Vladimir Nabokov: Symbols and Signs (Deal Me In 2017 – Week 8)

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She thought of the recurrent waves of pain that for some reason or other she and her husband had 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.

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(photograph obtained from goodreads.com)

I first became familiar with Vladimir Nabokov in the early 1980’s when The Police referred to him and his infamously banned novel Lolita in their song “Don’t Stand So Close To Me”:

He starts to shake and cough
Just like the old man in
That book by Nabokov

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(photograph obtained from google images)

Later in the 80’s (or, who knows, it may have been the 90’s by then), I actually read Lolita and while, yes, I found it disturbing, I also became fascinated by the way Nabokov put words together – so I had to finish it.

Now all these decades later, I have finally arrived at another of Nabokov’s work-his short story “Symbols and Signs” and I find that his way with words didn’t begin or end with Lolita. I also find that if one wants to recommend Nabokov but might be leery of recommending Lolita go for “Symbols and Signs”. It’s much tamer but still a great story.

In short, “Symbols and Signs” tells of an elderly Russian couple living in New York City who has a son with a mental illness in a nearby sanitarium. As the reader, we don’t know many specifics of the son’s illness. We also get no resolution at the story’s end.

What we do get is a portrait of a long-married couple who has had their share of problems perhaps both in Russia and in New York. The care taken by the parents in selecting the right birthday present for their son displays their dedication. At the same time, it shows the reliance they have on each other.

It seems the couple has gained strength from adversity as opposed to letting it tear them apart. Though not plot driven, Nabokov beautifully shows the reader an example of survival.

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I read “Symbols and Signs” when I selected the Three of Diamonds for Week 8 of my Deal Me In 2017 short story project. It’s included in my copy of Wonderful Town: New York Stories from The New Yorker edited by David Remnick. My Deal Me In List can be found here. Deal Me In is hosted byJay at Bibliophilopolis.

Have you read anything by Vladimir Nabokov? What would you recommend?

Anyone for Forewords?

The Classic Club’s monthly meme for August poses an interesting question:  Do you read forewords/notes that precede many classics?  Does it help you or hurt you in your enjoyment/understanding of the work?

Right off the bat, I will have to say that I usually do not read forewords or notes.  I’d rather get right to the story and read it for myself.  In the case of many books, I tell myself that I will read the foreword or the notes after I’m finished; however, I typically am ready to move on to the next book by then.

I’m more likely to read a foreword if I recognize the author.  In a rare instance, I’ve actually read a foreword by Vladamir Nabakov for Charles Dicken’s Bleak House but still have not read Bleak House.  Here’s the beginning paragraph:

We are now ready to tackle Dickens.  We are now ready to embrace Dickens.  We are now ready to bask in Dickens.  In our dealings with Jane Austen we had to make a certain effort in order to join the ladies in the drawing room.  In the case of Dickens we remain at table with our tawny port.

After reading this, I couldn’t help but read the rest of it.  Maybe someday I will actually read Bleak House.

This year, I’ve read two books in which I have read the forewords/notes in small pieces as I was reading the book.  The first one was for Gone With The Wind (it was actually a preface – I’m sure there’s a difference).  It was written by South Carolina novelist, Pat Conroy.  I’ve enjoyed Conroy’s novels and his insights into Gone With The Wind were worth reading. The afterword to my editon of Moby-Dick by Denham Sutcliffe of Kenyon College helped immensely as I read what is shaping up to be my favorite book of 2013.

What is your opinion on notes and forewords for classic novels?  Have you read any that are especially memorable?

Top Ten Tuesday: Books on My Fall “To Be Read” List

Top Ten Tuesday is a meme hosted by The Broke and The Bookish.  This week’s topic is books on my fall “To Be Read” list.  I have to admit that I did a decent job of getting through my summer TBR list.  I only missed one:  Charles Dickens’ Bleak House.  Guess which one is first on my fall list?  I also have an abundance of authors from Indianapolis, IN, one of the handful of cities/towns I consider home.

1.)  Bleak House by Charles Dickens:  I was less than thrilled with Hard Times so I think I’m a little hesitant to get started on this one.  My copy has a great preface by Vladamir Nabokov, though!

