokov's critical comments are often both haughty and too tidy, swishes of mandarin mischief, but they are also worth attending to. Lent a little patience, they can reveal discriminations they appear to ignore or rush past: a distinction, for instance, between grounded, contextual symbols (which he calls metaphors) and the sort of shopping list symbol hunters frequently have.

'The notion of symbol itself has always been abhorrent to me', Nabokov writes in a review of W W Rowe's Nabokov's Deceptive World, 1971.2 'The symbolism racket in schools attracts computerized minds but destroys plain intelligence as well as poetical sense.' However, Nabokov goes on to make clear that for him the opposite of the symbolic is not the literal but the specific and the concrete, which includes metaphor. If we see only free-floating symbols in a text (alias 'labels' or 'pointers'), delayed action devices 'supposedly planted by an idiotically sly novelist', we shall miss the whole intricate, organic show, with its 'live fragments of specific description, rudiments of metaphor, and echoes of creative emotion'. 'The fatal flaw in Mr Rowe's treatment of recurrent words ... is his regarding them as abstractions.' When words and images return in his work, Nabokov says, they return in different contexts and therefore with different meanings, colours and effects. He doesn't step into the same scene twice.

What is interesting here is Nabokov's simplification of his art, and what hides in the simplification. The 'live fragments' and 'creative emotion' are themselves broadly and rather unimaginatively symbolic, part of a highly generalized, conventional mythology, embodying assumptions about art and nature, about art as nature, which Nabokov himself elsewhere vehemently attacks. Nabokov does use symbols, even in his own sense of symbol; in his story 'Signs and Symbols', for example. At a moment of human distress he lays a damaged bird on the street: 'A few feet away, under a swaying and dripping tree, a tiny half-dead unfledged bird was helplessly twitching in a puddle'.3 The image is specific enough in its detail, and the swaying and dripping tree is clearly visualized; but the bird (tiny, unfledged, helpless) comes straight from a ready-made lexicon, a sort of Hollywood handbook of metonymy. It may, however, prove Nabokov's critical point, since we can use his own argument about abstraction to see how the image seems both loose and overloaded, a shortcut, too easy a claim on our sympathy. Further, Nabokov does of course step into the same scene twice, and more than twice; steps again and again into several favourite scenes. He is right to suggest the scenes are never exactly the same; wrong if he is saying they are entirely different, can't be connected or compared. But is this what he is saying? It seems so:

the sound of a bath being filled, say, in the world of Laughter in the Dark, is as different from the limes rustling in the rain of Speak, Memory as the Garden of Delights in Ada is from the lawns in Lolita.4

Just how different is that, though? Hugely different, is the unmistakable implication; and the context certainly suggests that only a fool could confuse or generalize such moments under the undifferentiated headings of 'water' or 'garden'. But Rowe wasn't doing that anyway, and Nabokov's language, in spite of its scornful, polemical drive, leaves the question of resemblance curiously open. Seeing this is part of what I mean by lending him our patience. But what is he up to?

He is, I think, trying to make important distinctions in a language and a tone which are too stuffy for the job; and he is trying to bury the fact that he is the idiotically sly novelist he mocks, as well as a much more interesting one. A first distinction not only concerns reading in and out of context but raises the question of what a context is; a second signals the difference between critical thinking, however subtle, and the implied, enacted, multifarious thought of a work of art. The burial of the idiot is stranger, part of a clash between Nabokov's writing practice and his image of himself; or of a clash between different practices. He regularly plants labels and pointers; leaves clues and plays games. He invites the very reader he despises, often alienates other readers, and makes the pleasure of still other readers a mystery to themselves--this book is among other things an attempt to map certain regions of that mystery. The puzzle element of Nabokov's fiction strikes me as the least compelling aspect of it, but it isn't dull or empty, and I don't think it is separable from the rest. What is extraordinarily compelling is the question of how the sly idiot, the haughty mandarin and the great, doubting magician get along together. Particularly when they meet up with, or actually become, as Nabokov did in the years immediately after the Second World War, the theorist of pain.


'So suddenly did his guards disappear that, had he been a character in fiction, he might well have wondered whether the strange doings and so on had not been some evil vision and so forth.'5 He is a character in fiction, he does wonder; but the strange doings don't go away, or cause less pain, or become less evil. A few minutes pass, and are described by the narrator as they must seem to this character. They are very long minutes, they seem like years, and are evoked with a coolness and a confidence which make the hyperbole seem almost literal, a matter of mere observation: 'Four years elapsed. Then disjointed parts of a century. Odds and ends of torn time. Say, twenty-two years in all'.

Time is stretched and torn, the guards vanish like shadows because the mind of this character is being subjected to tortures which are incompatible with what we like to think are the ordinary processes of clocks and the world. He is Adam Krug, protagonist of Nabokov's Bend Sinister 1947, a distinguished philosopher in an imaginary European country which has recently undergone a revolution. His wife has been ill and has died; the new regime, headed by an unlovely former schoolmate of Krug's, wants his support, which he refuses, in spite of pressure put upon him and his friends. The regime arrests Krug and his eight-year-old son, and separates them. Krug has no hesitation in lending his support once his son is at risk, and immediately says so. Several horrible things now happen.

A child is brought in, 'a thin frightened boy of twelve or thirteen'. His head is 'newly bandaged', hurt in some unknown but presumably clumsy and ugly act of violence for which the following grotesque excuse is offered: 'nobody was to blame, they said, he had slipped on a highly polished floor and hit his forehead against a model of Stevenson's [sic] engine in the Children's Museum'. This image is worth pausing over because of its crazy ingenuity--Nabokov's villains are often stupid but they share their author's concern for details--and because of the compassion which must creep into our reconstruction of the action behind the excuse. Children do slip on polished floors, they do hit their heads, Stephenson's Rocket, for a certain generation, was what (male) children were supposed to dream of. But this very generality, the murmur of the stereotype, shows us what is wrong. These notions concern children, not this child. He might have slipped in the Museum but he was probably beaten in a cell. Stephenson's Rocket represents an eerie attempt to evoke a conventional childhood and to borrow its innocent violence for an entirely different universe. In any case this unfortunate child is the wrong age and the wrong boy: he is Arvid Krug, son of Professor Martin Krug, not David Krug son of Professor Adam Krug. Near enough, one might think, for a brutal regime dedicated to the abolition of difference. But even the officials are embarrassed by this mistake, and there is more blundering under way.

David, it seems, has been taken to the wrong building. He was supposed to have gone to 'the best State Rest House' but has instead been delivered to a location even an icy official hesitates in describing, 'a kind of--well, Institute for Abnormal Children'. We learn of what happens in this place--it is not exactly an Institute for Abnormal Children--and Krug is finally shown a ragged amateurish film in which David appears. This is the last time Krug sees him alive, a small boy in overcoat and slippers, gazing out from the screen, meeting his father's desperate eyes, but unable to recognize them or any help or comfort, because he is only a photographed figure and cannot see beyond the flat world which contains him. He is alive because he moves, because he was alive when the film was taken; but also dead, as Barthes says photographed people always are, already a memory, since an 'accident' has occurred.6 Soon after this Krug is shown the dead boy lying in the infirmary, his face gruesomely prettified, his body hidden, a vision of harm turned into a kind of sickly art.

