Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1082

The original publication of ‘‘A Guide to Berlin’’ (as ‘‘Putevoditel’ po Berlinu’’) in a Russian-language newspaper for the Russian expatriate community in Berlin virtually guaranteed that Nabokov’s fourteenth published story would receive little initial critical attention. By 1930, however, Nabokov’s first three novels— Mashenka, Korol’, dama, valet, and Zashchita Luzhina—had established Nabokov’s literary reputation, and he decided to gather his early stories into the collection Vozvrashchenie Chorba (1929, translated as The Return of Chorb). Writing to a friend in 1930, Nabokov described ‘‘A Guide to Berlin’’ as the best story in the collection, but contemporary reviewers preferred the title story, written in the same year as ‘‘A Guide to Berlin,’’ about the loss of a lover. As Nabokov’s reputation grew with the publication of such works as Priglashenie na Kazn’ (1938, Invitation to a Beheading) and Lolita (1955), critics continued to ignore ‘‘A Guide to Berlin’’ in favor of the contemporaneous ‘‘The Return of Chorb.’’

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With Nabokov’s reputation firmly established by the late 1960s, however, critics began to redress this imbalance, and ‘‘A Guide to Berlin’’ began to garner the attention Nabokov had always maintained it deserved. In his Nabokov: His Life in Art, critic Andrew Field devoted a page and half to the story, which he called a ‘‘successful story of a purely descriptive sort.’’ Field’s insights included his assertion that the story comes close to achieving the form of the ‘‘prose poem’’ in some passages, his identification of the streetcar as a symbol of a passing Berlin, his noting of the Berlin Zoo’s presence in the story as a ‘‘dual metaphor of artistic form and human fate,’’ his identification of a similarity between the story’s style and that of Turgenev’s ‘‘careless sketches,’’ and his assertion that the audience for the narrator’s ‘‘guidebook’’ is primarily the literary artist. In her 1978 study of Nabokov’s short stories of the 1920s, Blue Evenings in Berlin, Marina Turkevich Naumann echoed Field’s observation that the ‘‘guide’’ Nabokov had in mind is a guidebook for literary artists writing for future generations. After noting that the things that populate the story—street scenes, trams, childhood memories— recur frequently in Nabokov’s other works, Naumann discussed the story’s ‘‘compositional design,’’ in which the opening and closing sections act as ‘‘frames’’ for the middle sections and the individual sections are linked by tone and subject matter. Characterizing ‘‘A Guide to Berlin’’ as a ‘‘contemplative’’ and ‘‘philosophical’’ piece, Naumann examined its literary influences, which include Turgenev and Gogol; its literary allusions (Jules Verne and the Old Testament); and its unusual grammatical structure.

D. Barton Johnson’s ‘‘A Guide to Nabokov’s ‘A Guide to Berlin’’’ (1979) placed the story in the context of Nabokov’s early career and apprentice works. While noting the contributions of previous critics of the story, Johnson argued that none had satisfactorily explained why Nabokov had stated over the years that ‘‘A Guide to Berlin’’ was among his favorite and ‘‘trickiest’’ stories. After suggesting that ‘‘in the most general terms, the story treats the favorite Nabokovian themes of time, memory, and their relationship to art and the artist,’’ Johnson fastened on Nabokov’s use of the mirror to explicate the story’s ‘‘tricky’’ complexity. He noted that mirrors appear not only in ‘‘The Streetcar’’ and ‘‘The Pub’’ sections but that one of the characteristics of mirrors—image reversal (‘‘left is right, right is left’’)—occurs both in the narrator’s descriptions of the coupling streetcars and on the level of the story’s language itself, through Nabokov’s use of palindromes and anagrams. According to Johnson, through the story’s linguistic inventiveness Nabokov demonstrates the ‘‘ingenious integration of theme and device that marks his mature work.’’

In 1990, Brian Boyd discussed ‘‘A Guide to Berlin’’ in his biography of Nabokov’s first forty years, Vladimir Nabokov: The Russian Years. Describing the story as ‘‘the boldest advance yet in Nabokov’s art,’’ Boyd noted its ‘‘disjointed structure,’’ plotlessness, and Nabokov’s mastery of arresting literary images and detail. Boyd viewed the story as organized not so much by the objects and locales of the physical Berlin—the pipes, the streetcar, the working Berliners, and the zoo—as by the ‘‘different possible relations of time.’’ For example, Boyd pointed out how the story’s focus shifts between present, past, and future, moving from the narrator’s vision of the near future, when he believes that the streetcar will have vanished, to the past of St. Petersburg and its horse-drawn trams, to the twenty-first century, when an ‘‘eccentric’’ writer will re-create 1920s Berlin, and finally, at the story’s close, to the child’s future recollections of the time in which the story takes place. For Boyd, Nabokov’s principal subject in ‘‘A Guide to Berlin’’ is ‘‘the absurdity of our inability to return to our past.’’

In his 1992 study, Nabokov’s Early Fiction: Patterns of Self and Other, Julian W. Connolly argued that ‘‘A Guide to Berlin’’ illustrates the theme of ‘‘the value of remaining receptive to the everyday flow of life and of establishing channels of communication with external others.’’ For Connolly, the ‘‘other’’ the narrator wishes to connect with is not the unseeing listener in the Berlin bar at the story’s conclusion but the ‘‘future generations of curious readers’’ who offer the narrator the only hope of ‘‘empathic connection.’’ The narrator demonstrates his ability to forge this bond with others by projecting himself into the inner life of the barkeep’s child. The narrator somehow knows, for example, that the child is ‘‘forbidden to touch’’ the billiard cue ball and is not ‘‘dismayed’’ by the scene in the bar he views from the back room. In his contribution (‘‘The Future Perfect of the Mind: ‘Time and Ebb’ and ‘A Guide to Berlin’’’) to a 1993 study of Nabokov’s short fiction, Robert Grossmith discussed ‘‘A Guide to Berlin’’ as an example of Nabokov’s ‘‘fascination with the premonition of future memories and the attendant defamiliarizing power of such perceptions.’’ For Grossmith, the story’s final scene, in which the narrator ‘‘memorializes’’ the present moment by glimpsing the child’s ‘‘future recollection,’’ represents the ‘‘keystone of an entire aesthetic,’’ in which realistic details and everyday ‘‘trivia’’ must be captured and preserved by the writer in order to ensure their survival into the future. The writer can achieve this, Goldsmith argued, only by ‘‘defamiliarizing’’ them, that is, by removing them from their ordinary contexts in order to render them strange and memorable.

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