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 intersection; a flour-doused baker on a tricycle shoots down the street, followed by a van collecting empty bottles from taverns; and a postman fills his mailbag from a stuffed letterbox. Of all these sights, the narrator’s attention is arrested by the ‘‘fairest’’ sight of all, a meat merchant’s truck piled high with skinned carcasses being delivered to Berlin butcher shops.
Part IV: Eden
In the story’s fourth section, the narrator has arrived at the Berlin Zoo. He describes it as a ‘‘manmade Eden,’’ a reminder of the ‘‘solemn, and tender,’’ opening of the Old Testament, in which the tale of Adam and Eve and the Garden is first told. Although it is an imperfect paradise in that the animals are caged, it is the closest man can get to a utopia on earth, and thus the name of the hotel across from the Zoo—the Hotel Eden—strikes the narrator as particularly apt. Because it is winter, the narrator cannot view the Zoo’s tropical animals, so instead he heads for the Zoo’s amphibian, insect, and fish houses. The narrator likens the lighted windows of the aquarium to the portholes in Captain Nemo’s submarine in the Jules Verne novel 20,000 Leagues under the Sea. He then imagines that the red starfish he sees in one of the aquarium windows is the origin of the ‘‘notorious’’ red star emblem of the Soviet Union. By trying to establish a ‘‘topical utopia’’ like the legendary sunken city of Atlantis (‘‘Atlantica’’), the narrator notes, communist Russia only ‘‘cripples’’ the modern world with its ideological ‘‘inanities.’’
The narrator then makes a final guidebook-like recommendation: ‘‘do not omit to watch the giant tortoises being fed.’’ Although the ancient tortoise dining on moist leaves is physically unprepossessing, its majestic ‘‘ageless’’ shell seems to the narrator to carry the ‘‘splendid burden of time.’’
Part V: The Pub
The story closes where it began, after the narrator’s morning trek but with the narrator and his companion now seated within the pub some time after the narrator has left the zoo. The listener immediately objects that the guide to Berlin the narrator has just offered him is ‘‘very poor.’’ The narrator does not answer but only peers into the room at the back of the bar where, on a table that sits in front of a couch below a mirror, the barkeep’s son is being fed soup. The listener again demands that the narrator explain his peculiar guide to Berlin, a city that strikes him in any case as ‘‘boring,’’ ‘‘foreign,’’ and ‘‘expensive.’’ Still receiving no answer, he follows the narrator’s gaze toward the child in the back room, who now raises his eyes to look back out at the bar. The narrator describes what the child sees: the bar’s pool table, the metal bar itself, two obese truckers seated at a table, and, at another, the narrator and his companion. Although the scene is a familiar one to the child, the narrator ‘‘knows’’ that whatever the child’s future life may bring, he will always remember the view he had from this table: the billiard table, the bar’s denizens, the hovering cigar smoke, the patrons’s voices, and the narrator’s ‘‘scarred face’’ and missing right arm. The listener complains that he ‘‘can’t understand’’ what the narrator sees in the other room, to which the narrator silently replies ‘‘how can I demonstrate to him that I have glimpsed somebody’s future recollection?’’