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Chess Problems and the Otherworld in Nabokov’s Short Stories

Eric Hyman
p. 93-110


De nombreuses nouvelles de Vladimir Nabokov sont structurées comme des problèmes d’échecs, qui sont basés sur des motifs et diffèrent des parties d'échecs, qui dépendent quant à elles des événements. Ainsi, lire une nouvelle de Nabokov revient à résoudre un problème d’échecs : les lecteurs sont mis au défi de trouver un coup clé expliquant tous les éléments du récit/problème d'échecs. Dans de nombreuses nouvelles de Nabokov, ce coup clé se connecte à un monde transcendant. Les nouvelles « The Vane Sisters », « Cloud, Castle, Lake » et « Details of a Sunset » sont paradigmatiques. Le coup clé de « Signs and Symbols » n’a jusqu'à présent pas été révélé de façon concluante.

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Auteurs étudiés :

Vladimir Nabokov
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  • 1 For a thorough discussion of chess problems, see Gezari, “Game Fiction” 60-80, 85-87, 102; Gezari a (...)

1Chess problems are very different from chess games. A chess game is a sequential narrative, like a novel, with an Aristotelian opening, middle, and endgame, a contest between two opponents, White and Black. Not all of the pieces might be functional; some of the pawns at the far files might never move. A chess problem, on the other hand, is usually only two or three moves, is an entirely artificial construct, and is much more a patterned interaction than a narrative sequence; that is, it exists more in space than in time. The contest is between the composer and the solver, or would-be solver. The composer’s mission is to arrange the pieces so that one key move will lead to the postulated outcome, mate in two or three moves; and the solver’s objective is to figure out that key move. Every piece, even the most apparently irrelevant pawn or deceptively placed bishop, has a function, a function which is often not apparent at first. Nabokov composed and published chess problems (Poems and Problems; Speak Memory 608-612).1 As Nabokov says in his Strong Opinions, “problems are the poetry of chess. They demand of the composer the same virtues that characterize all worthwhile art: originality, invention, harmony, conciseness, and splendid insincerity” (160-161). And then from the memoir Speak Memory,

[C]ompetition in chess problems is not really between White and Black but between the composer and the hypothetical solver (just as in a first-rate work of fiction the real clash is between the author and the world), so that a great part of a problem’s value is due to the number of “tries”—delusive opening moves, false scents, specious lines of play, astutely and lovingly prepared to lead the would-be solver astray. (610)

  • 2 Rowe describes reader participation in extracting significance from Nabokov’s details (61-71); Nabo (...)
  • 3 Although chess as a theme or allusions to chess are frequently mentioned in criticism of Nabokov, L (...)
  • 4 For convenient overviews of Nabokov’s short fiction, see Barabtarlo (“English Short Stories”); Meye (...)
  • 5 As an informal survey, I checked as many anthologies of short fiction I could find in a major unive (...)

2What is most important are the details, that is, every single piece, and the patterning, their interaction, which the solver understands retrospectively.2 Thus there is a parallel between chess problems and short stories, especially Nabokov’s. But, as far as I have been able to ascertain, the connection of chess problems to Nabokov’s short fiction has rarely been made overtly.3 This essay will concentrate on Nabokov’s short fiction,4 partly because his short fiction deserves to be better known,5 but mostly because the short story shows the chess problem key move structure better than the longer fiction does, especially the connection to Nabokov’s transcendent Otherworld. Readers are challenged to find the key move in a short story by figuring out the patterning and the functioning of all the details. Nabokov’s painterly sense of visual setting in his fiction and poetry is part of the reason for those details, but I argue that they also largely function like chess pieces, as hints to the key move solution. Some readers solve the short story; some don’t; I confess that many of them I couldn’t solve myself but discovered the key moves either in one of Nabokov’s headnotes or in the criticism.

3Finding the key move in a chess problem or short story might seem like reading a mystery story to find out who did it, but they are not quite the same. Nabokov has said that he abhors mystery stories (Strong Opinions 43, 219). In mystery stories finding out who did what is mostly for the sake of plot, but in Nabokov’s fiction solving the key move has thematic, even metaphysical, implications well beyond plot.

4I need to stress here that the key move solution is not quite equivalent to an epiphany, for an epiphany is achieved by a story character, but the key move is an achievement (or not) by the reader. Short stories are not quite chess problems, of course. Well-formed chess problems have a deterministic solution, and only one, although it is always possible that a less-skilled solver won’t find it. But short stories are to some degree open to readers’ individual interpretations. What the key move does for a short story is to give the literal text coherence, but readers are still free to follow their own choices and predispositions to the emotional import and thematic significance. Solving chess problems and discerning a short story’s key move are algorithmic, but connecting that key move to the rest of the story, especially readers’ judgments of the characters, begins heuristically and proceeds to hermeneutic. Perhaps Riffaterre says it best, “communication is a game, or rather a kind of calisthenics, since it is guided and programmed by the text” (4).