The murdered child had a crimson and gold turban around its head; its face was skilfully painted and powdered: a mauve blanket, exquisitely smooth, came up to its chin.

Its head, its face, its chin. This is not David, it is a statue in Kitsch; all our horror rushes back to the live boy in his last moments, to the ghastly breaking and bruising now covered up by paint and powder, turban and blanket. As so often in Nabokov, we have to imagine the worst; to use the specifics he gives us to divine the ones he withholds.

Let us return to what we see before Krug sees the film. The whole sequence is masterly, and could I think have been written by no one but Nabokov. This is style rather than signature, and we need to see how delicate and oblique and powerful the style is: it works through indirection, horror, anger, grim and hilarious burlesque and an intimate if parodic understanding of what was soon to be called the banality of evil. Nabokov said the 'main theme' of the novel was 'the beating of Krug's loving heart, the torture an intense tenderness is subjected to--and it is for the sake of the pages about David and his father that the book was written and should be read'. Critics have been unusually reluctant to follow the author in this case, and have concentrated on the philosophy and the politics of the novel. I think the philosophy is interesting, although not in obvious ways. The politics are surely trivial, not because the questions they address don't matter or because Nabokov is a mere aesthete, but because his overtly political formulations are always too broad and easy, have none of the interest and intricacy of a fully imagined political world. I'm inclined to go even further than Nabokov with regard to this book. It is some pages about David and his father, specifically the father's imagining of David's pain and fear, which lift this novel from the brilliant but rather brittle and excessively fussy realm in which it appeared to be stuck. The American philosopher Richard Rorty says 'the death of a child is Nabokov's standard example of ultimate pain',7 and we can refine this suggestion further: the pain of a child is Nabokov's dominant image of moral horror, even more unbearable than a child's death, and an emblem of everything that threatens to wreck whatever meaning and coherence life may seem to have. More specifically still, we can say that the suffering of the innocent is what unsettles all comforts for Nabokov, endlessly torments conscience and consciousness--I am thinking of the reported death of Pnin's friend Mira Beloshkin in Buchenwald, but also of the exclusion and suicide of Lucette in Ada, a title which among other things evokes the idea of hell. The child in Bend Sinister and elsewhere is both an immediate victim and the delegate of other innocents. The child's pain--our awareness of the child's pain--is where our moral world ends.

Krug learns about the atrocious mistake regarding David from one Crystalsen, 'Second Secretary of the Council of Elders', and initially identified only as possessing a 'red face, blue eyes, tall starched collar'. They are walking towards a police car which will take them to the place where David is being kept. The passage begins in innocuous-seeming indirect speech, but very soon modulates into other modes, particularly, abruptly, that of a direct address from the speaker which registers Krug's distraught responses without actually reporting them. Even when Krug hits Crystalsen we are told not about the blow but about Crystalsen's activities with his handkerchief.

It was quite clear that something had gone dreadfully wrong; the child had been taken to a kind of--well, Institute for Abnormal Children--instead of the best State Rest House, as had been arranged. You are hurting my wrist, sir. Unfortunately, the director of the Institute had understood, as who would not, that the child delivered to him was one of the so-called 'Orphans', now and then used to serve as a 'release-instrument' for the benefit of the most interesting inmates with a so-called 'criminal' record (rape, murder, wanton destruction of State property etc). The theory--and we are not here to discuss its worth, and you shall pay for my cuff if you tear it--was that if once a week the really difficult patients could enjoy the possibility of venting in full their repressed yearnings (the exaggerated urge to hurt, to destroy, etc) upon some little human creature of no value to the community, then, by degrees, the evil in them would be allowed to escape, would be, so to speak, 'effundated', and eventually they would become good citizens.

The smooth flow of Crystalsen's patter is reflected in the reported speech--'unfortunately', 'as who would not'--but he also relays what must be the language and point of view of the authors and students of the 'theory'--they are the ones who speak of 'the most interesting inmates' and 'the really difficult patients'; enact government policy about what is 'evil', and what is and is not of 'value to the community'. They are also quoted (by Crystalsen) and spoofed (by Nabokov) as their vocabulary proceeds from the technical ('release-instrument') to the ludicrous ('effundated'). Deeper still in this textual trap, the language gives other games away: 'benefit', 'enjoy', 'yearnings', the implication that rape and murder are only 'so-called' crimes, that the urge to hurt and destroy is not a problem as long as it's not 'exaggerated'--all this suggests the real sadism entangled in the travesty of social theory. 'Wanton destruction of State property' seems to be a rather different sort of offence: probably just as much fun as rape and murder but more reprehensible, perhaps not even 'so-called' at all but the real thing, because socially so much more undesirable. The offhand 'now and then', almost hidden in the movement of the prose, adds its own little touch of horror.

We may sense that Crystalsen is enjoying himself, that he knows that this conversation is Krug's inferno, the ideal torment, that the idea of David caught up in such activities is worse than anything Krug has imagined. The bland abstraction of the theory functions as a kind of insolence, trivial in itself, but helping to degrade the very notion of suffering. It is at this moment that Krugh hits Crystalsen.

The experiment might be criticized, of course, but that was not the point (Crystalsen carefully wiped the blood from his mouth and offered his none too clean handkerchief to Krug--to wipe Krug's knuckles; Krug refused; they entered the car; several soldiers joined them). Well, the enclosure where the 'release games' took place was so situated that the director from his window and the other doctors and research workers, male and female (Doktor Amalia von Wytwyl, for instance, one of the most fascinating personalities you have ever met, an aristocrat, you would enjoy meeting her under happier circumstances, sure you would) from other gemütlich points of vantage, could watch the proceedings and take notes.

'Well' mimes the storyteller settling back into his stride, getting on with the good old tale. Is this man mad, or merely diabolical? Crystalsen is enjoying himself, surely, in spite of his bloody mouth, perhaps now because of his bloody mouth. The atmosphere has changed slightly though, with the 'Doktor' and the ghastly gemütlich and the cheery Americanism of 'sure you would': this is sadism as a cosy social occasion, as if it were both homely and fashionable, as if there were intimate links between certain strata in Germany and a certain heartiness in America. Nabokov's story 'Conversation Piece 1945' pursues just this connection.

A nurse led the 'orphan' down the marble steps. The enclosure was a beautiful expanse of turf, and the whole place, especially in summer, looked extremely attractive, reminding one of those open-air theatres that were so dear to the Greeks. The 'orphan' or 'little person' was left alone and allowed to roam all over the enclosure. One of the photographs showed him lying disconsolately on his stomach and uprooting a bit of turf with listless fingers (the nurse reappeared on the garden steps and clapped her hands to make him stop. He stopped). After a while the patients or 'inmates' (eight all told) were let into the enclosure. At first, they kept at a distance, eyeing the 'little person'. It was interesting to observe how the 'gang' spirit gradually asserted itself. They had been rough lawless unorganized individuals, but now something was binding them, the community spirit (positive) was conquering the individual whims (negative); for the first time in their lives they were organized ...[Nabokov's, or Crystalsen's, italics]

We move into a mode of writing Nabokov has borrowed from Joyce, and uses extensively in this novel: the deadpan parody of a highly conventional prose, in this case that of something like a genteel travel brochure ('attractive', 'so dear', 'reminding one', 'especially in the summer'). The photograph by contrast seems unadorned, unaltered: the child is disconsolate but distressingly obedient. It's as if Crystalsen had discovered a new mode of torture, the plain punch--or had forgotten for an instant the mythology he represents. The child is still anonymous, not yet David, and perhaps not David at all; although for Krug's anguish of course he can be only David, David is all children at this moment. The language then returns to its monstrous sociology: 'It was interesting to observe ...' What is observed is ostensibly how individuals form a group, in effect how a handful of psychopaths become a miniature mob.

