A Tricky Story

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1693

When the full extent of Nabokov’s talent began to declare itself in the novels he wrote between 1940 and 1970, Nabokov’s critical reputation began a steady ascent that by the time of his death had earned him, in the eyes of some critics, a place among the twentieth century’s foremost literary masters. ‘‘As long as Western civilization survives,’’ his obituary in the New York Times concluded, ‘‘his reputation is safe. Indeed, he will probably emerge as one of the greatest artists our century has produced.’’ For many of his admiring critics Nabokov seemed an altogether unique literary presence laboring in a sphere all his own. One such critic called him ‘‘one of the most strikingly original novelists to emerge since Proust and Joyce,’’ and Time magazine claimed that ‘‘he derived from no other writers and leaves no true imitators.’’ Although Nabokov’s genius was often attributed to his elegant and precise command of language (the English novelist Martin Amis, for example, called him ‘‘our greatest stylist’’), for many critics the brilliance and erudition of his prose were secondary to his true gift: an ironic, haughty, but finally compassionate view of the world that was pervaded by a sense of exuberant, mischievous play. Nabokov was described by the Sunday Times of London, for example, as a ‘‘high-souled genius’’ who ‘‘communicated in every sentence his own playful and godlike bliss.’’ And among the contemporary novelists who could perhaps claim to be among his peers, John Updike said of him, ‘‘Nabokov writes prose the only way it should be written, that is, ecstatically.’’

Illustration of PDF document

Download A Guide to Berlin Study Guide

Subscribe Now

At the time of his death Nabokov’s exalted reputation rested largely on his novels. From his first English translation of one of his early Russianlanguage novels, Despair (1937), to his celebrated master works—Lolita, Pale Fire, and Ada—Nabokov seemed to have left his Russian short stories of the 1920s decisively behind him. In the decade before his death, however, Nabokov, with the help of his son Dmitri, began systematically translating his 1920s Russian stories for publication in the 1976 collection Details of a Sunset. It was only then, a half-century after the original publication of ‘‘A Guide to Berlin,’’ that the story Nabokov had more than once singled out for special praise become accessible to his English-language critics.

Most early critics of ‘‘A Guide to Berlin’’ contented themselves with explications of the story’s odd ‘‘guidebook’’ format, its major images, and its apparent aesthetic message. The narrator’s ‘‘guide to Berlin,’’ these critics agreed, was in reality a guidebook or manual for literary artists, and its five seemingly independent sections were in fact subtly linked vignettes (brief sketches focusing on sharp detail), framed by the story’s opening and closing sections and connected internally by the presence of the streetcar that carries the narrator from his home to the Berlin Zoo. Unable perhaps to make sense of the story’s odd vignette structure, its apparent lack of plot or action, and its strange blend of detailed imagery and literary manifesto, these early critics described ‘‘A Guide to Berlin’’ in absolute terms as either a ‘‘philosophical’’ or ‘‘contemplative’’ piece, or as a kind of ‘‘realistic,’’ ‘‘purely descriptive’’ work. In a 1979 essay on the story D. Barton Johnson argued that while these labels were helpful as far as they went, none managed to adequately explain why in 1930 Nabokov had called ‘‘A Guide to Berlin’’ his best story or why, forty-five years later, he was still talking about it as ‘‘one of my trickiest.’’ In his essay, Johnson approached this putative ‘‘trickiness’’ head on, using the appearance of the mirrors in ‘‘The Streetcar’’ and ‘‘The Pub’’ sections of the story as clues to the story’s hidden complexity.

As students of Nabokov’s later works would have recognized, ‘‘The Eye,’’ his 1930 novella about the artistic process and a poet’s failed romance, had also employed the device of the mirror in a tale also set in Berlin, that combined elements of the love story, detective novel, and social commentary. In ‘‘A Guide to Berlin,’’ Johnson showed, the mirrors were keys to the story’s ‘‘tricky’’ meaning; Nabokov had deliberately ‘‘coded’’ the story, he argued, to emphasize the ideas of ‘‘reflection’’ and ‘‘image reversal’’ suggested by his use of the image of the mirror in two sections of the story. In ‘‘The Pipes,’’ for example, Nabokov has a passing streetcar reflect its lights in the snow that covers a pipe in front of the narrator’s home, and then has the narrator discover that the name ‘‘Otto,’’ scrawled in the snow on the pipe, is mirrored in the very shape of the pipe itself, with its ‘‘two orifices’’ (O—O) and its tacit tunnel’’ (-tt-). Similarly, in the next section, ‘‘The Streetcar,’’ Nabokov twice uses the narrator’s memory of the now ‘‘vanished’’ horsedrawn trams of St. Petersburg as reflections from the past, or as historical mirrors of the eventual fate of the ‘‘old-fashioned’’ streetcar in which the narrator rides. In the section’s penultimate paragraph, Nabokov underscores this sense of historical ‘‘mirroring’’ by repeating the phrase ‘‘the horsedrawn tram has vanished’’ from the section’s opening line. Then, in his manifesto for an art of ‘‘proactive nostalgia’’ (as Johnson calls it) at the end of ‘‘The Streetcar,’’ Nabokov employs the mirror image directly: ‘‘I think that here lies the sense of literary creation: to portray ordinary objects as they will be reflected in the kindly mirrors of future times’’ (emphasis added).

With the symbol of the mirror established as perhaps the key to the story’s ‘‘trickiness,’’ it takes center stage in the story’s final section, ‘‘The Pub.’’ The mirror behind the shoulders of the bar keep’s son in the pub’s back room enables the crippled narrator to see himself in the child’s eyes, assuring him that as long as the child survives, he, too, will be preserved through the child’s ‘‘future recollection.’’ Nabokov makes clear, however, that only the narrator can see what the child sees; he has the narrator’s disagreeable companion, the unnamed listener, flatly state, ‘‘I can’t understand what you see down there.’’ What enables only the narrator to ‘‘see’’ the child’s future memories? Throughout the story Nabokov has hinted that the narrator’s crippled physique may account for his ability to empathetically see others’s ‘‘future recollections’’: either as a result of war or misfortune, the narrator walks with a ‘‘rubber heeled stick,’’ his ‘‘scarred’’ features cause the women on the streetcar to try ‘‘not to look too closely’’ at him, and when the child views him from the bar’s back room, he sees only the narrator’s ‘‘empty right sleeve and scarred face.’’ The narrator’s empty right sleeve in particular underscores his similarity to the aged, repulsive tortoise at the Berlin Zoo, whom the narrator describes as having, like himself, ‘‘totally useless paws.’’

