09 – A Guide to Berlin
a critical examination of Nabokov's collected stories
In ‘A Guide to Berlin’ (1925) Nabokov returns to the subject of ‘Happiness even in exile’. In form it is not much more than a series of observations of everyday life in the city – sewerpipes, people at work, the zoo, a pub – yet Nabokov issues a warning in his editorial note to it: ‘Despite its simple appearance the Guide is one of my trickiest pieces’ (DS,p.90).
He invents for no immediately obvious reason a first person narrator with one arm, a scar, and a walking stick – a post-war veteran who speaks of his enthusiasm for Berlin life to his ‘friend and usual pot-companion’ (p.91) in the pub. We take it that the friend is some sort of ‘other self’. The descriptions of objects and people are very typical of Nabokov’s desire to record the materiality and the textures of the world in concrete and specific detail.
Quite apart from the fact that they are so sharply observed, these details also serve as springboards from which Nabokov launches flights of inventive and lyrical fancy – as in his meditation upon a snow-covered sewerpipe which reveals hidden connections between the phenomena he observes:
Today someone wrote ‘Otto’ with his finger on the strip of virgin snow and I thought how beautifully that name, with its two soft o’s flanking the pair of gentle consonants, suited the silent layer of snow upon that pipe with its two orifices and its tacit tunnel (p.92).
The rest of the story is composed of similar images positively and enthusiastically conveyed. Apart from a brief remark that living is expensive, one would hardly guess that this was the Berlin of post-inflation economic collapse, the city in which Kafka had died following the coal shortage only a few months previously.
But in fact Nabokov’s real centre of interest and what holds together the apparently random observations is revealed during his reflections on the streetcar: ‘The streetcar will vanish in twenty years or so, just as the horse-drawn tram has vanished’ (p.92). His real subjects are time, memory, the evanescence of things, and the power of art to transcend them.
His answer to eternal decay is to make just such an exact record of even ordinary everyday trifles in order that the sense of life they represent should be available to those who live on after us: ‘here lies the sense of literary creation: to portray ordinary objects as they will be reflected in the kindly mirrors of future times’ (p.94).
To play further with the connections between time, memory, and identity, he goes on to describe the pub in which he and his companion are sitting. He notices the publican’s son who he thinks ‘will remember the billiard table and…my empty right sleeve and scarred face’ which he then designates as ‘somebody’s future recollection’ (p.98) – neatly projecting his own identity and the boy’s memory into an imagined future.
Even though he was wrong about Berlin streetcars and could be wrong about the boy’s future memory, the idea is a very deft encapsulation of Nabokov’s early speculations on time, memory, and evanescence – but most importantly of all it reveals his confidence in the power of literary creation to transcend all three.
© Roy Johnson 2005
Vladimir Nabokov links
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