Doktor von Wytwyl used to say that this was a wonderful moment: one felt that, as she quaintly put it, 'something was really happening', or in technical language: the 'ego', he goes 'ouf' (out) and the pure 'egg' (common extract of egos) 'remains'. And then the fun began. One of the patients (a 'representative' or 'potential leader'), a heavy handsome boy of seventeen went up to the 'little person' and sat down beside him on the turf and said 'open your mouth'. The 'little person' did what he was told and with unerring precision the youth spat a pebble into the child's open mouth. (This was a wee bit against the rules, because generally speaking, all missiles, instruments, arms and so forth were forbidden).

The jokes are not very funny here, neither the cliché offered as quaintness nor the antics with eggs and egos, and the psychologist target is too easy: a sitting doctor. But Nabokov is delaying and distracting us. We are suffering with Krug but unable to get at our suffering, forced to attend to this litter of nonsense strewn in our path. A new note of coyness enters the prose ('fun', 'a wee bit against the rules'), as if the thugs were just mischievous, lovable fellows, and there is of course an anti-climax in the spitting of the pebble into the child's mouth. This is ugly and frightening, but we have been girding ourselves for worse. There is worse, much worse, we are not allowed to linger in our faint relief, and what is worse is what is not forbidden, the joyous point of the whole exercise, now revealed not only as sadistic, but as gloatingly dedicated to the idea of its own perfection, to the well-oiled rhetoric which is able to make mutilation and murder sound like therapy.

Sometimes the 'squeezing game' started at once after the 'spitting' game but in other cases the development from harmless pinching and poking or mild sexual investigations to limb tearing, bone breaking, deoculation, etc. took a considerable time. Deaths were of course unavoidable, but quite often the 'little person' was afterwards patched up and gamely made to return to the fray. Next Sunday, dear, you will play with the big boys again. A patched up 'little person' provided an especially satisfactory 'release'.

The smug mock-regret about the 'unavoidable' deaths is particularly unpleasant, as is the teacherly direct speech ('Next Sunday, dear ...'), but the 'mild sexual investigations' are scarier, and 'deoculation' is all the more chilling because it takes a moment for the non-Latinist to work it out. All this is part of what I mean by Nabokov's indirection. The last sentence is nastiest of all, deep into sophisticated sadism, where one enjoys not only the hurt of others but their damage, hurt on top of damage, and we may remember that for much of her novel Lolita feels like a patched up little person, Humbert especially relishing sex with her, for instance, when she has a fever. Nabokov closes this sequence by reminding us of its ultimate, intimate location: 'Now we take all this, press it into a small ball, and fit it into the centre of Krug's brain where it gently expands'. It is the expansion of this ball, I suggest, which drives Krug mad, and not, as Nabokov says, his own pity for his invented creature. Or rather, this pity is another name for the madness, and has the same result. It is not possible to imagine such tortures and stay sane; although poor Krug does, alas, stay sane long enough to see the movie.

There are, I think, two chief ethical implications in this horribly haunting episode and the grisly linguistic performances that constitute it; implications which are present in most of Nabokov's later work. One, relatively facile and slightly snobbish, is that tyrants and thugs have no taste, that evil is a form of vulgarity. This may be true in some ultimate spiritual sense, but I doubt it, and it doesn't look as if it's true in any world we are likely to inhabit. Evil is if anything more stylish than good, and to think of it as vulgar is mainly a way of refusing to contemplate its attractions--and of making its occasional, fortunate vulgarity seem more important than it is. The banality of evil is a different matter, but at times Nabokov seems to mask his understanding of it in an aesthete's shudder.

The other implication is very powerful, and very difficult to follow out, because it takes us beyond words. It is that evil is literally unspeakable; that all speech about it incurs and legitimizes a conversation that should never have taken place--as if we were to discuss the pros and cons of Hitler's racial policy, or of torturing little children. If we need to debate these things, if we can debate these things, we are already morally lost, adrift in a limbo of ethical abstraction. Thus it is morally obtuse to think that Lolita is an immoral book; but even more obtuse to think it is a book with a produceable, paraphrasable moral. A German student appears briefly in Speak, Memory, a 'well-bred, quiet, bespectacled' fellow whose 'hobby' is capital punishment, that is, watching it and taking pictures of it.8 It is as much a feature of Nabokov's ethics as it is of his style that this psychopathic interest should be described as the harmless pursuit of a 'young collector' who although he has 'attended a few passable hangings in the Balkans and a well-advertised although rather bleak and mechanical guillotinade ... on the Boulevard Arago', has so far not been lucky enough to 'see something really good'. He expects 'great things' from a beheading in Regensburg, but is severely disappointed. It's true that Nabokov goes on to imagine the collector's good fortune during the Hitler period, so we can't really miss his moral point. But the point is chiefly made in the language he uses for the young man's earnest enthusiasm, the imitation of German sincerity; the enormity lurks in the gaps of this idiom.

What Nabokov's fiction offers us, among all its high jinks and genuine lightness of heart, is a range of images and narratives of brutality and horror, instances rather than propositions or arguments. The Holocaust itself, I suggest, is figured in Nabokov as a recurring massacre or mutilation of the innocent; it is what cannot be borne, let alone performed, except by moral monsters; what cannot be spoken of, except by the monsters' witting or unwitting allies. But it is also what must be borne, because it is what there is, and culture and the mind are not entirely helpless. And whereof we cannot speak, as Wittgenstein didn't quite say, we can make pictures and stories, relays of signs and symbols.

We need to see this possibility in order to take Rorty's important reading of Nabokov's morality where it seems to lead but doesn't quite go. Rorty ascribes to Nabokov 'an inability to put up with the thought of intense pain', so that he 'does not attempt to portray Krug's pain. More than that, he refuses to countenance the reality of a pain that great'.9 This is pretty startling, in the light of what we have just read. It's true that Nabokov doesn't portray Krug's pain if by 'portray' we mean literally describe or articulate, in the sense in which Wittgenstein was using the notion of speaking about things: naming them, discussing them, making sense of them. It's true too that Nabokov does finally 'save' Krug from his 'senseless agony' (Nabokov's phrase) by letting him know he's in a novel. But what strikes us, surely, is the drastic demand Nabokov has made on our imagination, and the terrible lateness of his act of rescue. How much more pain did we want? How much more could we take? 'Refuses to countenance the reality of a pain that great' seems particularly odd, since this pain precisely is at the heart of Nabokov's sense of history and his response to it in fiction. But perhaps Rorty is just going a little too fast; or I am. 'Refuses to countenance' must mean refuses to endorse rather than refuses to acknowledge. As I suggested in my previous chapter, there is a delicate but considerable difference between accepting loss when we have to, and judging loss to be acceptable. The same goes, perhaps even more emphatically, for the facts of pain.


