Published in a Russian emigre newspaper in Berlin on Christmas Eve, 1925, ‘‘A Guide to Berlin’’ is among Vladimir Nabokov’s earliest literary works and an unusual demonstration of his mastery of the storyteller’s craft. Modeled loosely on a tourist’s guide book to a foreign city, the story shows an unnamed narrator briefly observing and commenting on everyday aspects of Berlin life. Unburied utility pipes, an antiquated streetcar and its nimble conductor, glimpses of Berliners at work, a tour of the city’s zoo, and an illuminating moment in a pub become a rumination on the power of memory and art to preserve and transform everyday life.
Although in 1930 Nabokov claimed that ‘‘A Guide to Berlin’’ was the best story in his collection The Return of Chorb (1929), it was not until he had established his reputation with such novels as Lolita (1955) and Pale Fire (1962)—and had translated, with his son, ‘‘A Guide to Berlin’’ into English (1976)—that the story began to receive critical attention. Since then critics have consistently found it among the best of Nabokov’s early literary attempts and have praised, among other aspects, its ‘‘prose poem’’ style; its unusual and intricate structure; and its sophisticated integration of language and theme. Critics have also praised in particular Nabokov’s handling of the theme of time, of the self’s relationship to others, and of the literary artist’s obligation to memorialize for future readers the details of ordinary life through acts of ‘‘proactive nostalgia.’’ Some critics have argued that ‘‘A Guide to Berlin’’ resembles Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev’s ‘‘careless sketch’’ style in his A Sportsman’s Sketches, and others have pointed to the general influence of major Russian writers like Nikolai Gogol, Leo Tolstoy, Aleksander Pushkin, and Fedor Dostoevsky on Nabokov’s early development. After Nabokov’s statement in the mid-1970s that ‘‘A Guide to Berlin’’ was ‘‘one of my trickiest pieces,’’ critics have paid closer attention to the story, and its reputation as perhaps the best of Nabokov’s early Russian-language tales has grown.
Part I: The Pipes
‘‘A Guide to Berlin’’ begins with the narrator entering a Berlin pub with a drinking companion after a morning spent, he notes, observing ‘‘utility pipes, streetcars, and other important matters.’’ The story’s first section marks the beginning of the ‘‘guide to Berlin’’ that the narrator describes to his listener later that day. On his way to the Berlin Zoo, the narrator had encountered several utility pipes not yet installed beneath the asphalt of the street in front of his home. He describes how the pipes got there, the exploits of the neighborhood boys on them after they were unloaded, and their appearance that morning after receiving a fresh blanket of snow. As the section closes, he notes that someone has spelled out the name ‘‘Otto’’ on the snow covering one of the pipes, a name that strikes him as ‘‘beautifully’’ mirroring the shape of the pipes themselves.
Part II: The Streetcar
Boarding a streetcar that will eventually drop him off at the Berlin Zoo, the narrator is reminded of its resemblance to the now extinct horse-drawn trams of St. Petersburg, Russia. The narrator observes how efficiently the streetcar conductor takes change and gives out tickets despite his coarsened hands, and likens his dexterity to that of a pianist. He admires the conductor’s flawless performance of his daily routine despite the swaying of the streetcar and the cold Berlin winter. When the streetcar reaches the end of the line, its two cars reverse positions: the first car is uncoupled and released onto a side track until it falls behind the second car and then joins up with it from the rear. The narrator suggests that the streetcar will soon go into a museum for technological antiques. As the narrator approaches the Berlin Zoo, he imagines a writer of the twenty-first century assembling the details of a vivid portrait of life in 1920s Berlin simply by studying a mothballed streetcar at some museum of the future. To the writer of the twenty- first century, the narrator’s ‘‘yellow, uncouth’’ streetcar will be a historical treasure.
Part III: Work
In the story’s third section, the narrator describes individual scenes of Berlin’s commercial life visible from the windows of the streetcar. Workmen rhythmically drive iron stakes into the earth of a torn-up...
(The entire section is 969 words.)