By emphasizing the narrator’s physical disability (and, as Marina Turkevich Naumann has shown, reinforcing it by adding a new reference to it in his English translation), Nabokov seems to suggest that only the crippled narrator can see others’ ‘‘future recollections’’ because he most of all depends on the ‘‘kindly mirrors of future times’’ to transform his physical decrepitude into something noble and splendid. When the narrator’s companion complains that he doesn’t see what the narrator sees, the narrator’s note of triumph or exultation (‘‘What indeed!’’) reflects his realization that—like the rickety streetcar, the ruins of Atlantis, or the decrepit tortoise—he, too, can be transfigured, despite his age and infirmity, into something ‘‘valuable and meaningful’’ through ‘‘someone’s future recollection.’’

Since D. Barton Johnson’s 1979 essay helped to unlock the ‘‘trickiness’’ of ‘‘A Guide to Berlin,’’ later critics have identified the story as perhaps the earliest example of the subtlety and complexity that characterize Nabokov’s later masterpieces. For example, in 1990 the author of Nabokov’s definitive biography, Brian Boyd, described ‘‘A Guide to Berlin’’ as ‘‘the boldest advance yet in Nabokov’s art’’ and argued that the story’s surface organization of five vignettes dealing with the physical or ‘‘spatial’’ Berlin of 1925 gives way to a deeper temporal structure involving the relationship between the past (St. Petersburg and its horse-drawn trams; the ancient past of Atlantis), the present (Berlin in December, 1925), and the future (the eccentric Berlin writer of the twenty-first century; the child’s future recollection). According to a 1992 study of the story, the narrator’s ability to project himself into the consciousness of the barkeep’s child—his ability to somehow know, for example, that the child is ‘‘forbidden to touch’’ the cue ball or to understand that the child is not ‘‘dismayed’’ by the scene in the bar before him—suggests that as early as 1925 Nabokov was experimenting with the theme of the relationship between the self and other. These themes would lead into his later themes of obsession and the merging of the self in another in such novels as Lolita, Pale Fire, and Ada.

Nabokov once remarked that ‘‘art at its greatest is fantastically deceitful and complex.’’ For the half-century between the original publication of ‘‘A Guide to Berlin’’ and the appearance of Nabokov’s English translation, the story had been relegated to the heap of ‘‘experimental’’ tales in which Nabokov struggled, not always successfully, to find his own voice and themes. If it was read at all, it was seen as one of Nabokov’s early ‘‘straightforward’’ apprentice works, lacking in ‘‘the polish, intricacy and artifice’’ of his later, more famous novels. But with Nabokov’s English translation and his helpful hint to critics that the tale was as ‘‘tricky’’ as his mature work, ‘‘A Guide to Berlin’’ now stands as perhaps the first clear example of Nabokov’s celebrated ability to interweave his favorite themes—memory, time, and their relationship to the literary artist— within a story of complex structure and ingenious imagery, of striking visual detail and playful verbal innuendo.

Source: Paul Bodine, Overview of ‘‘A Guide to Berlin,’’ for Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 1999. Bodine is a writer, editor, and researcher who has taught at the Milwaukee College of Business.

Nabokov’s Early Fiction: Patterns of Self and Other

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1689

Nabokov’s most comprehensive statement about the value of remaining receptive to the everyday flow of life and of establishing channels of communication with external others arises in the unusual sketch entitled ‘‘A Guide to Berlin.’’ Published in December 1925, this sketch is the only one of the period to have an overtly programmatic orientation. While most of the early works revolve around a protagonist’s preoccupation with the absence of a beloved other, this work has a different focus: the relationship of the writer to the outside world and to his potential audience. Nabokov’s treatment of the self-other relationship here establishes principles which remain in force throughout his literary career.

The sketch consists of an untitled introductory paragraph and five separate vignettes bearing the titles ‘‘The Pipes,’’ ‘‘The Streetcar,’’ ‘‘Work,’’ ‘‘Eden,’’ and ‘‘The Pub.’’ Much of the text presents the narrator’s detailed observations of ordinary Berlin street scenes. In the second vignette, however, the narrator articulates the reason why he believes that such a record of observed detail is valuable. Stating that trolley cars will disappear some day, he declares that future writers will have to resort to museums to view the authentic remnants of the past. In those future days, every ‘‘trifle’’ (meloch’) from the past will be precious and meaningful. It is up to the writer, then, to take the interests of future generations into account. The narrator now introduces a key image—that of the mirror—to explain his view of the ‘‘sense’’ of literary creation. As he puts it, literary creation is meant to portray ‘‘ordinary objects as they will be reflected in the kindly mirrors of future times . . . when every trifle of our plain everyday life will become exquisite and festive in its own right.’’ The implications of this mirror image will be discussed below. For the moment, however, one should recognize that the narrator’s awareness of the inevitability of loss in life and of the role that verbal art may play in preserving life’s transient experiences points to a basic concern of Nabokov’s own art. His fiction is permeated both with a haunting recognition of the fragility of all that is precious in life and with a fervent desire to find a way to preserve treasured moments of experience. The narrator also reveals here his sensitivity to the needs of an unknown ‘‘other’’—in this case, future generations of curious readers. He underscores this conviction in the last vignette.

Describing a pub in which he sits with a companion, the narrator observes that the pub consists of two rooms. He and his companion sit in one room, while in the other—part of the proprietor’s apartment—he sees a couch, a mirror, and a table at which a child sits eating soup. This segment may seem at first glance to be a passage of neutral description, but two elements herald its special import. First, the reference to the mirror echoes the theme of the perception by future generations introduced earlier in the sketch. Moreover, as the narrator continues the description, he includes not only his view of the scene, but also that of the child: ‘‘he is now looking our way. From there he can see the inside of the tavern—the green island of the billiard table, the ivory ball he is forbidden to touch . . . a pair of fat truckers at one table and the two of us at another.’’

