What Nabokov did

In the end, I was ‘she’. ‘She’ and ‘him’ were always together, a pair, ‘they’. And since ‘she’ was I, I was a part of ‘they’.

In ‘Symbols and Signs’, that’s what Nabokov had done—I sat in the subway and saw her husband’s hands, my husband’s hands, “twitching” on the umbrella, with their “swollen veins and brown-spotted skin”. I watched the girl cry on the shoulder of a woman who resembled Rebecca Borisovna.  I looked through my son’s photographs—“As a baby, he looked more surprised than most babies”, I saw a picture of our maid in Germany with her “fat-faced fiance”, and I saw Aunt Rosa.

If this is what Nabokov intended, he had succeeded. As I read the story over and over, the questions that had struck me the first time faded away and they didn’t matter. I was ‘she’, and so there was no need for me to name myself, my husband, my son. But who would know the others? If indeed names created identities, then they had to be named. They were nouns.

When I feel like writing, I look so hard to find something to write about. Sometimes I spend most of my time thinking, worrying that I have nothing to say, and no stories to tell. I look for larger things, and what these things are I do not know; things I consider important, because I feel like I must have something to say. And so I forget to do what Nabokov does—talk about everyday things, things that have become normal and I no longer see as if for the first time. There are sudden, isolated moments when I’m intensely conscious of things around me, when I see for instance that Appa’s beard is more grey than black now. But those moments seem to come only when I have nothing to do, and I have never written then.

Recently, a friend of mine got glasses, and suddenly things around her seemed so much clearer, she said. Reading ‘Symbols and Signs’ was something like this—I noticed “the last dregs of the day were mixed with the street lights”; I heard the “dutiful” beating of hearts on the stopped train, and then the rustling newspapers; images and sounds so normal, that though I don’t like to admit it, seemed as though I had never previously experienced them.

I am convinced that details mean so much more than just words on a paper, that they show, and are a way of seeing and experiencing. But when I write, details seem to support a story, help it stand and be noticed—they aren’t the story. They are real but not real enough; they are present but can be passed unnoticed rather easily; they are mere frills, accompaniments. In ‘Signs and Symbols’ the details are the story, what ‘she’ sees is what we see. The details that Nabokov chooses might seem unnecessary; they don’t answer questions. What is the dark haired girl on the train with “grubby red toenails” crying about? Who is the girl with the “toneless, anxious young voice”? What is the phone call about, who is Charlie? I will never know. Initially, I felt deceived.

“If only the interest he provokes were limited to his immediate surroundings, but, alas, it is not!” writes Nabokov in his description of referential mania. And just as his other descriptions of the mania reminded me of writing, I felt hidden in this construct a questioning of the nature of writing. While I sit and wonder if writing is about creation or representation, writing for Nabokov seemed to be about reminding a person of what they see, hear, smell and feel every day—the most real things that we experience, but hardly remember.

In the end, it was all about writing.