Gail Jones' new novel is in many ways the sister book to , which was published to great acclaim over five years ago. Like it, is named after a precursor text, this time a 1925 short story originally published in Russian by Vladimir Nabokov. It also offers a portrait of a city – not summery Sydney but "desolating ash-grey" Berlin during a "fierce cold" winter.
There are some familiar preoccupations: loss and death, and how the living carry the wounds these cause into the present. Assembled are a similar cast of cosmopolitan characters – two Italians, two Japanese, one American and one Australian – who are strangers to one another but whose lives intersect due not to the lure of a glorious harbour but a shared passion for Nabokov.
Is it possible to think of a writer less likely to bring people together in a spirit of bonhomie than Nabokov – so supercilious in his public outings, so committed to keeping the reader at bay, even on the back foot, in his fiction? Be that as it may, Jones has her international band of "devotees" gather by appointment weekly in empty grand apartments dotted about West Berlin to indulge what their ringleader, Marco, calls their "collective mania".
When the Australian, a 26-year-old would-be writer named Cass, who focalises the novel's action, joins the group she discovers a "narrative pact" has been sealed. Each member will offer "speak-memory disclosures" – that is, candid and "densely remembered" stories or details in the vein of Nabokov's memoir – and will be listened to in silence and sympathy.
The novel opens with Cass riding the S-Bahn over the Spree and thinking that the ice formed on the river's surface, "a spray of shattered glass after a wartime bombing", must of necessity prompt older Berliners to recall "something blasted and asunder, piles of bricks, lives scattered, and a windowless episode in their childhoods".
Cass' thought process here neatly sums up Jones' treatment of character: her people move through today's world only to meet yesterday's traumas. More often than not, these traumas are aligned to tragedies of a national scale – as indeed was Nabokov's own life. Thus, Gino mourns a father who died as a result of injuries sustained in the Bologna massacre of August 2, 1980 and Yukio became a hikikomori and refuses to ride the U-Bahn as a response to the Tokyo subway sarin attacks of 1995. That Marco's speak-memory contains no such incidents – as Cass notes – might be a formal experiment or a pointed exception.
The speak-memory game is scarcely creditable as realism and is a clunky device to get the characters talking about themselves. But it is more likely to have been chosen because it prises open larger questions: about the benefits of revisiting past events and about the reliability of the stories we tell about ourselves to others, the latter of which is a Nabokovian theme, certainly – just think of all those compulsive and eloquent self-disclosing criminals in his fiction. Might Jones mean Marco – "charismatic in an anachronistic way" and given to "rhetorical flourish" – has a place alongside his Humbert Humbert and Hermann Karlovich? Regardless, what Cass realises when it comes time for her own "speak-memory' is that everybody is, to a greater or lesser extent, an unreliable narrator, leaving important things out and "veering into flowery declarations and indulgences".
There are many more overt Nabokovian elements to be found in Yukio loves chess, Cass wants to see the Ulysses butterfly, Marco shares Nabokov's birthday, a red fire engine is described as having "fled past, a pale fire, into the frosty distance".
The novel's dramatic climax and ending won't be as surprising to readers who have read their fair share of Nabokov novels. In choosing Nabokov as her reference point, Jones also builds into her novel a justification for employing a fussy, even slightly antiquated, prose style. The sky is described as "louring", to feel cold is to "suffer pathetically in a minor key of frozen hands and feet", Mitsuko kisses Cass not three times but "thrice". Only the American Victor speaks like a person you might meet in real life; it is for his sins against purple prose, perhaps, that his fate is sealed.
Berlin is a city suited to being the place of composition as well as the setting of a novel haunted by dead presences. Jones' descriptions of the city's layers and suggestions of its turbulent past, usually from Cass' point of view while she rides its train system,are truly fine. Looking out of carriage windows Cass sees a city under construction and thinks: "Rubble, more rubble. There was a history of Berlin to be written on the topic of rubble. Wreckage, waste, the sense of corruption or crime scene."
A Guide to Berlin review: Gail Jones and the influence of Vladimir Nabokov: The Sydney Morning Herald
Date September 19, 2015