Nabokov published 'Signs and Symbols' in 1948. He referred to it as his story about the old Jewish couple. We don't learn directly from the work itself that the people are Jewish. The husband's brother is called Isaac, the woman has a Rebecca among her social memories, a nervous Aunt Rosa is killed by 'the Germans', 'together with all the people she had worried about'. Perhaps these hints are conclusive enough. We know the couple are immigrants in America, that they have left behind a dark and turbulent European history; that Isaac, nicknamed 'the Prince', has done well in the New World; that they speak Russian, that their English is not good. They live in a big unnamed American city. Their son, born late in the marriage and now about twenty, is in a mental hospital, 'incurably deranged in his mind'. The couple set out to visit him, taking a birthday present, a basket of ten assorted jams in little jars. They are not allowed to see him, because, they are told, he has 'again attempted to take his life'. The couple return home with their present, consider the possibility of removing their son from the hospital, having him to live with them. This is all that happens in the story. Or all but one haunting thing, which gives the work its eerie resonance, picks up and prolongs its implications, carries it beyond observation and tenderness into dizzying regions of fear and speculation.

'Signs and Symbols' was a story, Nabokov said, with an 'inside' as well as an outside, a secret figure in the carpet: 'a second (main) story is woven into, or placed behind, the superficial semitransparent one.'10 This makes the work sound more like a riddle than it probably is; and Nabokov's jostling metaphors (inside, woven, behind, surface, transparency) are perhaps misleading in other ways. In fact, the very multiplication of metaphors--Nabokov, writing in 1951 to Katharine White, an editor at the New Yorker who has refused a story of his, is being unusually explanatory--may be an indication of the difficulty of saying just what is going on. What seems to me most striking about the story is its immense shadowy background of pain and frightening possibility; not its secret but its silence. It is full of things not said, fuller than Nabokov's writing often seems; and it may help us to see what's not said elsewhere; to see that even such a talkative, explicit writer has his silences, that his silences may be larger, more eloquent, than we reckoned.

The old couple's son has been diagnosed as suffering from something called 'referential mania'--which sounds like a literary disease, even like a lot of literature. Reference become mania: an unsympathetic definition of realism. The mania might be the reader's too: what Nabokov calls 'the fatal error of looking for so-called "real life" in novels'; trying to 'reconcile the fiction of facts with the facts of fiction'. Other forms of reference would be possible, of course, and a non-manic reading might find 'some correspondence' between life and fiction, or trace the way 'pain, for instance, or dreams, or madness, or such things as kindness, mercy, justice ... are transmuted into art'.11 It's not 'life' that Nabokov resists as a category, it's 'real life', the life that claims comfortably to know it's real. In his bibliographical note to Nabokov's Dozen, 1958, for example, he is happy enough to speak of remembered life and even actual facts without apology or any sense of difficulty. 'Real life', though, appears as a sort of nasty smell, held at bay in a wince of quotation marks.12

But the young man's case is more complicated, more clinical. And his affliction is virtually all we know of him in the story; apart from a face blotched with acne and a shuffling walk, he is his mania.

In these very rare cases the patient imagines that everything 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 he must intercept. Everything is a cipher and of everything he is the theme ... He must always be on his guard and devote every minute and module of his life to the decoding of the undulation of things. The very air he exhales is indexed and filed away.13

We recognize the scenery, if not the condition. This is the animated landscape of romantic poetry, but experienced as paranoia. Clouds, trees, air (the passage continues with mentions of plains, mountains and firs) all speak, as in so many poems, but don't speak to the person. It's as if a whole region were whispering behind Wordsworth's back, and whispering about him. The absence of other people makes this seem very different from other types of paranoia; but paranoia is what it is, since it deals in secrecy and conspiracy, and finds them absolutely everywhere: 'everything around him', 'wherever he goes', 'incredibly detailed', 'inmost thoughts', 'always', 'every minute'. In his Gogol, 1944, Nabokov associated this condition, and indeed this story ('I shall have occasion to speak in quite a different book of a lunatic who constantly felt that all the parts of the landscape and movements of inanimate objects were a complex code of allusion to his own being, so that the whole universe seemed to him to be conversing about him by means of signs'14) with Gogol's 'morbid view' of a world he took to be 'alive with dark stratagems and incalculable dangers'. Nothing escapes the projected design, which Nabokov also calls 'a dense tangle of logically interacting illusions'.

The phrase 'in some awful way' is both an apparent slackness in the writing and a sort of reprieve from the meticulous, totalizing madness: the vagueness at least leaves something to our imagination. That a seeming weakness of style should look like a faint bid for sanity is not incidental in Nabokov's world, and I shall return to this troubling impression. The logical interaction of the illusions is important too, and dictionary definitions of paranoia are very revealing. 'Mental disorder,' the Oxford English Dictionary says, 'with delusions of grandeur, persecution etc; abnormal tendency to suspect and mistrust others'. There are bothersome implications here. Is there a normal tendency to suspect and mistrust others?

Etymologically (I learn from the Oxford Companion to the Mind--a splendid book, even if the title sounds as if it might have been invented by Nabokov15) paranoia means 'being out of one's mind', and apart from its clinical definition, 'has slipped into general use to refer to enhanced suspiciousness'. Only 'slipped'? A paranoid question. 'Enhanced' is rather like 'abnormal', since it seems to assume a going rate of suspicion, a steady state prior to enhancement. Clinically, paranoia is

the name given to one type of functional psychosis ... in which the patient holds a coherent, internally consistent, delusional system of beliefs, centring round the conviction that he (or, more rarely, she) is a person of great importance and is on that account being persecuted, despised, and rejected.

More rarely, she. A great deal of history is compacted into that bracket: what if you don't (have not been allowed to) feel important enough to have delusions of importance? The Companion goes on to point out that people who are not mentally ill also may have traits associated with paranoia (if they are, for example, 'opinionated, touchy, and have an idea of their own importance which the rest of the world does not endorse') and that 'paranoiac delusions bear a disconcerting, embarrassing resemblance to the beliefs held and propagated by founders of religions, by political leaders, and by some artists ...'

There is really too much to comment on here. Let's stay with the delusion of importance, and the ideas of coherence and internal consistency. What is both frightening and philosophically interesting about such a conjunction is the weird, dangerous meeting of flexibility and rigour: a necessary looseness in the concept of importance is grounded and exploited by the logical tightness of the illusion itself. How important are we? Who is to say? What sort of sense of our own importance would be delusional? This is like asking what level of distrust would be normal, and the test can only be empirical and local, external to the person, since the (coherent, consistent) delusion will be ingenious and entirely plausible in its specialized rationality, ready to bend any evidence at all to its own purpose. Prejudice, in this sense, works in exactly the same way as paranoia; or prejudice is a form of paranoia. Of course you don't see the Jews (or the Catholics or the Templars or the Arabs) at their fiendish work of running the world, their invisibility is an aspect of their power. It wouldn't be a real conspiracy if we could see it in action. But then, what sort of empirical test do we apply? The famous crazy cases are easy enough to spot. If I think I am Napoleon, or that my actions have the consequences of those of Napoleon, the delusion is clear: almost any piece of my life will serve as a test. But suppose I get the sense of my own importance slightly but disastrously wrong, find myself only just but unmistakably over the edge into paranoia. Where was the edge, what marked it? I'm not suggesting there isn't an edge, or that we couldn't recognize it practically; only that seeing the edge could be a delicate affair, and that we live, perhaps necessarily, among relatively unquestioned hierarchies and pools of opinion: agreements about what matters, what is reasonable, what is sane. Communities work in this way, but a community will feel like a conspiracy if it's against you.