  • 6 I am indebted to an anonymous reviewer of an earlier draft of this article for calling my attention (...)

5And here is the main point of this essay: quite a few, though not all, of those key moves involve some kind of connection to a Hereafter or transcendent Otherworld. The impinging of the Otherworld occurs in many of the novels (Alexandrov Nabokov’s Otherworld 15, 37-38), notably Invitation to a Beheading; the poetry; and especially Canto Three of Pale Fire, which speculates on the Institute for the Preparation of the Hereafter, I.P.H., or “if” (461-471). Humbert’s travels through America in Lolita derive from Nabokov’s own [butterfly-seeking] expeditions through America, so in his postscript to Lolita Nabokov writes about “[t]he obtaining of such local ingredients as would allow me to inject a modicum of ‘reality’ (one of the few words which mean nothing without quotes)” (314).6 I understand “such local ingredients” as signs of the phenomenal, familiar, lesser ‘reality’ in quotes as contradistinctive from the transcendent Otherworld, the superior reality without quotes.

  • 7 For a discussion of the Otherworld in Nabokov’s poetry, see Connolly “The Otherworldly.”

6I don’t here discuss the novels, which are thoroughly discussed elsewhere, or the poetry,7 in order to focus on the short fiction, because I think the short fiction is where Nabokov’s use of the Hereafter or Otherworld most obtrudes.

7Vladimir Nabokov, speaking in more or less his own voice, opens Speak, Memory with:

The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness […] Nature expects a full-grown man to accept the two black voids, fore and aft […]
I rebel against this state of affairs […] Over and over again, my mind has made colossal efforts to distinguish the faintest of personal glimmers in the impersonal darkness on both sides of my life. (369)

8And then from Nabokov’s Lectures on Literature,

That human life is but a first installment of the serial soul and that one’s individual secret is not lost in the process of earthly dissolution, becomes something more than an optimistic conjecture, and even more than a matter of religious faith, when we remember that only common sense rules immortality out. (377)

  • 8 See also Alexandrov, “Nabokov and Uspensky”; Blackwell; Connolly “Nabokov’s Approach”; Henry-Thomme (...)

9Vladimir Alexandrov, in part quoting Nabokov’s wife Véra, identifies potustpronost, roughly translated as “the hereafter” or “the beyond,” as Nabokov’s “main theme,’’ “saturat[ing] everything he wrote” (Nabokov’s Otherworld 4-5). Precisely what the Nabokovs meant by potustpronost is “ultimately incommunicable” so Nabokov “used only circumlocutions to describe it” (Alexandrov “The Otherworld” 567). As Nabokov elliptically says in Strong Opinions: “I know more than I can express in words, and the little I can express would not have been expressed, had I known more” (45); (similarly Speak Memory 387, speaking of his mother but metonymically of himself).8 It is very important to understand that for Nabokov the Otherworld is a metaphysical reality, however partially unknowable and incompletely understood it might be; it is not a metaphor for artistic imagination, although artistic imagination is subsumed within it. As Fyodor says in The Gift:

If he [Fyodor] had not been certain (as he was also in the case of literary creation) that the realization of the scheme already existed in some other world, from which he transferred it into this one, then the complex and prolonged work […] would have been an intolerable burden on the mind […] Everything had acquired sense and at the same time everything was concealed. Every creator is a plotter; and all the pieces impersonating his ideas on the board were here as conspirators and sorcerers. Only in the final instant was their secret spectacularly exposed […] but perhaps the most fascinating of all was the fine fabric of deceit, the abundance of insidious tries (the refutation of which had its own accessory beauty), and of the false trails carefully prepared for the reader. (171-172; emphasis added; Rampton 3)

10Fyodor is meditating on the connection between chess problems and his poetry, rather than short fiction; and Nabokov explicitly denies that he should be identified with Fyodor (Foreword to The Gift, n. pag.), but I argue that we can discern the applicability.

  • 9 Except as noted, all references to Nabokov’s short fiction are to The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov, (...)
  • 10 I didn’t catch this myself but learned it from Nabokov’s headnote to the story reprinted in Tyrants (...)