This incorporation of the child’s perspective draws attention to an important feature of the narrator’s approach to the outside world. As in the earlier passage about the writer’s responsibility to the future, he expresses an awareness of the perspective of an external other. He even speculates on the child’s psychological attitude toward the scene he beholds, stating that the child has long grown accustomed to this scene and therefore is not ‘‘dismayed’’ by its proximity. The narrator’s ability to imagine the inner world of another is a vital attribute of the artist in Nabokov’s world, so long as this capacity does not cascade into massive personal projection, thereby obliterating the other’s autonomy.

The narrator’s comprehension of the other’s viewpoint has a positive effect on him. Mentally responding to his companion’s lack of appreciation for the import of this moment, he expresses his delight at having glimpsed ‘‘somebody’s future recollection.’’ Although the narrator’s satisfaction in achieving a sense of empathic connection might be rewarding for any artist, this experience may have an additional benefit for him. Focusing on the fact that the child ‘‘will always remember’’ the view he had of the pub scene, and perceiving that an image of the narrator himself is included in the child’s view, the narrator may have discovered here a possible means of transcending the personal limits of his own time and space. By envisioning himself as part of the scene that the boy will remember in the future, the narrator perceives that he will remain alive in the boy’s memory, and therefore will not be consigned to oblivion as long as the child himself survives. A small emendation that Nabokov made when revising his story for translation supports this premise. In the original version, the items listed by the narrator in his description of the child’s perspecA tive included the billiard table, a billiard player, and the child’s father. The English version, however, adduces a new item: ‘‘my empty right sleeve and scarred face.’’ An image of the narrator himself is now explicitly included among those things which the boy will recall in future years and which therefore will survive the passage of time.

At several points in the text, then, Nabokov’s narrator indicates the importance of forging a connection to an external other, whether it be making an impression on the memory of a child or conveying the essence of things ‘‘as they will be reflected in the kindly mirrors of future times.’’ What makes ‘‘A Guide to Berlin’’ particularly distinctive, however, is that Nabokov not only articulates the premise within the narrator’s discourse, he also illustrates it by manipulating the very building blocks of that discourse—the letters of the text itself. As D. Barton Johnson has pointed out, Nabokov carefully embedded in his text ‘‘mirror image’’ palindromes and anagrams of key words such as ‘‘OTTO’’; this mirroring technique ‘‘pre-figures’’ the central theme of ‘‘future memories.’’ At the same time, however, it reaffirms the narrator’s fundamental concern— the importance of being aware of the perceptions of anonymous others. That is, while the narrator’s discourse speaks overtly about a potential audience of future generations, the text of his discourse— composed by the authentic auctor—speaks covertly to just such an other: the presumed reader of the sketch itself.

It is worth noting that Nabokov’s narrator does not find a receptive audience for his observations within his narrated world. Although the narrator shares his collected observations with his drinking companion, the latter remains unresponsive. He calls the narrator’s guide ‘‘very poor’’ and suggests that no one cares about the narrator’s experiences. Nor does the narrative mention any other addressee in the text. Yet while the other who is physically present within the narrator’s world is not receptive to the narrator’s vision, there exists a different type of other who is not physically present in that world but who may indeed be more receptive—the presumed reader of the text. Nabokov’s works frequently focus on characters who find themselves surrounded by an unresponsive world and who look to an anonymous audience for understanding and acceptance.

The presence of encoded verbal material within the text of ‘‘A Guide to Berlin’’ thus discloses a seminal feature of Nabokov’s art: the potential of his narratives to speak on two distinct levels simultaneously. In addition to the surface-level message which his fictional narrators intend their readers to absorb, one may perceive a second message from the implied author to the implied reader which may modify or contradict the first message. In ‘‘A Guide to Berlin,’’ the message of the secondary channel of communication opened by the embedded verbal material reinforces that of the surface level: both levels indicate the importance of establishing communicative links to external others. In later Nabokov texts, however, the two messages can diverge radically.

‘‘A Guide to Berlin’’ offers direct insight into the writer’s concerns and convictions during his first years as a prose writer. Foremost among these is his belief in the importance of sensitivity to the potential perceptions of others. Not only does such sensitivity sharpen the observation and the description of life in art, it may provide a way to transcend the narrow spatial and temporal limitations of one’s own life. The sensitivity to the perceptions of others which the narrator reveals in ‘‘A Guide to Berlin’’ is, however, not matched by most of the other protagonists in Nabokov’s early fiction. While many of his protagonists express concern for the feelings of others, they often submerge that concern under their own needs and projections. In his first novel Mary, Nabokov provides his first detailed treatment of this problem.

All together, Nabokov’s stories of the 1924-25 period lay down the foundations upon which the complex edifice of his subsequent fiction will be built. They highlight the dangers of obsession with an internal image of another, while signalling the benefits of establishing empathic bonds with others. They also disclose the first traces of the seminal bifurcation between the authorial and character dimensions of the self in Nabokov’s fictional world, and they suggest the central role that projection and creation can play in the development of a character’s identity. Although the early stories do not explore the implications of these processes in detail, they indicate the direction Nabokov’s subsequent fiction will follow. . . .

Source: Julian W. Connolly, ‘‘‘A Guide to Berlin’,’’ in Nabokov’s Early Fiction: Patterns of Self and Other, Cambridge University Press, 1992, pp. 27–31. Connolly is Professor of Slavic Language and Literature at the University of Virginia.