And it may be against you. These matters are historical as well as psychological. Whole social groups, even whole nations, have gone crazy, taking their craziness as a norm; and to point to this craziness has been to become abnormally suspicious and mistrustful, as when one imagines the French army or the British police might forge evidence. The point is that enhanced suspiciousness may be horribly wrong, an isolating, suicidal mania; and it may be horribly right, a desperate diagnosis of a culturally improbable truth. There is no mistaking which is the case of the young man in Nabokov's story. But the possibility of the other case connects him to us, and to his parents and their history, and permits the central reflection of the story, the mother's meditation on the 'waves of pain' that constitute the world for her family. The young man is said to be 'totally inaccessible to normal minds', but there are doubts lurking even in the terrible security of that exclusion. He is painfully separate from us, but also painfully like us; inaccessible but not beyond our imagination; other but not an alien.

'After all,' his mother thinks, '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.

The old woman's thoughts have Nabokov's signature, although not his strictest style. They are a little too discursive, too dependent on merely sketched verbal gestures ('endless', 'for some reason or other', 'unimaginable', 'incalculable'--these words and phrases suggest not a relaxation, like 'in some awful way', but a determined Conradian bid for mystery) and the weeds seem sentimentalized (do they need to be 'beautiful' to catch our sympathy, would they do any better if the farmer was an elegant aesthete, or an ape who didn't stoop?). But the overall effect of the passage is strong, and there are fine touches of precision. The children hum rather than merely stand or crouch; the corners are as neglected as their occupants. The passage moves meticulously from pain to tenderness to neglect to vulnerability and helplessness, a specific train of ideas. The woman may be thinking of her own tenderness in relation to her son, wasted because unrecognized, or of a tenderness in the young man which has now been turned to madness, and the tenderness may or may not carry over directly into the images of children and flowers, but her concentration on the 'fate' of tenderness is clear. She has become her tenderness in the way her son has become his mania. The monstrous darkness collects the mystery earlier only gestured towards. It is death, the shape of the approaching farmer; it is the end and perhaps the origin of pain; it is madness and history, what consumes the son and what killed Aunt Rosa.

We don't have to be paranoid to worry about the destruction of tenderness. But to think of giants is to take up fancifully, as in a fairy-tale, a relative of the son's delusion; and to think of tenderness as undergoing a special fate, as somehow particularly placed in the sights of pain and brutality is mildly to suffer from referential mania in respect of tenderness. The dark monsters, historical and psychological, presumably don't care about tenderness or anything else, they are not subtle or human enough to target what we cherish. But if tenderness is what we choose to highlight in the world, if it is what we are, and if we believe, as many don't, that there is a large amount (an incalculable amount) of tenderness on offer, then it must seem as if tenderness is specially marked out for crushing and wasting and madness, and the hyperbole will not seem a hyperbole at all. On this wavelength sanity meets insanity, although we don't have to confuse them. The Nazis destroy tenderness in the way the clouds and trees silently talk about the young man: the vision is irresistible from the sufferer's end. But then we find here a desolate empirical test. The Nazis did destroy tenderness, among countless other things. We cannot know whether the clouds and trees are talking about us, and chances are they would have other things in mind, if they had minds. Referential mania is also romantic in Henry James' sense, since it focuses on things 'we never can directly know', 'things that can reach us only through the beautiful circuit and subterfuge of our thought and our desire'.16 Or, we might add, through the (often equally beautiful) circuit and subterfuge of our terror. We have to see it as madness until we can get it in some fashion, however hyperbolic or metaphorical, to join the real ('the things we cannot possibly not know, sooner or later, in one way or another').

What happens, though, when we know the reality but cannot quite believe it, because the fantastic alternative is too appealing, or contains too much of the truth of our emotions? When referential mania both joins the real and stands apart from it? This is where 'Signs and Symbols' ends, and I need now to mention the one other thing that happens in the story. It is quite simple. The telephone rings. The time is past midnight, 'an unusual hour' for a telephone call to the old couple's flat.

It is a wrong number, the girl on the line wants to speak to some unknown person called Charlie. The old woman, whose English is better than the old man's, explains the mistake. The telephone rings again. It is the same girl, and the old woman explains again, in greater detail: 'You have the incorrect number. I will tell you what you are doing: you are turning the letter O instead of the zero.' The couple were awake anyway, drinking tea, discussing the future of their son. The old man rather childishly concentrates on the jam jars, the present they have taken to the hospital and brought back. He reads off the names of the different varieties. These are the last two sentences of the story. '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.'

I don't want to bury this discreet moment under commentary. I should like us to listen to Nabokov's silence rather than invade it. But what do we imagine is happening when the telephone rings for the third time? I hear common sense (the old couple's, mine, no doubt Nabokov's) telling me that it is the same wrong number again, the girl who wants Charlie. I can't know this for sure, though, unless someone picks up the telephone, and no one ever will. This fictional telephone can no more be picked up than Hamlet can be resurrected. Equally, of course, it will keep ringing for as long as anyone reads the story. What other voices say to me is: this time it's the hospital, bad news, something has happened to the son. Or: it is the wrong number, but it's meant for the old couple all the same, some malign force, friend of giants and farmers, is using this mistaken girl to torture them. It is because the call might be from the hospital that the very wrongness of the number seems cruel. Could the old couple not think this, not feel persecuted at their midnight tea? Can we not feel this on their behalf? In this context, even the slight suspicion of a conspiracy becomes a form of pain. Do we, perhaps for the first time, wonder whether there is something hereditary about referential mania, dormant but always possible in a later generation? Or do we think referential mania must be intuitively correct after all, the only way we can possibly account for the brutal, ingenious, so-called accidents of the world? The strength of this story is that what seems to be the 'right' reading, the banal, accidental wrong number, is simultaneously the sanest and the hardest to settle for. We have been set up, by the account of the young man's mania and his mother's investment in tenderness, to believe in pain but not in accidents. This belief is reinforced, of course, by the fact that the endlessly ringing telephone is not, cannot be, a textual accident, since it is where Nabokov deliberately ends his story. Referential mania is one of the ways in which we find an author in a text. Like all manias, it can go too far, but perhaps nothing less than mania will even get us started on the quest.

