Frequent commenter Jim Salant sent me a link a while back to a reading by Mary Gaitskill of Vladimir Nabokov’s “Symbols and Signs” (as they call it) and a discussion with The New Yorker’s fiction editor, Deborah Treisman (pronounced TREECE-man). Here‘s a direct link to the mp3 file, in case you want to download it rather than playing it from the linked page, and here‘s the story itself, one of the best Nabokov (or anyone) ever wrote (if you don’t mind a little metaphysical mystery in your fiction). You will notice that the story is called “Signs and Symbols” at that last link, as it is in all available collections and in The Garland Companion to Vladimir Nabokov (a superb collection of essays discussing every aspect of his writing); I was all set to be grumpy about the sloppy mistitling, but then in the discussion after the reading Treisman explains that Katherine White, who edited it for The New Yorker, insisted on changing the title over Nabokov’s objections, so that it appeared in the magazine as “Symbols and Signs.” I find it odd that they keep that title now, but I guess it’s one of those New Yorker quirks.
At any rate, Gaitskell reads well, barring a couple of mispronunciations that momentarily bothered me: Bori-SOV-na for Bo-RIS-ovna (daughter of Boris, feminine equivalent of Borisovich) is understandable, but the spelling pronunciation of “victuals” makes me unreasonably annoyed (it’s vittles, dammit!). And in the discussion they point out some interesting things, for instance that “beech plum” (as Nabokov writes it) is actually “beach” (OED cite: 1877 BARTLETT Dict. Amer. 550 Sand-Plum,.. a beach-plum. A plum growing on plum-trees whose habitat is sandy beaches)—although I find the suggestion that this has something to do with Buchenwald implausible (and that goes double for the suggestion that the “picture in a book” the son is afraid of is Breughel’s “Triumph of Death“—one look at it makes it impossible to imagine its being called “an idyllic landscape”).
While we’re on the subject of Nabokov: as I’ve mentioned before, I’m rereading Evgenii Onegin and following along in his commentary, and concerning V:XVI:4 he writes “big funeral: Perhaps a recollection of the burial of Onegin’s uncle… The allusion is to the noisy arval, the feast following the actual interment.” I wrote Anatoly, to whom I frequently turn for help with Russian (and who has temporarily taken down his Live Journal, which I keep clicking on in hopes it’s returned), “I can’t find arval (I also tried orval) in any of my dictionaries, even Dahl, so I’m assuming it’s a misprint, but I can’t think for what. I know the word trizna for funeral feast, but that’s not even close.” Anatoly didn’t know any Russian words that seemed relevant, but suggested I check my Webster’s Third New International, saying “N. got a lot of his more obscure words out of his trusty M-W 2nd edition.” It hadn’t even occurred to me that it might be English, but sure enough, there it was:
arval also arvel n. [ME arvell, of Scand. origin; akin to ON. erfiöl, fr. erfi inheritance, funeral feast + öl ale, drinking bout, banquet; akin to ON. arfi inheritance] dial. Brit: a funeral feast
As I said in my response, “Damn that guy and his terminally obscure terms!”