A Guide to Nabokov’s A Guide to A Guide to Berlin

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2706

The eight-page sketch ‘‘A Guide to Berlin’’ was Nabokov’s fourteenth published story and was first published in the Russian emigre newspaper Rul’ on Christmas Eve, 1925. At the opening of the story the nameless narrator, an emigre Russian writer, sits in a Berlin Bierstube and describes the sights of his wholly unremarkable day. This seven-line mise en scène is the first half of a frame which is completed at story end by a longer, present tense episode set in the same pub. The piece consists of five numbered vignettes which range in length from a single paragraph to slightly over two pages. The first, entitled ‘‘Truby’’ (‘‘Pipes’’), describes a row of large utility pipes lying along the curb awaiting burial in an as yet undug trench. As the narrator goes out in the morning after a night snowfall he notes with pleasure that someone has written the word ‘‘OTTO’’ in the fresh strip of snow atop the pipe. The narrator has planned a trip to the Berlin Zoo and boards a tram. The tram and its conductor form the subject matter of the second vignette which is called ‘‘Tramvaj’’ (‘‘Streetcar’’). This episode is conceived in the form of a nostalgia piece written in part from the viewpoint of a writer of the next century. The narrator-guide lovingly catalogues such inconsequentialities as the trolley pole jumping its overhead wire, the ceremony of the conductor at this job, and the ritual of the end-of-the-line decoupling of the two tram cars with their switch of position and subsequent recoupling—all reminiscent of the switching of the horses on the horsedrawn trams of Petersburg some eighteen years before. The vignette ends with an apotheosis in which the very ‘‘sense of literary creation’’ is said to be the recreation of the minutia of the present as they will be seen ‘‘in the kindly mirrors of future times . . . when every trifle of our plain everyday life will become exquisite and festive in its own right.’’ The guided tour continues in the third vignette, ‘‘Raboty’’ (‘‘Work’’), with the speaker enumerating various people seen at their daily tasks through the tram window: street repair men, a passing truck loaded with empty beer bottles, a postman emptying a corner mailbox, a man delivering fresh carcasses to a butcher shop. In the fourth section, entitled ‘‘Edem’’ (‘‘Eden’’), our guide arrives at the city zoo where he muses on the Atlantis-like aquarium exhibits. Of particular interest to him are the crimson starfish, which recall the ‘‘notorious emblem,’’ that is, the Bolshevik Red Star, and the giant tortoises, whose domed shells resemble church cupolas. The cycle of sights comes to an end in the fifth section, ‘‘Pivnaja’’ (‘‘The Pub’’), where the narrator has been recounting his day’s travels to his companion, who is bored by the mundane guided tour. The modest pub in which the two friends sit drinking is divided into two rooms, and the narrator can see through the passageway into the squalid back room where the publican’s blowzy faded wife is serving her small son a bowl of soup. As the narrator watches him, the boy looks out into the bar where his gaze takes in the narrator and his companion. The narrator then reflects that the boy will always remember the sight of the barroom through the passageway, his father serving the customers, and so on. As the narrator muses, his friend irritably remarks that he cannot understand what is so interesting in the view. In the closing line the writer ponders ‘‘How can I demonstrate to him that I have glimpsed somebody’s future recollections?’’

There have been two rather extended discussions of this story. Field notes that in places the piece ‘‘comes extremely close to the form of the prose poem.’’ The tram episode he views merely as a pretext for the above-cited passage in which Nabokov defines and justifies his conception of the writer’s role. The zoo, an artificial paradise with bars, is seen as Nabokov’s ‘‘dual metaphor of artistic form and human fate.’’ Following his description of the pub scene, Field concludes that ‘‘A Guide to Berlin’’ is a ‘‘guide book written with a very restricted type of tourist in mind; it is a guidebook for the artist.’’ Naumann provides a more detailed analysis. Although noting the poetic qualities of the sketch, the author includes it in her category of ‘‘realistic’’ (as opposed to ‘‘symbolist’’) stories. Noting with some puzzlement the odd assortment of sights included in the ‘‘Guidebook,’’ Naumann views the story primarily as a collage of Nabokov’s favorite Berlin motifs, pointing out their frequent occurrence in his other works. Like Field, she sees the story as an artist’s credo but one ‘‘not written merely for art’s sake, nor for a drinking companion, but for future generations.’’ It is, she says, Nabokov’s explicit statement of the raison d’être of minutia in literature. Both of these exegesis have some interesting insights and would doubtless seem satisfactory were it not for Nabokov’s comments suggesting greater depths in the story. Certainly neither commentary gives sustenance to Nabokov’s claim that the story is one of his trickiest. In the most general terms, the story treats the favorite Nabokovian themes of time, memory, and their relationship to art and the artist. These themes are stated explicitly in two passages. The ‘‘Streetcar’’ vignette opens with the narrator’s reflection on the obsolescent electric tram and its predecessor, the horse-drawn tram. In a hundred years, he thinks, a writer visiting a town museum in search of local color for his work will be enchanted by the 1920s tramcar and its appurtenances. It is this passage that leads to the formulation of the narrator’s artistic credo: ‘‘to portray ordinary objects as they will be reflected in the kindly mirrors of future times; to find in the objects around us the fragrant tenderness that only posterity will discern and appreciate.’’ In the concluding section, the narrator watches the boy in the back room and muses that the scene viewed by the lad is the stuff of the boy’s ‘‘future recollections.’’

In addition to their common theme the two passages are linked by a common structural device. We have remarked the metaphoric ‘‘kindly mirrors of future times.’’ The final pub scene contains a vital but unobtrusive real mirror which is the actual source of the narrator’s image of the boy’s future recollections. Looking through the passageway from the bar into the apartment the narrator’s eye is greeted by ‘‘a cramped little room with a green couch under a mirror, out of which an oval table . . . topples and takes up its solid position in front of the couch.’’ A few lines later it is mentioned that the narrator ‘‘can make out very distinctly the couch, the mirror, and the table in the background beyond the passage.’’ These mirror references occur in both the Russian and the English texts. In the translation, however, yet a third reference (not found in the original text) calls attention to the device: while the Russian text reads ‘‘Tam, v glubine, rebenok ostalsja na divane,’’ the English has been altered to ‘‘There, under the mirror, the child still sits alone,’’ with the critical mirror replacing ‘‘v glubine.’’ This sentence introduces the description of what the boy sees in the barroom. A close reading reveals that the description of the boy’s view is actually the view seen by the narrator in the mirror above and behind the boy. By virtue of the mirror the narrator is seeing himself, his friend, and the interior of the barroom as it appears to the boy whose future memories the narrator is thus observing. This is the mirror of future recollections. Further supporting this interpretation of the role of the wall mirror is that in contrast to the other vignettes the physical layout of the barroom and its furnishings, the passageway, and the living quarters in the rear are all carefully detailed. The lines of sight are clearly drawn and the crucial position of the mirror is emphasized and reemphasized.

