Rae Bryant Ponders Nabokov’s Signs & Symbols

Rae Bryant is coming to New York City later this week to launch her debut short story collection, The Indefinite State of Imaginary Morals, with a Saturday night reading at KGB Bar. In stories like “Postfeminist Zombie Assassins Wear Wonder Woman Underoos,” “Emperatriz de la Orilla del Río,” and “Featherbedding,” Bryant writes about desire with a dream-like quality: “If an average person thinks about sex several times a day,” she told The Nervous Breakdown, “then a single story without the convergence of gender and sex would be a dishonest slice of a natural day. I like natural days. I like to see them stretched and twisted and formed through surreal lenses.” It seems fitting, then, that she would be drawn to the stories, both short and long, of Nabokov…

Nabokov was a master at cutting his readers. His words are dexterous and sharp.

I came to Nabokov by way of Lolita, which may very well be my favorite novel, though tomorrow it will be McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. So today, Lolita.

One of the masteries in Nabokov’s stories, what I admire so much, is how smoothly the stories turn readers into accomplices. In Lolita, we begin cautiously, cringing at Humbert Humbert’s “Lolita… fire of my loins.” The lulling beauty of young Humbert’s language and his flashback affair with age-appropriate Annabel draws the reader into an acceptable narrative and set of mores. The subsequent transition to immorality is seamless. The crafting, perfection. The reader accepts Humbert as an emotionally stunted man, a child, and so accepts his replacement of the dead Annabel with a live and young Lo, who is something of his emotional equal. The moral cutting is almost imperceptible and before the reader fully realizes it, taboo has been severed from its leash and an addiction has formed for Humbert’s voice, his past, his self-delusions and the promise of a painful end. The reader sits quietly in the backseat of Humbert’s car and experiences the relationship unfold between him and his nymphet, one touch after another. Yes, reading Lolita is to be wounded. Nabokov takes his readers to dark places they swore they’d never go.

At times, it is easy to forget Humbert’s abuses as they’re narrated through his romanticized point of view. Further consider the socio-political layers, the undercurrent of commentary, the language play, double entendres and coded phrasings, and this all becomes really quite genius as much as it is vicious. The reader becomes a willing participant in this horror, an accomplice and confidante to Humbert’s actions, because one does not “watch” Lolita, one immerses.

Multi-faceted architecture recurs in all of Nabokov’s works, another being “Signs and Symbols,” re-titled “Symbols and Signs” by The New Yorker when they published the story in 1948. An unnamed son suffers from “referential mania” with an elaborate coding behavior by which he perceives everything around him as references to himself: “Everything is a cipher and of everything he is the theme.” The boy’s parents visit him on his birthday but are not able to see him in the sanitarium because the son has tried to kill himself again, and the nurses believe the parents would further agitate him. The day turns into a journey home, filled with images of a twitching bird, twitching hands, birds with human hands and feet, allusions to the son’s condition, artistic artifacts, Holocaustic history and perhaps the question, what is reality?

Like Lolita, “Signs and Symbols” delivers these artifacts by making the reader an accomplice, an archaeologist who excavates meanings along the way, realizing at the end, the question may not exist in the son’s condition but perhaps in the systems by which these conditions are catalogued. Nabokov doesn’t “tell” the reader to search socially, but rather, he uses the reader to formulate the hypothesis along the way—reality is not always the answer.

In June 2008, Mary Gaitskill gave a gorgeous online reading of “Symbols and Signs” at the New Yorker website. Interestingly, Gaitskill read from the Nabokov’s Dozen version of the story with his original title, rather than read the one in the magazine’s archives. In her post-reading discussion with Deborah Treisman, Gaitskill elaborated on the beauty and “tonalities” of the work while being somewhat resistant to discussing the coded language and layered narratives that are so often central to Nabokov’s stories. In Gaitskill’s discourse, is a sense of artistic agnosticism, a willingness to experience the story in its immediacy, linger in the constancy of searching without forcing a particular answer. Nabokov’s stories are good for this constancy of searching, as much as they are good for any other critical approach. For this reason, I return to Nabokov’s works often as a place of wonderment, morality and tireless questioning.

20 July 2011 | selling shorts |