11That impingement from the Hereafter “may even affect […] a text being generated by an unsuspecting narrator” (Connolly “Nabokov’s Approach” 31), as in perhaps the best known of Nabokov’s short stories dealing most explicitly with a hereafter, “The Vane Sisters” (615-627),9 Nabokov’s next-to-last short story and perhaps the only one where the presence of a Hereafter is undeniable. Its last paragraph is an acrostic, with the first letters of each word spelling out a message from beyond the grave10:

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. (627)

  • 11 “Curiously enough, one cannot read a book: one can only reread it. A good reader, a major reader, a (...)

12Once reader-solvers discover this, one way or another, they then go back to reread the story11 and everything unfolds, like the themes in a chess problem. Note especially that once the acrostic has been solved, some of the individual words acquire thematic significance, like the obscure at-first-glance-irrelevant pieces in a chess problem: acrostics refers pointedly to this paragraph and its consequent salience for the whole story; recollection[s] form[ing] ripples of mysterious meaning; theopathies, an obscure word meaning “experience[s] or capacity for experience of the divine illumination” (“Theopathy”)—even its obscurity points to the obtuseness of the first-person narrator, as do the inept of inept acrostics and seemed blurred […] nothing tangible. The icicle formed acrostically by the first six words of this paragraph connects back to the second paragraph of the story, a vision of icicles, which the narrator finds “teasing as a coin trick” and “delightful but not completely satisfying” (615), and whose functionality in the story readers will not realize until they retrospectively apply this key-move acrostic. And, like a chess problem, Nabokov has his unaware narrator drop a hint—to an alert reader—that “the first letters of the words in [the] last paragraph formed a message from [a dead person]” (622). Cynthia and Sybil are the eponymous Vane sisters.

13Typical of Nabokov’s key moves is that if there is imagery of the sky or something above, and if the protagonist is unfortunate in one way or another, then there is likely to be some connection to an Otherworld. To me the paradigmatic Nabokov short story is “Details of a Sunset.” The tipsy Mark Standfuss is walking the streets of Berlin to visit his fiancée. The following passage is both deceptive and revealing:

That was stupid. Almost got run over by a bus […]
[…] The colors of the sunset had invaded half of the sky. Upper stories and roofs were bathed in glorious light. Up there, Mark could discern translucent porticoes, friezes and frescoes, trellises covered with orange roses, winged statues that lifted skyward golden, unbearably blazing lyres. In bright undulations, ethereally, festively, these architectonic enchantments were receding into the heavenly distance, and Mark could not understand how he had never noticed before those galleries, those temples suspended on high. (83)

14Readers must pay careful attention to every detail, every word, just as a chess problem solver must pay attention to every piece, every interaction. Note the words glorious, translucent, ethereally receding into the heavenly distance, temples suspended on high. These are not just Turner-like visuals but hint at, literally, a heaven. Mark is like a reader-solver, who “could not understand how he had never noticed before […] those temples suspended on high.” The reason Mark had never noticed before but now can is that now he is dead and “could discern” what the living usually don’t or couldn’t. The deceptiveness, like an obscure chess bishop off in an apparently irrelevant corner, is the “Almost got run over by a bus […].” Mark was, indeed run over by that bus, which he doesn’t know or yet realize, and some readers won’t figure out. In the last paragraph Mark experiences what amounts to a second death. He “had departed—whither, into what other dreams, no one can tell” (85). In a slightly different reading, Shrayer “suggests that Mark’s death in a hospital bed [means that] dying is not to be equated with entering the space of the otherworld, much as glimpses of the otherworld are not to be equated with […] the domain of the dead” (26).

  • 12 For example, Bader 2; Lee (Preface n. pag.); Stegner. Rutledge is aware, as he must be because he c (...)
  • 13 Gnosticism is much too large and complex a topic to discuss here; and, more saliently, we can’t kno (...)

15This also illustrates one feature of Nabokov’s aesthetics and metaphysics, which are intimately linked, although many American academic critics see only the aesthetics and overlook the metaphysics.12 Nabokov is at least tinged with Gnosticism13 (one of the characters Nabokov approves of, Cincinnatus in Invitation to a Beheading, is condemned for “Gnostic turpitude” [72]); and, as in “Details of a Sunset,” the gloriousness of the Hereafter/Otherworld is contrasted with the tawdriness of the familiar, material world: the “tawny brilliance” of the evening sky is explicitly “sharply” contrasted “with the drab façades beneath” (82). I am struck by how often Nabokov’s detailed descriptions of the material world emphasize how shabby, how second-rate, both the man-made world and the natural one are, in contrast to the color, the light, the iridescent beauty of some other realm. As Alexandrov says in a different context, Nabokov “render[s] the artificiality of the physical world in comparison to a spiritual one” (Nabokov’s Otherworld 45).