This embodiment of theme in structural device is characteristic of much of Nabokov’s best later work and may in some measure account for his particular affection for the story. It would, however, scarcely qualify the story as one of his ‘‘trickiest.’’ This interpretation also leaves aside the role of the material in the other vignettes. One possibility is that the episodes treating the utility pipes, the jobs, and the zoo might serve as exemplification of the ‘‘pro-active nostalgia’’ theme that the narrator sees as the meaning of literary creation. This view, while plausible to an extent, would not seem to justify Nabokov’s high opinion of the piece, for these remaining vignettes seemingly fail to display the cunning integration of allusion and motif with theme which synthesizes Nabokov’s best work. As examples we might cite the numerous Poe allusions which form a persistent and peculiarly appropriate subtext to Lolita, or the pervasive motif of the iconic Old Church Slavic alphabetic characters betokening the linguistic (and physical) imprisonment of the artist-protagonist in Invitation to a Beheading.

The mirror image motif which dominates the final scene and which reflects the earlier thematic statement is obviously central to the story’s meaning but appears to be restricted to those sections and, hence, does not seem to qualify as an integrative device joining the various vignettes into a unified whole. Before discarding the possibility, however, it might be well to consider that mirrors have other properties in addition to reflection. Just as Nabokov neglects to mention that the narrator is viewing the boy’s future memories via a mirror, he also leaves to the reader’s imagination a second quality of mirrors. Mirrors reverse their images: left is right, right is left. Mirror image reversals play an important role in Nabokov’s repertory of literary devices both on the level of thematic metaphor and of microstylistics. . . .

Various kinds of mirror image inversion, albeit without benefit of mirrors, permeate all of the remaining sections of ‘‘A Guide to Berlin.’’ Perhaps the most evident of these reversals occurs in the ‘‘Streetcar’’ section. After his inventory of the activities of the conductor at work, the narrator continues: ‘‘At the end of the line the front car uncouples, enters a siding, runs around the remaining one and approaches it from behind . . . I am reminded of how . . . the horses used to be unhitched and led around the potbellied blue tram.’’ Left and right, or depending on your point of view, front and back, are reversed.

The foregoing represents a mirror image reversal on the level of narrative event. Another, and more important type of reversal is to be found on the word and phrase level. Before considering this second type of inversion, however, we must ponder the question, what is the written language’s equivalent to mirror image reversal? The answer is— palindromes. On rereading the individual vignettes we find that all contain mirror image palindromes and, in addition, anagrams—some of which are also palindromic. At the end of the first vignette, ‘‘Pipes,’’ the narrator, seeing the word ‘‘OTTO’’ traced in the snow atop the pipe thinks how appropriate the name with its ‘‘dvumja belymi ‘o’ po bokam i cetoj tixix soglasnyx poseredke’’ is to the pipe with its ‘‘dvumja otverstviem i tainstvennoj glubinoj.’’ Not only is the name ‘‘OTTO’’ a mirror image palindrome, but its reversible physical shape bears an obvious resemblance to the large utility pipe with its ‘‘O’’ at each end. Also noteworthy is the descriptive phrase ‘‘OTverstviem i TainstvennOj glubinoj’’ which anagrammatically contains the iconic key word ‘‘OTTO.’’ Nabokov’s Englishing of the passage shows some modification of the wording in order to obtain the requisite effect: ‘‘. . . that pipe with its two Orifices and its Tacit Tunnel.’’ It might further be noted that the open pipe permits reciprocal vision and that the older Russian expression for ‘telescope’ is opticeskaja truba . The ‘‘Streetcar’’ section, in addition to the reversal of narrative image already described, also includes an ‘‘OTTO’’ anagram in its opening lines. Commenting on the decline of the streetcar as a mode of transport, the narrator remarks pointedly ‘‘Ja uze cuvstvuju v nem cto-to OTzivsee, kakuju-TO staromodnuju prelest’.’’ It is perhaps forced to see the to-to of cto-to as a reversal of the syllables of the following anagrammatic ‘‘OTTO,’’ but it nonetheless rather neatly prefigures the subsequent reversal of the tram cars at the end of the line.

The mirror image palindrome ‘‘OTTO’’ also occurs in an anagram in the first line of the third vignette, ‘‘Raboty’’: ‘‘Vot obrazy raznyx rabOT, koTOrye ja nabljudaju iz tramvajnogo okna.’’ The device of letter transposition is also used here: OBRAzy . . . RABOt perhaps echoing the to-to/ot-to inversion. It would be possible to attribute such matters to chance were it not for the fact that the corresponding English passage in the translation has been markedly expanded in order to incorporate equivalent anagrammatic elements. In the Russian original the above quoted sentence is the entire first paragraph. This sentence-paragraph has been augmented in the English as follows: ‘‘Here are examples of various kinds of work that I observe from the cRAMmed tRAM in which a compassionate woman can always be relied upon to CEde me her window SEat—while trying nOT TO LoOK too CLOsely at me.’’ The ‘‘cRAMmed tRAM’’ obviously mimics obRAZy RAZnyx; ‘‘nOT TO,’’ rabOT, koTOrye, and perhaps, the, metathesized ‘‘LoOK . . . CLOsely’’ deliberately parallels the transposed OBRAz . . . RABOt. These syllable doublings and inversions iconically evoke the dual nature of the streetcar with its two, reversible, cars in tandem. Even were it not for its divergence from the Russian text the new material in the English might well call attention to itself simply by its Baroque and gratuitous nature.