Nabokov is mildly doing here what he extravagantly does elsewhere. At the level of represented life in the fiction there is a question, which pits, let us say, the possible craziness of a person against the possible craziness of the world, and pits against both the merely random, the realm of chance. We are suspended here, with the characters. On the level of the writing, however, the question is answered, chance is abolished. The doubt in the story, so to speak, is cancelled by the story. If the couple could know they were figures in a fiction, they would know they were being tormented by Nabokov, author of the ominous third telephone call, and indeed of the other calls, and of the couple and their unhappy son. Adam Krug, as we have seen, acquires just this knowledge, but at the expense of his sanity and his textual life. We have also seen that V, in The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, has an inkling of this knowledge, but it is only an inkling, and only in the last words of his novel. There is a similar moment at the end of Invitation to a Beheading, where Cincinnatus C, in the midst of his own execution, steps away from the simulacrum which has been his reality, and moves towards 'beings akin to him'.17 Beings, we may imagine, like his author, or like the readers of the text he is in; or like the characters in another novel, where human difference is not punishable by death.

In 'Signs and Symbols', the fictional levels are separate, the second easily forgotten; but they can be seen to comment on each other. In the story, there is the frightened interpretation of chance, the difficulty of believing that chance is what it is; in the writing both an absence of chance and a carefully orchestrated interest in chance, a confirmation of our difficulty. This world is organized by a malign or at least mischievous agency, someone is whispering about these people behind their backs. For a comparable playing of narrative against character, we can look at the story 'That in Aleppo once', also written in English after Nabokov left Europe, and published a little earlier, in 1943. It takes the form of a letter addressed to someone called V, a writer, who is specifically asked not to mention Aleppo in his title when he turns this story into fiction. The allusion is to Othello, who having killed his wife, is about to kill himself and recalls his stabbing, in Aleppo, of a Turk who struck a Venetian and insulted Venice. V not only mentions Aleppo, he quotes the pleading request not to: 'It may all end in Aleppo if I am not careful. Spare me, V.: you would load your dice with an unbearable implication if you took that for a title.'18 Similarly, the character meets a doctor at the end of his tale, 'although if you write it, you had better not make him a doctor, as that kind of thing has been overdone'. The doctor remains a doctor; overdone. A throw of the dice will never abolish chance, as the title of a poem by Mallarmé says, and loaded dice can never do better than simulate chance, and confess their simulation. It is in this sense that a stylistic weakness may seem like a liberation, a momentary escape from the overbearing design. These texts are metaphors for a world which is ordered but unsympathetic, run by a heavy-handed deity whom paranoia would rightly suspect of wanting to trash what is most precious to us, or at least wanting to tease us with that very suspicion. This is not the way the world is, for Nabokov or for us; but it is the way it may feel to us, must feel to many; and it is the way it is for Nabokov's characters. They inhabit our temptations and our fears; our thought and our desire.

Is this Nabokov's second story, his 'inside'? Well, I've done more than tell that story, but I don't believe I have really left it for a moment. Nabokov's plan must be simpler and more elegant than my chasing after it. My guess is that his second story concerns whatever connection we make between the telephone call and the young man's madness. In the first story there is unhappiness and separation, pain visited upon the innocent, and what characterizes the young man is his difference, his inaccessibility to 'normal minds'. In the second story, the young man's world invades ours; his clouds and trees become our telephone, and a new pain, the pain of a new uncertainty, is visited upon the innocent and the guilty alike. Nabokov asks us not whether there is a difference between the stories, but how secure the difference is.


A child is tortured and killed; the father goes mad. A child is mad; the parents are beset by his unhappiness, and learn that the large persecutions of history have intimate and tiny echoes everywhere. But there are kindlier paranoias, and what is unspeakable is not always a horror. 'Signs and Symbols' has a twin among Nabokov's stories--the story Katharine White rejected for the New Yorker. It is called 'The Vane Sisters', and was written in 1951, although not published until 1959.

The narrator is French, and teaches French literature at a girls' college in New England. He hears of the death of his estranged friend Cynthia Vane and is afraid of being haunted by her, but also disappointed when her spirit seems to send no message, however oblique. In fact, both Cynthia and her sister Sybil, also dead, have written themselves into his prose, in the form of an acrostic in the last paragraph, indicating both their continuing presence and the nature of their intervention in his life. He has a dream that 'somehow was full of Cynthia' but remained curiously vague. Waking, he 'rereads' his dream, but cannot find what he feels 'must be there':

I could isolate, consciously, little. Everything seemed blurred, yellow-clouded, yielding nothing tangible. Her inept acrostics, maudlin evasions, theopathies--every recollection formed ripples of mysterious meaning. Everything seemed yellowly blurred, illusive, lost.19

Although he can't see them, both Cynthia and Sybil are inside his language, possessing his initial letters, which read: Icicles by Cynthia, meter from me Sybil. These discreet alphabetical ghosts are claiming that even before the narrator heard of Cynthia's death he was subject to their influence, since certain features of the visual world around him were arranged by them, marked by their style: the 'brilliant icicles' he was looking at one Sunday afternoon, the long shadow of a parking meter, reddened by the light of a restaurant sign. The girls know his tastes, his pleasure in aestheticized sensations. He is like a Symbolist poet on a spree, delighting in a day which he calls 'part jewel, part mud'. The narrator appears to notice nothing except his sensations, neither the Vane signature in these particular arrangements nor the verbal message lurking in his own writing. Indeed, as we have seen, the acrostic occurs in the very sentences in which he asserts there has been nothing to notice. But he does say, with the fussy precision which characterizes him (which at this point signals the ghosts' mischievous skill in parodying him), that he could isolate little 'consciously'--leaving room for an unconscious apprehension of the haunting.

Nabokov muted his views of this story over time. To Katharine White in 1951 he was confident, unapologetic and wounded ('I am really quite depressed by the whole business. The financial side is an entirely separate trouble. But what matters most is the fact that people whom I so much like and admire have completely failed me as readers in the present case'--Nabokov's italics20). In 1959 he seemed happy enough to see the story merely as a puzzle and a challenge, and to congratulate Encounter readers who had cracked the code. 'My difficulty was to smuggle in the acrostic without the narrator's being aware that it was there, inspired to him by the phantoms. Nothing of this kind has ever been attempted by any author ...'21 Except perhaps by the authors of chess problems. In 1974, Nabokov suggested that 'this particular trick can be tried only once in a thousand years of fiction,'22 and was, perhaps sincerely, willing to allow a doubt of its success: 'Whether it has come off is another question.'

The trick comes off, I think, but at the expense of the story. There is in 'The Vane Sisters' a delicate parable about mania and possession which is very hard to see for the sheer glitter of the riddle. The work as a whole is too bright or too dull, something we get or don't get, all jewel or all mud. Katharine White rather sniffily replied to Nabokov's letter by saying that they had certainly missed the acrostic ('that being rather out of the New Yorker's line'), but nevertheless felt they had understood 'at least the general purpose of your story'. The problem, White continued, was that the characters themselves, 'these Vane girls', didn't arouse the emotions as the Jewish couple did in 'Signs and Symbols', and so were not 'worthy of their web', the elaborate style spun around them. Leaving aside the shudder we may share with Nabokov about the idea of a 'general purpose' for a story, we can agree about the thinness of the characters, although I would then want to add that the thinness is part of their charm, since their wispy unfocused passage through life is what is so moving about them, their one real claim on our interest. The 'inside' of the work, the structural pattern it shares with 'Signs and Symbols', is not thin at all, just folded away. The acrostic, we may feel, is merely the 'idiotically sly' novelist's way of pointing to what's hidden.