16It is a contrast in “Details of a Sunset,” but Blackwell, Kuzmanovich, and especially Alexandrov (Nabokov’s Otherworld 5-7) remind us that for Nabokov the Otherworld and the familiar but deceptive material world are a continuum, part of a whole, almost but not quite an antithesis. The details and patterning of the phenomenal world, specifically of nature as revealed in butterflies, point to an ultimate common ontogeny.

17And there is a moral, emotional dimension to the tawdry world: just before the end of the story Mark has a passionate reunion with his fiancée, but it is a posthumous fantasy, for a neighbor has told Mark’s mother earlier that the fiancée has left Mark for another lover. It is an indirect chess-problem move, for Mark doesn’t know this, but readers do (or alert readers do), because Mark went straight to his fiancée’s apartment instead of going to his mother’s (81-82). His life, had it continued, would have been sad, tawdry, like that of so many of the protagonists of Nabokov’s short fiction.

18Nabokov’s Otherworld is not necessarily a Hereafter, however (Barabtarlo, “Nabokov’s Trinity” 135; Kuzmanovich 38). In “Cloud, Castle, Lake,” a Russian émigré in Berlin, Vasiliy Ivanovich, has won a ticket to a vacation excursion. All his accompanying excursionists—not “fellow excursionists”—are Germans who torment him; and the scenery is described as “the configuration of entirely insignificant objects.” This is easily interpreted as a parable about the sufferings of a Russian émigré at the hands of crass Germans in Berlin of 1936 or 1937 (Shrayer 134-135), but there is more to it, consonant with Nabokov’s whole oeuvre. For on the train ride, because of the continuum between the phenomenal world and the Gnostic Otherworld, Vasiliy Ivanovich does get glimpses of attractive scenery, parts, fragments, shards of a not-yet whole (428; Shrayer 139-142). Eventually, however,

[t]hat very happiness of which he had once half dreamt was suddenly discovered.
It was a pure, blue lake, with an unusual expression of its water. In the middle, a large cloud was reflected in its entirety. On the other side, on a hill thickly covered with verdure (and the darker the verdure, the more poetic it is), towered, arising from dactyl to dactyl, an ancient black castle. Of course, there are plenty of such views in Central Europe, but just this one—in the inexpressible and unique harmoniousness of its principal parts, in its smile, in some mysterious innocence it had, my love! my obedient one!—was something so unique, and so familiar, and so long-promised, and it so
understood the beholder that Vasiliy Ivanovich even pressed his hand to his heart, as if to see whether his heart was there in order to give it away. (431; emphasis Nabokov’s)

19Then in the castle’s room for travelers

[…] from the window one could clearly see the lake with its cloud and castle, in a motionless and perfect correlation of happiness. Without reasoning, without considering, only entirely surrendering to an attraction the truth of which consisted in its own strength, a strength of which he had never experienced before, Vasiliy Ivanovich in one radiant second realized that here in this little room with that view, beautiful to the verge of tears, life would at last always be what he had always wished it to be. What exactly it would be like, what would take place here, that of course he did not know, but all around were help, promise, and consolation—so that there could not be any doubt that he must live here. (431-432; emphasis added)

20Vasiliy Ivanovich is forced to return to Berlin, where he begs his employer, who in a typical Nabokovian touch is also the rarely appearing first-person narrator, to allow him to resign his position, “that he had not the strength to belong to mankind any longer. Of course, I let him go” (433). (I surmise the apostrophe to “my love! my obedient one!” is not to some extra-textual woman but is to Vasiliy Ivanovich. Nabokov’s narrators are often stand-ins for Nabokov himself, and, just maybe, for some extra-textual, extra-worldly deity figure. On the other hand, Shrayer suggests the addressee is a woman beloved by both Vasiliy Ivanovich and the narrator, who have fused [159].)

  • 14 That is, we are not told in the story text. Field reports Nabokov as saying that Vasiliy “will neve (...)

21The cloud, castle, lake are some version of the transcendent, non-sublunary world. Note the oxymoronic “something so unique, and so familiar” as well as the “and so long-promised.” How, when, or even whether Vasiliy Ivanovich returns to the castle we are not told.14 The simplest reading would be to psychologize Nabokov’s Otherworld as a longing for his lost idyllic aristocracy in Russia. But I argue that that reading is reductive. Speak, Memory hints that Nabokov’s imagining an Otherworld antedates his exile from Russia (387-396). Nabokov only hints at his Hereafter/Otherworld, perhaps because it is private, perhaps to defuse skepticism and a resultant depreciation of his artistry, but more probably because, as an Otherworld, he cannot fully formulate it even to himself. Like Vasiliy Ivanovich, we cannot know with any degree of certainty “[w]hat exactly it would be like.”

