Thursday, June 5, 2008

“Symbols and Signs” by Vladimir Nabokov

Source: New Yorker Fiction Podcast
Length: 28 min
Reader: Mary Gaitskill

The story: My favorite high school English teacher often admonished her class to "revel in ambiguity." By this, she meant that when the meaning of a story or poem was unclear, we shouldn't despair, but instead enjoy the possibilities of holding a variety of interpretations. Reveling in ambiguity is a great approach not only to literature, but also to all of life's mysteries (well, maybe not all - I'm not reveling in the ambiguity of where I misplaced my keys).

In this story, also published as "Signs and Symbols," an old Russian immigrant couple go to visit their adult son in an insane asylum. The son has a mental delusion in which he sees symbolism in everything around him. As the elderly couple travel, Nabokov drops a number of details which might be considered symbolic, though of what is unclear. In this way, the story is similar to Pulp Fiction or The Crying of Lot 49; it's a story that overtly hints of deeper meaning while denying there is any meaning to be found. As the extended discussion after the story suggests, Nabokov has created a playground for reveling in ambiguity.

Rating: 7/10

The reader: Mary Gaitskill displays a wide range of emotions in her reading: sadness, anger, paranoia, resignation, and nostalgia. This is a difficult piece to read, as the interpertations are so wide open, but Gaitskill performs it well. This is also a difficult story for listening, as it demands rewinding to catch additional meanings in details not noticed the first time around. The discussion is magnificent. Host Deborah Treisman and Gaitskill open the story up with an engaging discussion about why its such an work of art.

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