Nabokov's 'inner scheme', which he was so disappointed that White had missed, was 'the coincidence of Cynthia's spirit with the atmosphere of the beginning of the story'23--that is, Cynthia's haunting of the story before we know who she is or that she is dead. Such haunting justifies and exemplifies Cynthia's scatty 'theory of intervenient auras', which is at the heart of the work and represents referential mania with regard to the afterlife. There is 'nothing particularly new' about Cynthia's 'private creed', the narrator dismissively remarks. It is merely a 'tame metaphysics', involving 'a fairly conventional hereafter, a silent solarium of immortal souls ... whose main recreation consisted of periodical hoverings over the dear quick'. Cynthia's spiritualist sessions, also conventional, are described in comic, pathetic detail, 'little farces' where the shades of Wilde and Tolstoy and others are supposed to report obscurely on their former lives. Wilde's 'rapid garbled French' and the 'great crash' with which Tolstoy announces himself suggest if not authenticity at least a decent familiarity with the literary dead, but the narrator, however much we may dislike his tone, doesn't seem to be missing anything much at this point. Well, he may have missed a Wildean connection in the fact that the names Sybil and Vane come from The Portrait of Dorian Gray, but it's not at all clear what this subterranean allusion is meant to do.

The engaging and original feature of Cynthia's belief concerns not the presence or personality of the spirits, but their practice, the nature of their interventions, their mode of signalling to the living. Even the rationalist narrator finds this feature 'interesting' and 'ingenious', although he still adds that some of Cynthia's 'Jamesian meanderings' in this direction have 'exasperated my French mind'.

For a few hours, or for several days in a row, and sometimes recurrently, in an irregular series, for months and years, anything that happened to Cynthia, after a given person had died, would be, she said, in the manner and mood of that person. The event might be extraordinary, changing the course of one's life; or it might be a string of minute incidents just sufficiently clear to stand out in relief against one's usual day and then shading off into still vaguer trivia as the aura gradually faded. The influence might be good or bad; the main thing was that its source could be identified. It was like walking through a person's soul, she said.

Cynthia recognizes the activity of a kindly spirit when she wins a vacuum cleaner in a lottery; of a spiteful one when her soup boils over. She sees Sybil's shade as organizing a series of minor events (the death of two trees, a building project, workmen who dig up the sidewalk) which encourage her to sell their old Boston house and move to New York. 'Sybil's personality, she said, had a rainbow edge as if a little out of focus'. In death as in life. An earlier phrase which seemed merely whimsical, pleasantly superstitious, or even perhaps entirely metaphorical--'Cynthia had a feeling that her dead sister was not altogether pleased with her'--turns out to require the most literal reading possible.

Cynthia interprets the world around her as if it were (partially) written by the dead, as if events were an intermittent script. The narrator raises certain rather fanciful objections to such a scheme. What happens when you can't recognize the writer, when the soul is too dim or dull or impersonal to be identified: 'there are anonymous letters and Christmas presents which anybody might send'. What if a 'usual day' means not the absence of a specific aura but a mixture of many auras? What about God? What if the spirits don't get on with each other, and the days of the living become a mere warfare of auras? Cynthia however is 'more voluble than explicit', unperturbed by such resistance, 'above generalities as she was beyond logic'.

'The Vane Sisters' would not be a Nabokov story if Cynthia's appealing theory were not backed by its parody, a clumsy, scarcely defensible twin. Ignorant of her own delicacy, indiscriminate in her enthusiasm for portents, Cynthia has been helping a Coleridgean librarian called Porlock to hunt for fatidical misprints in old books, annunciations of Hitler, for example, in a misspelling of hither. The librarian is more purely a connoisseur than Cynthia, since he is not interested in the actual prediction but only in the semblance of sense, 'the freak itself, the chance that mimics choice, the flaw that looks like a flower', as the narrator puts it with proto-Humbertian alliteration. The hither/Hitler example strikes the narrator as 'statistically insane', although he himself later, fighting insomnia, finds the name Taft written (twice) acrostically in Shakespeare's sonnets. I should add that checking this discovery I found one of the sonnets (Number 14) seeming to start on the acrostical naming of Nabokov. NABO, it went: 'Not from the stars do I my judgement pluck, / And yet methinks I have astronomy; / But not to tell of good or evil luck, / Of plagues, of deaths, or seasons' quality'. Fortunately, the rest of the acrostic was entirely scrambled [NPOBBAAIOT], and I was sane again. The librarian's mania is chiefly there, of course, to give us a hint about games with letters, but his interest in 'the freak itself' looks forward to John Shade's acceptance, in Pale Fire, of texture rather than text. The way we feel about the improbable, even the statistically insane, may have to do with the lightness or heaviness of our interpretation of it, the tone rather than the truth of the claims we make.

There are of course other objections to the theory of auras, arguments that the narrator has ignored, that Nabokov presumably wants us to pursue because the narrator has ignored them, although this way yet another form of referential mania beckons. How are we to tell an aura from an accident, an intervention of the dead from a piece of mere circumstance which recalls the dead? If we don't believe the dead act in this or any way among the quick, how do we feel about Cynthia's theory? Curiously, I think scepticism may make us more sympathetic to it, more able to see its attraction, than we might be if we simply accepted it, or endorsed the narrator's condescending mockery. The theory's interest, surely, is double. First, the ghosts express themselves through ordinary events, they do not require a special track or apparatus. Their presence is therefore empirically indistinguishable from their absence, a matter of interpretation not of irresistible miracle. The work of the ghosts resembles that of the Company in Borges' story 'The Babylon Lottery' where a massive organization of chance is finally seen to be equivalent to unorganized chance on its own.24 Or it resembles the disease of the world sketched out in Pynchon's V, whose subtle symptoms blended in with the events of history, 'no different one by one but altogether--fatal'.25 Except that Cynthia's ghosts seem kindlier, less sinister, at worst a little mean. Second, the theory, whether accepted or not, responds very strongly to a need not to let go of the dead, indeed actually preserves them. It is a form of animated, externalized memory; a mode of resurrection. If there are ghosts, what matters is the 'manner and mood' of the inscription they make; if there are none, what matters is the brilliant authority of the imagination, the way it both respects and reworks the given world; finds hidden wonders in it without ruffling its surface.

Of course, there are ghosts in the story, it doesn't end in doubt. The telephone is answered, so to speak, even if the narrator doesn't answer it himself. In this and in many ways, 'The Vane Sisters' is different from 'Signs and Symbols'. However, it adds its own illumination to the question of mania, and complements our understanding of the earlier work. In both stories the world speaks a secret language, but only to the insane or those who believe in ghosts. The strongest, scariest appeal of this theme lies not in the language or what it says, or even in the question of its existence, but in the intuition of what it would feel like to be in the presence of such speech. In this respect, to read the last paragraph of 'The Vane Sisters' merely as a riddle is worse than missing the riddle altogether. If we can clear our heads of all the talk about acrostics--but is this possible, was this ever possible, hasn't the story itself set us up too firmly, even before we looked at the letters or Nabokov's note?--we may feel this prose is too strange and awkward to mean merely what it grammatically or semantically says. It would seem then not symbolic but cryptic, taken over, possessed not only by another person but by another system of signification. This, I suggest, might be an ideal reading of the story, if we could manage it. We could miss the acrostic, fail to identify the ghost, but our sense of strangeness would be unshakeable, something reason could neither dispel nor resolve. We would experience the haunting, even if we couldn't see what haunted us. The mildness of the occasion, its distance from the terrors of 'Signs and Symbols', would either remove all question of paranoia or make us rethink paranoia, relocate it perhaps, deprived of its demons, among the symmetries and reflections of everyday life.