22Other Nabokov short stories that might connect in some way to a Hereafter or Otherworld are “Christmas,” “The Return of Chorb,” “Wingstroke,” “Perfection,” “A Busy Man” (one of the more obvious of Nabokov’s key moves is in “A Busy Man” where a prominent benefactor is named Mr. Engel, German for angel). How many of Nabokov’s short stories depend on, or just include, intimations of potustpronost cannot be calculated, for the allusions are subtle (key moves in chess problems), depend on readers’ inferences, and are therefore easy to miss or even deny.


23And those subtle, easy to miss, allusive key moves bring us to Nabokov’s most enigmatic, most discussed, most debated, and perhaps least understood story, “Signs and Symbols.” Nabokov the chess problem composer seeks to deceive the solvers, or to challenge the more astute to work out the key move. Unlike chess games,

[c]hess problems provide for mistakes only in the form of inviting false key moves, which, with the responses to them, are interesting hypotheses more or less parallel to the true solution: the element of uncertainty all but disappears; a sound problem is designed to admit of only one solution, and the solver is not really expected to miss it, although he may be interestingly diverted. (Gezari and Wimsatt 106-107; similarly Gezari “Game Fiction” 64; see also Kuzmanovich 27)

24As Terry J. Martin says

“Signs and Symbols” engenders a kind of interpretive paradox, […] for if it calls attention in a variety of ways to the need to interpret, it […] simultaneously challenges our ability to do so. The story is a self-conscious and brilliantly constructed trap for interpreters, much like the chess problems Nabokov loved to create […] [A]ny interpretation of the story [is] at best tenuous and equivocal. (105)

25In “Signs and Symbols” an elderly couple has a suicidal son who has been institutionalized with

[…] ‘Referential mania’ [where] the patient imagines that everything happening around him is a veiled reference to his personality and existence […] Pebbles or stains or sun flecks form patterns representing in some awful way messages which he must intercept. Everything is a cipher and of everything he is the theme. (595)

  • 15 Some perhaps desperate attempts: Barabtarlo suggests “the jellies are arranged in order of increasi (...)

26The couple tries to visit the son in the sanatorium to bring him a birthday present, a collection of ten small jars of fruit jellies. (What those fruit jelly jars might be a sign or symbol of is a matter of much critical discussion, none of it very persuasive.15) The parents are turned away when a nurse tells them that the son has again attempted to take his life. When they return to their apartment they receive three telephone calls. Two seem to be simply wrong numbers. In the story’s last paragraph, the husband “reexamine[s] with pleasure the luminous yellow, green, red little jars.” Then the very last sentence: “He had got to crab apple, when the telephone rang again.”

27“Signs and Symbols” ends abruptly with no apparent resolution. Readers are challenged to solve what that third telephone call is. Among the candidates are the same wrong number (the least likely); the sanatorium calling to say the son is all right; the sanatorium calling to say the son is dead; the son still alive calling to report something; an unreliable narrator (Andrews).

28“Signs and Symbols” is one of very few short stories to have an entire book devoted to it, Yuri Leving’s Anatomy of a Short Story, a collection of scholarly articles. Much of Anatomy of a Short Story is very close reading, often word by word, New Criticism style, as if “Signs and Symbols” were a Shakespeare sonnet—indeed the reprint of “Signs and Symbols” in Leving numbers its lines like a poem for close reference (9-14). I need not recapitulate all those close readings here because they are so many and so various that they would expand this essay well beyond readability; more saliently, the upshots of all those close readings are so inconclusive that they point to readers creating their own meanings, even derived from very close readings.

  • 16 Leving “The Castling Problem in ‘Signs and ‘Symbols’” (270-276) explicitly uses the “chess problem (...)

29Yet, despite, or maybe because of, those varying conclusions, those close readings are correct in one important aspect: they perceive the relevance and interconnectedness of every single, apparently irrelevant, maybe gratuitous or merely descriptive detail, like all the pieces in a chess problem; and they obey the very human impulse to try to solve “Signs and Symbols.” But all those close readings are what chess problem solvers would call “false tries”: they are intelligent, worthy efforts, not quite wrong, but they miss the correct key move—if there even is one.16

  • 17 It is reprinted in Leving (236-250) under a slightly different title, but I am citing from the orig (...)