‘‘Eden,’’ the fourth vignette, is perhaps the most intricate in its inversions. Looking through the portholes of the Berlin Zoo aquarium, the narrator sees a crimson, five-pointed starfish. This, he thinks, is the source of the ‘‘preslovutaja emblema:—samogo dna okeana—iz temnoty poTOPlennyx Atlantid, davnym-davno perezivsix vsjakie smUTy,—OPyty gluPOvaTyx UTOPij—i vse to, cto trevozit nas.’’ This passage on the origin of the Bolshevik Red Star contains two notable incidences: the usual anagrammatic ‘‘OTTO’’— temnOTy poTOplennyx, and the first of a series of plays on the root sequence (u)top-ija and pot(u) in which the root of uTOPija turns to pot ‘sweat.’ There is a further pun involving uTOPija and poTOPlennyj ‘drown.’ The English text, again with some adjustment, succeeds in capturing both of these bits of word play: ‘‘The notorious emblem originated . . . at the very bOTTOm of the sea, in the murk of sunken Atlantica, which long ago lived through various upheavals while pOTTering abOuT TOPical uTOPias and OThter inanities that cripple us TOday.’’ The following paragraph of both texts continues the plays on the palindromic ‘‘OTTO’’ and the inverted utopias. The final vignette also contains its own encoded anagrammatic ‘‘OTTO’’ and, moreover, at a particularly appropriate point. In the passage containing the narrator’s description of the scene which he, the narrator, sees indirectly in the mirror and which the boy sees directly, the introductory expression is ‘‘OTTuda vidnO.’’ The boy and the narrator are looking through the telescope, the opticeskaja truba, of time. It is also of note that the physical layout of the pub building with its two openings connected by the passageway through which the characters regard the scene resembles the pipe-telescope with its inscription.

Nabokov’s theme of ‘‘future memories,’’ the true artist’s creative goal, which is cleverly captured in the tacit mirror imagery of the final section, is consistently and cunningly prefigured in all of the preceding guidebook vignettes by means of the various technical devices illustrated above. ‘‘A Guide to Berlin,’’ despite its seeming artlessness, is thus the first of Nabokov’s writings to show the ingenious integration of theme and device that marks his mature work. Perhaps this accounts for Nabokov’s special affection for the story over a period of half a century.

Source: D. Barton Johnson, ‘‘A Guide to Nabokov’s ‘A Guide to Berlin’,’’ in Slavic and East European Journal, Vol. 23, No. 3, Fall, 1979, pp. 353–61.

The Significance of the Imagery in A Guide to Berlin

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3097

Berlin is the city that is almost always a background theme in Nabokov’s early stories. For him Berlin did not have the special, personal, social, or political connotation that Paris had for Balzac or London had for Dickens. It assumed importance because it actually surrounded him as he wrote. Apropos of this, Nabokov said: ‘‘I have always been indifferent to social problems, merely using the material that happened to be near, as a voluble diner pencils a street corner on the table cloth or arranges a crumb and two olives in a diagrammatic position between menu and salt cellar.’’ Berlin is the setting for his novels Mashen’ka and Korol’ dama valet, for instance. In Dar, Fedor’s peregrinations through Berlin are pages long. Berlin is the prominent backdrop in ‘‘Blagost’’’ and ‘‘Pis’mo v Rossiiu’’; and it is the central theme of one of Nabokov’s earliest stories, ‘‘Putevoditel’ po Berlinu’’ (‘‘A Guide to Berlin’’).

Ostensibly this story is a standard guide to Berlin’s sights and scenery, but not the type of red guidebook that Nabokov depicted on the old woman’s stool in ‘‘Blagost.’’ This is a special guide to some of the ‘‘important’’ sights and aspects of the city: the pipes, the trams, the jobs, the Hotel Eden, the beer hall.

One is struck first by the narrator’s opening comment that these disparate and seemingly trifling things are ‘‘important’’ features of Berlin and, secondly, by the odd combination they represent. However, as the narrator describes them, it becomes clear that this is a writer’s guide and that this writer has a definite purpose. He has not written it merely for art’s sake, nor for a drinking companion, but for future generations: . . .

I think that here lies the sense of literary creation: to portray ordinary objects as they will be reflected in the kindly mirrors of future times; to find in the objects around us the fragrant tenderness that only posterity will discern and appreciate in the far-off times when every trifle of our plain everyday life will become exquisite and festive in its own right: the times when a man who might put on the most ordinary jacket of today will be dressed up for an elegant masquerade.

Actually the aspects of Berlin he has chosen are not as disparate as they appear to be initially. They are all facets that particularly interested Nabokov. The Berlin street life, trams, childhood memories that dip into the past or project into the future, and even the fascinating letter combinations considered in this story are recurrent motifs in many of his other works.

The entire story is told in the present tense, and the hero-narrator is the subjective ‘‘I.’’ Its tone is marked by the narrator’s reiteration of his subjectivity and by his positive reaction to Berlin, which is in turn rejected by the writer’s drinking companion in the final frame of this piece. Only then does the narrative move into dialogue. However, this dialogue is one-sided. The drinking companion speaks, but the narrator continues his straight narrative. Thus two methods are employed simultaneously.

Seemingly ‘‘Putevoditel’ po Berlinu ’’ follows a guidebook format and therefore does not have the traditional short-story structure. It does, however, have a compositional design. There is a definite frame. The narrator, after a morning trip to the zoo, goes into a beer hall with a drinking companion. Thus the storyteller and listener are immediately presented. Within the frame are vignettes of various spots in Berlin: I. ‘‘Pipes’’; II. ‘‘Tram’’; III. ‘‘Jobs’’; IV. ‘‘Eden’’; and V. ‘‘Beerhall.’’ The last scene ties the conclusion structurally to the introductory frame. All of these short pieces, although clearly divided by Roman numerals, are intricately linked by subject matter and by the general tone of beauty and philosophy that colors the realistic descriptions. An introductory comment to the effect that the narrator will speak of ‘‘pipes and trams’’ brings the reader to the first sketch, so brief and poetic that it appears to be a poem. The trams, which have left their orange reflection on those pipes, are the subject of the second vignette. Here he speaks of fashions and passing fads. In ‘‘Pis’mo v Rossiiu’’ he had noted modish fluctuations in various dances; now he turns to the fate of diligences and horse trams and sadly reflects that the electric trams will soon be replaced as well. The narrator focuses in particular on the tram conductor, whom Nabokov has already depicted in ‘‘Pis’mo v Rossiiu.’’ He observes how nimbly the man goes about his duties: . . .

