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.