30I am here following, but going one step beyond, William Carroll’s very influential article.17 Carroll argues, persuasively in my judgment, that

“[r]eferential mania” is a critical disease that all readers of fiction suffer from. Our duty as critics is to explicate and analyze the signs—which point to a single meaning outside the work itself […] Over-reading is another, milder form of referential mania, and Nabokov has insured […] that the reader will succumb to the same mania that afflicts the boy. The story is studded with apparent signs and symbols that the gullible reader—that is, any reader—will attempt to link together in a “meaningful” pattern. (211-212)
The overdose of meaning is our own; we can’t accept a third random phone number but must see the “death pattern” completed, because that is the way our minds work. (214)

31Nearly all commentary on “Signs and Symbols” agrees that the story is not just mysterious but sad, somber, even terrifying. Carroll (203) paraphrases King Lear’s Gloucester: “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods; / They kill us for their sport” (4.1.37-38). An example of understanding reached through close reading of details is one important element, not quite explicitly stated in the text but clear enough through allusions; it is that the elderly couple are almost certainly Jewish refugees from the Nazi Holocaust or perhaps Russian pogroms (Nabokov Selected Letters 117; Toker 174-177; Leving “The Jewish Quest”)—a synecdoche for the horror of this world. We live in a stochastic world, not fully understandable and to some degree causeless, with patterning either incomplete or misleading, so “Signs and Symbols” can be read as a somewhat more desperate verisimulacrum for our material world, our ‘reality’ in quotes. An important component of Carroll’s argument is that the human mind rebels against this state of affairs. We seek some kind of relief or escape, through any possible means fictively available, i.e. by imposing some kind of order or regularity on phenomena, and thereby meaning and maybe solace, whether or not that imposition is ontologically justifiable. That is, for Carroll, key-move solving of fiction, at least of “Signs and Symbols,” is a mistake, a mild form of referential mania or paranoia, however human, hopeful, or hopeless that might be.

32In most of the short stories and in his other works that have an Otherworld, Nabokov plants clues to its presence, or potential presence. (How obvious these clues are will vary from story to story and reader to reader). Lane explicitly mentions chess problems and quotes the passage from Speak Memory that I quote above but does not consider solving “Signs and Symbols” by finding a key move—in fact, Lane’s reading is much like Carroll’s. In “The Vane Sisters” the clues are not just the acrostic but the apparently stray remarks by the unaware narrator; in “Details of a Sunset” the clue is the literally celestial imagery; in “A Busy Man” Mr. Engel.

33But by contrast in “Signs and Symbols” all the details (chess pieces), all the interconnectedness, and all but one of the phrases direct readers’ attention to this material, phenomenal, sad and cruel world, not to a possible transcendent Otherworld. The one exception is

The last time [the son] had tried [to commit suicide] his method had been, in the doctor’s words, a masterpiece of inventiveness; he would have succeeded had not an envious fellow patient thought he was learning to fly—and stopped him. What he really wanted to do was tear a hole in his world and escape (595; emphasis added).

34I reproduce the whole paragraph to show several features. One is how easy it is for readers to overlook that last sentence, inserted in an account of the son’s madness. Another is the “masterpiece of inventiveness”: Nabokov’s madmen are often creative, quasi-artistic masters of inventiveness. Then the fellow patient is “envious,” an important but easily overlooked detail hinting that escaping this world is a desideratum for more than one person. In true chess problem fashion, the hes and the last his might even be ambiguous pronoun references anaphoric to the envious patient as well as to the son. All of this might point to some other world.

  • 18 Chronology is a factor here. Carroll’s article was first published in 1974, well before Alexandrov’ (...)

35Perhaps Carroll is correct that deciphering the story and solving the third phone call are irrelevant and/or reader-created. But in a letter to Katherine White, a New Yorker editor, Nabokov says many of his stories, including “the one about the old Jewish couple and their sick boy,” are composed “according to [the] system wherein a second (main) story is woven into, or placed behind, the superficial semitransparent one” (Selected Letters 117). I take this as evidence that readers are expected to find whatever that “second (main) story” would be. Thus my candidate for the solution to the third phone call, that the son having successfully escaped from his world is calling from a Hereafter, derives from my immersion in writing this essay and looking for indications of that Nabokovian Otherworld18; that is, I had imported my own predispositions into the reading activity. Whether the son actually escapes into some transcendent, metaphysically real Otherworld or is just dead—or neither—the story does not tell us. The criticism of “Signs and Symbols” is littered with chess problem-like false tries; and mine might well be one of them, but Nabokov invites us to seek a key move solution. If the son has indeed achieved some escape from this unhappy world into a better one, then perhaps there will ultimately be an escape for the parents too—and maybe even for all of us. No, the story does not tell us, but readers have the freedom to infer, or even to (co-)create, a “rebel[lion] against this state of affairs.”