The conductor who gives out tickets has very unusual hands. They work as nimbly as those of a pianist, but, instead of being limp, sweaty and soft-nailed, the ticketman’s hands are so coarse that when you are pouring change into his palm and happen to touch that palm which seems to have developed a harsh chitinous crust, you feel a kind of moral discomfort. They are extraordinarily agile and efficient hands, despite their roughness and the thickness of the fingers.

In ‘‘Putevoditel’ po Berlinu,’’ Nabokov’s narrator regards the details of Berlin’s daily life with sympathy. To him, it seems that in the future this trivial material will be of museum caliber. The rickety yellow tram and the conductor’s uniform will be found in display cases and some twenty- first-century writer will see them as curious aspects of the past. This observation brings the narrator to [a] momentary reflection upon the duty of the writer. . . . For him, however, all of these everyday details are not only valuable for history but are meaningful and beautiful in themselves. For in- stance, the Christmas trees at the tram stop not only reflect the holiday publication date of this story (24 December 1925) but are poetically shown as a part of the Berlin scene: . . . . . . at the stop, at the edge of the pavement, crowd the Christmas trees. In Part III, ‘‘Jobs,’’ life is—not too surprisingly— described from the tram window. The tram is still the structural link. The observer’s field of vision is limited by the window and is perpetually moving. First the narrator sees the asphalt and the street itself. Men are working on it, as in ‘‘Vozvrashchenie Chorba.’’ Compare the two following sentences: . . .

She attempted to catch it on the wing by means of a child’s spade found near a heap of pink bricks at a spot where the street was under repair. A little way off the funnel of a workers’s van emitted gray-blue smoke which drifted aslant and dissolved between the branches— and a resting workman, one hand on his hip, contemplated the young lady, as light as a dead leaf, dancing about with that little spade in her raised hand.

At an intersection the pavement has been torn up next to the track; by turns, four workmen are pounding an iron stake with mallets; the first one strikes, and the second is already lowering his mallet with a sweeping, accurate swing; the second mallet crashes down and is rising skyward as the third and then the fourth bang down in rhythmical succession.

This last image recalls the contented stoking sailors in ‘‘Port,’’ for there is a live rhythm and music to their tasks akin to bell chimes: . . .

I listen to their unhurried peal, the cast-iron chiming, four repeating notes.

In Pnin Nabokov repeats this image of street repairs: ‘‘. . . workmen came and started to drill holes in the street—Brainpan Street, Pningrad— and patch them up again, and this went on and on, in fits of shivering black zigzags and stunned pauses, for weeks.’’

In ‘‘Putevoditel’ po Berlinu ’’ the writer continues to observe other elements of Berlin street life, and with positive adjectives and editorial comments he describes the angelic baker, the emerald bottles on the truck, the graceful larch on the sleigh, the postman with his big black bag, and the most vivid scene, the butcher carrying the meat on his back: . . .

But perhaps fairest of all are the carcasses, chrome yellow, with pink blotches, and arabesques, piled on a truck, and the man in apron and leather hood with a long neck flap who heaves each carcass onto his back and, hunched over, carries it across the sidewalk into the butcher’s red shop.

Having turned his attention thus, the narrator not unexpectedly moves to Part IV, ‘‘Eden.’’ In this vignette he becomes increasingly philosophical, reflecting first on the city zoo as an earthly paradise created by man. In the frame to this story, the narrator had noted that he had visited the zoo in the morning. According to him, the zoological gardens tell us about the beginning of the world. Although he laments that all the animals are in cages, he concedes that the lion, if loose, would eat the doe. Nonetheless, it is a paradise to the extent that man can make it so. Appropriately, the Hotel Eden stands opposite the zoo. The writer moves figuratively into the zoo, where now in the winter he finds the amphibians, fish, and insects the most interesting. Jules Verne’s Captain Nemo and the mythological submerged continent of Atlantis color his description of his visit to the aquarium. He sees fish and marine flora and focuses on a live, deep red, five-pointed starfish lying on the sandy bottom.

This star evokes one of Nabokov’s rare, although oblique, political comments: . . .

This, then, is where the notorious emblem originated— at the very bottom of the ocean, in the murk of sunken Atlantica, which long ago lived through various upheavals while pottering about topical utopias and other inanities that cripple us today.

The upheavals caused by utopian experiments such as Atlantis are still troubling the world today. In ‘‘Pis’mo v Rossiiu’’ these perturbations had been alluded to even more indirectly. Indictments of the Soviet regime by Nabokov are rare. When he focuses on his homeland, it is usually the Russia of his past, not the Soviet Union of his present (1925).

The fifth section of this story, ‘‘The Beerhall,’’ represents the other side of the frame but describes the interior, not the exterior, of the beer hall. The narrator notes the bar, the billiard table, the little tavern tables, and presents a scene similar to the restaurant in ‘‘Port.’’ However, his description has an interesting twist. It picks out the divan, mirror, and table in the adjoining room belonging to the beer-hall owner. There the narrator observes the owner’s child being fed soup and then looking at an illustrated newspaper. Suddenly the narrator inverts the picture and shows what the child sees and how he views the narrator and his fellow drinker. Finally, the writer moves into the future: . . .

Yet there is one thing I know. Whatever happens to him in life, he will always remember the picture he saw every day of his childhood from the little room where he was fed his soup.

In this concluding fragment, the drinking companion repeatedly raises questions that indicate he has missed the point of the narrator’s guide, thus accentuating and emphasizing by omission what the writer has described. For him the guide and Berlin are boring and dull. For the narrator, on the other hand, all that he has noted is important. Even the future memories of the beer-hall keeper’s child hold significance for him. Thus the concluding remarks of the story aptly point to the future: . . .

How can I demonstrate to him that I have glimpsed somebody’s future recollection?