2.)  Armageddon In Retrospect by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.:  I just started this one.  So far, it’s typical Vonnegut (an Indianapolis native) – very funny.  

3.)  The Fault In Our Stars by John Green:  Another YA novel that I’ve seen all over the blogosphere.  As he’s from Indianapolis, also, I thought I’d give him a try.

4.)  Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes:  A book I read as a kid that I’ve decided to re-read.  A nostalgia read-along is being hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

5.)  Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.: As mentioned previously, Vonnegut is an Indianapolis native.  I’m going to re-read this one in honor of Banned Book Week at the end of September.

6.)  Awaken Your Senses by J. Brent Bill and Beth A. Boorman:  Brent led a book group I attended when I lived in Indianapolis.  He has written several books about Quaker traditions that I’ve found fascinating.  I’m looking forward to reading his latest book.

7.)  The Death of Adam by Marilynne Robinson:  This is another book of Robinson’s essays of which I’ve found to be very thought-provoking.

8.)  War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

9.)  War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

10.)  War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

Charles Dickens’ Hard Times

We are now ready to tackle Dickens.  We are now ready to embrace Dickens.  We are now ready to bask in Dickens.  In our dealings with Jane Austen we had to make a certain effort in order to join the ladies in the drawing room.  In the case of Dickens we remain at table with our tawny port.

This is the first paragraph in an excerpt from Vladamir Nabokov’s Lectures on Literature that I found in a preface to my copy of Dickens’ Bleak House.  I think I would have enjoyed having Nabokov, author of the infamous Lolita, as a professor (it also reminds me that banned book week is coming up).  The rest of this lecture is just as amusing, but informative.

But this post isn’t about Bleak House or Nabokov or Jane Austen.  It’s about Charles Dickens’ short novel Hard Times.  In spite of it’s brevity, it seemed to take me a long time to read.  Part of the reason could have just been me, but I would put a little of the blame on the novel, itself.

My understanding (and I’m by no means an expert) is that the majority of Dickens’ novels, including Hard Times, were written in serial form for magazines.  When I’ve read other Dickens novels, the question always persisted as to whether he made the story up as he went along or whether he knew how it would end when he started.  Usually, some small part of the story at the end would tie back to the beginning, giving the impression that he did have the story all figured out before he started writing and giving the impression of a brilliant mind and storyteller.

Hard Times was written in the same manner and while the characters are classic Dickens and his writing is superb in his character descriptions, the individual chapters don’t quite equal the whole.

The novel begins as though it’s going to be a story representing class conflict – not surprising as the impoverished seem to gain Dickens’ sympathies in many of his novels.  The Gradgrind  school in Coketown led by Thomas Gradgrind, Sr. seeks to knock out of it’s students any desire for fun or imagination.  While the Gradgrind family can be said to be wealthy, it’s not so much that money and the lack thereof come into conflict as hard cold facts conflict with art and creativity and just plain fun.

Thomas Gradgrind’s daughter Louisa and his son Tom, Jr. take central stage in the plot.  Louisa submits to being married off to a colleague of Gradgrind in order to keep her irresponsible brother out of money trouble.  Some side plots are intertwined as Stephen Blackpool one of the hired “Hands” of Coketown is falsely accused of robbing the Coketown bank and Sissy Jupe leaves the circus to live with the Gradgrinds.  The novel begins and ends with the circus.

My favorite character in the novel is Coketown, itself.  While Dickens desperately tries to paint the town as black and gloomy and dirty, some of his charm seems to always sneak in making the town’s bark worse than it’s bite:

A sunny midsummer day.  There was such a thing sometimes, even in Coketown.

I find even the name of the town a little humorous.

The major disjoint of the novel revolves around Thomas, Sr. At the beginning of story, he’s   hard and cold and willing to marry his daughter off to a braggart and boorish friend.  By the end, he is repentant and willing to do almost anything to appease his daughter.  Characters can change, it’s true, but usually the change process is part of the story.  I looked and looked but couldn’t find reason for this change.  It seemed to be pulled out of thin air.

A minor character named Mr. Sleary, one of the circus people, spoke with a lisp.  Dickens wrote with a lisp when his character talked.  I don’t think I’ve read anything more frustrating.