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Alexandrov, Vladimir E. Ed. The Garland Companion to Vladimir Nabokov. New York: Garland, 1995. Print.

---. “Nabokov and Uspensky.” Garland Companion. 548-553. Print.

---. Nabokov’s Otherworld. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1991. Print.

---. “The Otherworld.” Garland Companion. 566-571. Print.

Allan, Nina. Madness, Death and Disease in the Fiction of Vladimir Nabokov. Birmingham Slavonic Monographs. Birmingham UK: U of Birmingham P, 1994. Print.

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Assa, Frances Peltz. “Solving ‘Signs and Symbols.’” The Nabokovian 72 (Spring 2014). 20-25. Print.

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1 For a thorough discussion of chess problems, see Gezari, “Game Fiction” 60-80, 85-87, 102; Gezari and Wimsatt; and Wimsatt. In good New-Criticism style, Wimsatt’s essay is a close reading of a chess problem (not one of Nabokov’s) but is more how to solve (i.e., read) chess problems than how to compose them.

2 Rowe describes reader participation in extracting significance from Nabokov’s details (61-71); Nabokov says “there is no delight without the detail, and it is on details that I have tried to fix the reader’s attention” (qtd. in Rowe 61, 70).

3 Although chess as a theme or allusions to chess are frequently mentioned in criticism of Nabokov, Leving’s “The Castling Problem in ‘Signs and Symbols’” (Leving, Anatomy 270-276) is the only work I know of that explicitly connects chess problems to Nabokov’s short fiction. Gezari’s thorough account of chess problems in her “Game Fiction: The World of Play and the Novels of Vladimir Nabokov” (emphasis added), as her title shows, never mentions the short fiction. Alexandrov focuses almost exclusively on Nabokov’s novels, poetry, and discursive writings; Rampton’s Vladimir Nabokov: A Literary Life, although a chronological study of Nabokov’s style, never mentions the short fiction at all. Johnson devotes a chapter to chess patterning and imagery (Worlds in Regression 79-111) but he doesn’t mention any short fiction in this context except Solus Rex, and then only in passing as a chess problem theme (81), not the short story of that name (which is actually a fragment of an unfinished novel).

4 For convenient overviews of Nabokov’s short fiction, see Barabtarlo (“English Short Stories”); Meyer (“Nabokov’s Short Fiction”); and Tolstaia and Meilakh.

5 As an informal survey, I checked as many anthologies of short fiction I could find in a major university library. Of the 22 anthologies that aim for some degree of comprehensiveness, 14 did not include any Nabokov short fiction. Of the eight that did, “Spring in Fialta” was included three times, “Christmas” and “Cloud, Castle, Lake” once each, and “First Love” twice (but one of them was removed from a later edition). If we count the Norton Anthology of Short Fiction as more or less canon setting, “Signs and Symbols” is included in some editions, including the most recent (2006) (Bausch and Cassill 1165-1169) but not the shorter editions. An advertisement for Great Courses “Masterpieces of Short Fiction” lists 23 short fiction masterpieces, the ones one would expect, but none by Nabokov.

6 I am indebted to an anonymous reviewer of an earlier draft of this article for calling my attention to this remark.

7 For a discussion of the Otherworld in Nabokov’s poetry, see Connolly “The Otherworldly.”

8 See also Alexandrov, “Nabokov and Uspensky”; Blackwell; Connolly “Nabokov’s Approach”; Henry-Thommes 20-23, 33-40; Johnson; Johnson and Boyd; Maar 75; Meyer “Dolorous Haze”; Rampton 7-8; Rowe 86-87; Rutledge 121-140, 182-186; Shrayer 17-70). Kuzmanovich suggests some caution, though not dismissal, for claims about the pervasiveness of Otherworlds in Nabokov’s oeuvre.

9 Except as noted, all references to Nabokov’s short fiction are to The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov, and will be cited in the text. Most of Nabokov’s Russian stories were translated by Dmitri Nabokov in collaboration with his father Vladimir; but a few were translated by others, one was written in French, and ten were originally written in English and thus need no translator, as noted in the Appendix (657-659).

10 I didn’t catch this myself but learned it from Nabokov’s headnote to the story reprinted in Tyrants Destroyed and Other Stories (218).

11 “Curiously enough, one cannot read a book: one can only reread it. A good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a rereader” (Nabokov Lectures on Literature 3; emphasis Nabokov’s).

