Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0000361, Thu, 3 Nov 1994 14:56:06 -0800

RJ:A Guide to Berlin (fwd)
EDITOR'S NOTE: The following is an installment of Roy Johnson study of
VN's short stories. Your comments are invited.

---------- Forwarded message
---------- From: Roy Johnson <Roy@mantex.demon.co.uk>


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, they 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

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. And 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 connexions 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

Next week's story: A NURSERY TALE