The structure of this story is rather unusual. Not only are the short sections unobtrusively joined, but each section has a realistic description supplemented by a philosophical reflection on some aspect of the scene. Furthermore, the topics enlarge in scope as the story progresses. The reader moves from pipes to trams, to street life in general, to the zoo and animal life, and finally to the child whose life still lies ahead of him. The pervading sense of this story is that life in Berlin is gratifying and meaningful to the artist in all its aspects.

‘‘Putevoditel’ po Berlinu’’ has been compared with Turgenev’s Sportsman’s Sketches by Field. He notes that this story ‘‘has some of the air of a carefully arranged ‘careless sketch’.’’ These vignettes are in the narrative style and the language is realistic. This realism, as I indicated above, is acknowledged by the narrator. There are only ten or so ‘‘made-strange’’ adjective-noun combinations. Longer metaphoric phrases are more numerous. For example, the street pipes are the iron hoses or intestines (kishki) of the street. This image brings to mind Nabokov’s later anatomical image in Dar, where a poplar resembles the nervous system of a giant. Other extended metaphors deal with the conductor’s agile hands, the music of the street workers, and a turtle whose shell is both a bronze cupola and the burden of time. These metaphors are not intended to convey any symbolic dimension in the way that the zoo denotes an earthly paradise. Instead, they serve to revivify ordinary objects that have dulled.

It is crucial here to consider Nabokov’s training as a writer. In Speak, Memory, he recalled his tutor: ‘‘He made me depict from memory, in the greatest possible detail, objects I had certainly seen thousands of times without visualizing them properly: a street lamp, a postbox, the tulip design on the stained glass of our own front door. He tried to teach me to find the geometrical coordinations between the slender twigs of a leafless boulevard tree, a system of visual give-and-takes, requiring a precision of linear expression, which I failed to achieve in my youth, but applied gratefully, in my adult instar . . . to certain camera lucida needs of literary composition.’’

Nabokov’s literary training also owed much to Gogol. Significantly, in his study of Gogol Nabokov cited the following passage from Dead Souls: ‘‘But a different lot and another fate await the writer who has dared to evoke all such things that are constantly before one’s eyes but which idle eyes do not see— the shocking morass of trifles that has tied up our lives, and the essence of cold, crumbling, humdrum characters with whom our earthly way, now bitter, now dull, fairly swarms; has dared to make them prominently and brightly visible to the eyes of all men by means of the vigorous strength of his pitiless chisel.’’

Nabokov’s observations are enlivened not only by metaphoric expressions but by the use of a variety of stylistic devices. Above I have noted his interest in letter shapes and sounds. In the frame of ‘‘Putevoditel’ po Berlinu’’ Nabokov focuses on the blue beer-hall sign with white lettering and a picture of a winking lion. Part I concludes on a contemplative note about the letters etched into the snow on the pipes, which read ‘‘Otto’’: . . .

Today someone wrote ‘‘Otto’’ with his finger on the strip of virgin snow and I thought how beautifully that name, with its two soft o’s flanking the pair of gentle consonants, suited the silent layer of snow upon that pipe with its two orifices and its tacit tunnel.

In Part III literary allusions are made not only to Jules Verne and mythology but to the Gospels and the Old Testament. Colors, which quickly convey an impression, occur throughout these sketches, and with particular frequency in the street scene in Part III where realistic vignettes predominate. These are almost fleeting, cinematic shots. Color is singular in its application in Part IV, ‘‘Eden.’’ Crimson (purpurnyi ) is the only color mentioned and quali- fies a star. This emphasis on the red hue of the star poetically expresses Nabokov’s idea of the ‘‘notorious emblem,’’ the Red Star of communism.

The grammatical structure of the sentences in ‘‘Putevoditel’ po Berlinu’’ is singular. The sentences are very long, with many secondary clauses. Brief sentences are conspicuous by their infrequency. Parts II, III, and IV open with factual statements that give way immediately to sentences a paragraph long. In Part V Nabokov used v glubine (in the depths) three times within a single page. I noted this recurrent phrase in ‘‘Port’’; here it is used strictly with reference to the child whom the narrator sees sitting in the back room. The phrase accentuates not only the writer’s spatial detachment from this child but the depth with which the author considers the child and his future memories. It also emphasizes a narrowing or a focusing of Nabokov’s artistic lens. Nabokov often coalesced his images. In this instance the mirror, table, divan, and child are brought together linguistically. With the aide of v glubine, Nabokov moves from a large image to a small one. I point to the focusing-in found in the following three excerpts. In the final excerpt only the common denominators of the first remain: v glubine, divan, rebenok (child). The translation and italics are mine. . . .

(1) ‘‘In the depths is a wide passageway, and there one can see a cramped little room with a green divan along the wall, under a mirror from which flows, a semicircular table covered with a checked oilcloth, and firmly stands in front of the divan. This room relates to the squalid little apartment of the owner. There, his wife, a faded German, feeds her towheaded child soup.

(2) From our corner, beside the counter, one very clearly sees in the depths, in the passageway—the divan, the mirror, the table. The mistress clears the dishes off of the table. The child, leaning on his elbows, is attentively examining the illustrated magazine.

(3) There, in the depths, the child remained on the divan alone.

‘‘ Putevoditel’ po Berlinu’’ is thus another contemplative story that focuses on the ‘‘important’’ facets of the hero’s surroundings. Once again the narrator is an artist—a writer—who concerns himself with the everyday sights of Berlin. However, this story, like ‘‘Pis’mo v Rossiiu,’’ has a philosophical note. Nabokov projected into the future and observed that the child of the beer-hall keeper will someday recall the very minutiae of the present scene. Thus, trivial aspects of daily life not only assume value as past memories but have their place in the creation of new and future ones. The hero concludes that the significance of a writer’s creation lies in the depiction of these commonplace things. This was Nabokov’s explicit statement of the raison d’être of minutiae in literature. . . .

Source: Marina Turkevich Naumann, in Blue Evenings in Berlin: Nabokov’s Short Stories of the 1920s, New York University Press, 1978, pp. 56–67.

Unlock This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-hour free trial
Previous

Critical Overview

Explore Study Guides