12 For example, Bader 2; Lee (Preface n. pag.); Stegner. Rutledge is aware, as he must be because he cites Alexandrov, that Nabokov treats the Otherworld’s existence as a metaphysical reality, but Rutledge is not alone in consistently treating the Otherworld only as an aesthetic realm. Fowler says that Nabokov thinks that transcendence from death can be achieved only in art (16). Moreno’s explicitly deconstructionist reading, which emphasizes subjectivity, even solipsism, in both fictional characters and readers, implicitly denies or ignores the possibility of metaphysics in Nabokov and, consequentially, the possibility of a key move pointing to a presence of a transcendent Otherworld.

13 Gnosticism is much too large and complex a topic to discuss here; and, more saliently, we can’t know which version would be applicable to Nabokov. See Johnson Worlds in Regression. For a discussion of Nabokov’s use of it in Invitation to a Beheading and implicitly elsewhere, see Davydov esp. 191-201. For Gnosticism in Nabokov’s very last short story “Lance” see Howell.

14 That is, we are not told in the story text. Field reports Nabokov as saying that Vasiliy “will never find it [the castle] again. If I let him go, it is in the hope that he might find a less dangerous job than that of my agent” (197; qtd. in Fowler 66). I suspect that Nabokov here is tongue in cheek with Field—Nabokov is never explicit with interviewers about his belief in a real, metaphysical transcendent otherworld. On the other hand, Fowler thinks Vasiliy Ivanovich’s “recovery […] is Platonic; the vision seems to have existed before, in a dimension that now penetrates into Vasili[y]’s and that he seems to recognize from prior knowledge” (66). Note Fowler’s hedging (“seems to”). Allan thinks the story’s last paragraph is Vasiliy Ivanovich committing suicide (62-63).

15 Some perhaps desperate attempts: Barabtarlo suggests “the jellies are arranged in order of increasing astringency” (“Five Missing Jars” 141); Trzeciak (somewhat arbitrarily) takes four of the last five jars and anagrammatizes their last letters of the fruit to arrive at “theme,” and then uses part of the Latin scientific name for crab apple, paradisaca to suggest that it hints at the Adam and Eve story, “a vague resemblance to the forbidden fruit”; Assa uses Morse code to arrive at I SENT and I SEND.

16 Leving “The Castling Problem in ‘Signs and ‘Symbols’” (270-276) explicitly uses the “chess problem as a structural matrix” to solve ‘Signs and ‘Symbols.’ He argues “the Husband eventually dies in the story’s timeframe and his death coincides with its textual end […] The Husband’s decision is an ethical one: he withdraws from this world, freeing their tiny two-room apartment to make room for the son to return […] the Husband withdraws from the scene in a conscious attempt to strike a winning combination in life’s conundrum: if his son has survived, then the Husband has created the conditions for his successful return; if the son has committed suicide, then this is the Husband’s escape into a safe place where he can reunite with the deceased. In other words, one hero moves aside in order to save another” (272). I think this is a “false try,” because it is not so certain that the husband dies, and, more significantly for the schema I argue here, it does not answer the puzzle of the third phone call: a chess problem key move must account for all the details, all the possible moves.

17 It is reprinted in Leving (236-250) under a slightly different title, but I am citing from the original publication because Leving’s reprint has production errors. As only one sign of how influential Carroll is, contributors to Leving cite it 36 times (Leving’s Index 394). Richter (233-235), Rosenzweig, and Vicks make similar arguments. For a rebuttal to Carroll and this line of thought, see Hagopian.

18 Chronology is a factor here. Carroll’s article was first published in 1974, well before Alexandrov’s Nabokov’s Otherworld in 1994, and most of the criticism referring to a Nabokovian Otherworld follows Alexandrov, both chronologically and as an influence. My essay was completed in 2016 and thus has been influenced by all the criticism that precedes it.

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Eric Hyman, « Chess Problems and the Otherworld in Nabokov’s Short Stories »Journal of the Short Story in English, 69 | 2017, 93-110.

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Eric Hyman, « Chess Problems and the Otherworld in Nabokov’s Short Stories »Journal of the Short Story in English [En ligne], 69 | Autumn 2017, mis en ligne le 01 décembre 2019, consulté le 21 janvier 2021. URL :

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Eric Hyman

Eric Hyman is a Professor of English at Fayetteville State University in North Carolina, where he teaches composition, British Literature, and linguistics. He holds a Ph.D. from Rutgers University. He is on the editorial board of the online journal GLINT, where his responsibility is reviewing short fiction submissions. His present contribution to the JSSE is a much expanded version of a paper given at the Vladimir Nabokov Society Meeting, Modern Language Association Convention, New York, 27 December 1996.

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