Well, not entirely deprived of its demons, even then. Cynthia has died of a heart attack, it seems ('Say, I never thought there was anything wrong with Cynthia Vane's heart', the narrator's informant says); but Sybil committed suicide, desperate because she had been abandoned by D, an instructor with whom she was having an affair. Her last note, constructed with the dizzying, shallow cleverness which makes Nabokov so tiresome at times even to his admirers, says, 'Death was not better than D minus, but definitely better than Life minus D'. However, the context in which Sybil writes these words, and the words which precede them, are a good deal more interesting, less distracting.

Sybil arrives to take a French literature examination, which the narrator is invigilating. She is wearing high heels, carrying a suitcase, shrugs off her fur coat, asks when her grade will be available, sits the examination. The next day the narrator starts to mark the students' work in alphabetical order, although the books of Valevsky and Vane have somehow been misplaced and come up prematurely. Cynthia would say Sybil's ghost was already quietly at work. Sybil's examination is written with pencils of different shades and strengths and sharpness, coloured by lipstick where she has sucked the point. It is, the narrator says, 'even poorer than I had expected', but bears 'all the signs of a kind of desperate conscientiousness, with underscores, transposes, unnecessary footnotes, as if she were intent upon rounding up things in the most respectable manner possible.' She is. Sybil ends her examination by borrowing a fountain pen and writing:

Cette examain est finie ainsi que ma vie. Adieu, jeunes filles! Please, Monsieur le Professeur, contact ma soeur and tell her that Death was not better than ...

The narrator takes the exam book to Cynthia, who even in her sadness is proud of the use Sybil managed to make of the academic occasion, and pleased by the narrator's pedantic pointing out of her sister's 'grammatical mistakes'--this too would be part of Sybil's inventive personality, her 'rainbow edge'. However, there aren't any grammatical mistakes in Sybil's note. There is an inspired misspelling, with grammar brought into line to match: cette examain est finie instead of cet examen est fini. What is over is Sybil's life and the movement of her hand, or what used to be her hand; her handwriting; this examination of her hand and her writing.

Nabokov's notebooks, as described by Brian Boyd, offer an unusual insight into the process of creation here, but don't really settle the question of intention, since the identifiable aim ends just before the most interesting verbal things happen. Nabokov had heard of a (male) student at Northwestern University who had committed suicide after taking a French examination, writing in French after the last question, 'I am going to God. Life does not offer me much'.26 Nabokov invites himself in his notes to 'adopt' this boy, and have him 'make some pathetic mistake in that last sentence'. He adds, 'Change it, of course ... Probe, brood.' The next day Nabokov decided the suicide should be that of a young woman, and chose as her 'pathetic mistake' an error of gender, 'cette examen et celle de ma vie', this examination and that of my life. 'No English speaking person can master genders', Nabokov says rather grandly. But the mistake is pathetic only if we are ourselves frantic pedants--would the suicide have been more graceful if the grammar had been right? What is remarkable here, what moves the story from signature to style, is what is not in the notebook, the substitution of examain for examen. The unhappy Sybil momentarily becomes a cousin of Lewis Carroll and Joyce; and Nabokov.

The narrator has unwittingly prepared us for just this reading, for the painful pun he seems completely to miss, by saying Sybil's work 'displayed her usual combination of several demon hands'. It is, I think, the best and the deepest joke in the story, and again the notebooks get us only halfway there. Nabokov grumbles about the 'chaotic hell of handwritings' in his students' examinations, an image which has the same general meaning as the most obvious contextual sense of the phrase in the story.27 But a demon hand is more active than a hell of handwritings, and the old-fashioned 'hand' for script cannot not mean an ordinary hand as well. In effect, these demon hands reach everywhere into the fiction. One such hand is that of death, already propelling Sybil to the end of her examination and her life; another is that of Sybil herself, who from beyond death seems to have insinuated just this metaphor into the narrator's language. Demon hands generally evoke the mode of the sisters' presence in the story, as they write parts of the visual text, gesture through chosen letters of the prose. And a demon hand in this fiction must suggest an extensive, eerie connection between writing and possession, the vulnerability of any text to other uses of the alphabet. Paranoia, in such a perspective, may be tamed but can't be banished or entirely released from suspicion. The magician and the idiot continue their conversation; the mandarin and the theorist of pain murmuring their contributions.


1. Jean Stafford, 'The Philosophy Lesson', in Collected Stories (Hogarth Press 1986), p. 369.

2. VN, Strong Opinions, p. 304, 305. See also W W Rowe, Nabokov's Deceptive World, (New York University Press, 1971).

3. Nabokov's Dozen, p. 54.

4. Nabokov, Strong Opinions, p. 305-306.

5. Nabokov, Bend Sinister, 1947, (Penguin, 1974), p. 178. All references are to this edition.

6. Roland Barthes, La chambre claire, (Gallimard Seuil, 1980), pp. 150-151; Camera Lucida, (Jonathan Cape, 1982), p. 96.

7. Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, (Cambridge University Press, 1989), p. 163.

8. Nabokov, Speak, Memory, (Penguin, 1969), pp. 213-214.

9. Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, p. 155.

10. Nabokov, Selected Letters, p. 117.

11. Nabokov, Lectures on Don Quixote (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1983), pp. 1, 4.

12. Nabokov, Nabokov's Dozen, p. 176.

13. Nabokov, 'Signs and Symbols', 1948: in Nabokov's Dozen, pp. 54-55. All references are to this edition.

14. Nabokov, Gogol, 1944: (Oxford University Press, 1989), pp. 63-64.

15. The Oxford Companion to the Mind, ed Richard L Gregory, (Oxford University Press, 1987), pp. 576-577.

16. Henry James, Preface to The American, pp. 31-32.

17. Nabokov, Invitation to a Beheading, 1935: (Penguin, 1963), p. 191.

18. Nabokov, 'That in Aleppo once ...', 1943: Nabokov's Dozen, p. 123.

19. Nabokov, 'The Vane Sisters', 1959: in Tyrants Destroyed and Other Stories, (Penguin, 1981), p. 219. All references are to this edition.

20. Nabokov, Selected Letters, p. 117, 286.

21. Selected Letters, p. 284.

22. Nabokov, note in Tyrants Destroyed, p. 201.

23. Selected Letters, pp. 118, 117.

24. Jorge Luis Borges, 'La loteria en Babilonia'/'The Lottery in Babylon', in Ficciones[(Emecé, 1956)]/Labyrinths[(Penguin, 1970)], pp. 67-75/55-61.

25. Thomas Pynchon, V., 1963: (Bantam Books, 1964), p. 433.

26. Boyd, Vladimir Nabokov: the American Years [(Princeton University Press, 1991)], p. 190.

27. Boyd, p. 191.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420068607