Historical Context

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1267

Political Unrest
Vladimir Nabokov’s life was profoundly and directly affected by many of the major political and social events of the twentieth century. As the grandson of a prominent Czarist government minister and the son of a minister of justice and leading Russian democrat, Nabokov grew up in an environment of material comfort and tolerant cosmopolitan liberalism. When the Bolshevists under V. I. Lenin launched their grasp for power following Russia’s collapse in World War I, the Nabokovs, as quintessential members of the prewar Russian aristocracy, had no choice but to flee Russia for the West. In part because of his father’s political background and in part because of his own talent and potential in languages and literature, Nabokov was admitted to Cambridge University from which he earned a degree in 1922. While he was at school, his father settled in the large community of expatriate Russian intellectuals in Berlin where he became the editor of a democratic daily newspaper named The Rudder. When his father was murdered in 1922 by reactionary Russians attempting to assassinate a prominent democratic Russian politician, Nabokov moved to Berlin and began contributing to his late father’s paper while earning a living as a translator, writer, and instructor of English, Russian, and tennis. By 1925, the year ‘‘A Guide to Berlin’’ was published, the Bolshevists had all but secured their hold on Russian society, and an ambitious Communist Party member named Josef Stalin had begun the ascent to power that by 1926 would give him dictatorial control over the Soviet Union.

Illustration of PDF document

Download A Guide to Berlin Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Nabokov was naturally bitter about the communists’ success in Russia, and although he rarely addressed political issues in his fiction, ‘‘A Guide to Berlin’’ provides a brief glimpse into his attitude toward the political movement that forced his family from their homeland. In the ‘‘Eden’’ section of the story, Nabokov’s narrator sees a ‘‘crimson’’ starfish at the Berlin aquarium that reminds him of the red star emblem of the new Soviet regime. The narrator fancifully imagines that ‘‘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.’’ In this brief aside, Nabokov imagines the ‘‘inanity’’ of communism as arising from the bottom of the sea to ‘‘cripple’’ modern life, an unreal and doomed ‘‘utopia’’ like the legendary sunken society of Atlantis.

Following its surrender to the Allies in 1918, Germany was forced to agree to armistice terms that required it to make substantial reparation payments to its former enemies. Whether because the German economy was too weak to bear these payments or because Germany’s leaders were unenthusiastic about paying them, the German economy began to experience crippling hyperinflation in the mid-1920s, which eventually led to the financial ruin of the German middle class. Germany’s economic chaos also fatally destabilized the young democratic government known as the Weimar Republic, which had been created after Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicated his throne in 1918. In 1925 the Locarno Treaty was signed in an attempt to stabilize Western Europe’s postwar borders. But the Allies’ uneasiness over Germany’s geopolitical ambitions drove France in the same year to begin construction of the heavily fortified Maginot Line along the Franco- German border. Germany’s continuing political and economic instability soon allowed Adolf Hitler and his National Socialist party to gain a foothold with the German electorate and eventually to seize power in 1933. Indeed, the same year ‘‘A Guide to Berlin’’ was published, the first part of Hitler’s Mein Kampf reached Berlin bookstores, unambiguously announcing Hitler’s nationalist and antisemitic philosophy to a receptive audience of disaffected Germans. Two decades later, Hitler’s concentration camps would claim the life of Nabokov’s younger brother, Sergey.

In the tolerant political climate of the Weimar regime, however, German culture briefly thrived, and Berlin became a mecca for avant-garde cultural and intellectual activity. Elsewhere in 1925, Franz Kafka’s Der Prozess (The Trial), Boris Pasternak’s Detstvo Luvers (Childhood), Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, Ezra Pound’s first installment of the poem The Cantos, and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby all made their first appearance in print. It was also during the period of the early and mid-1920s that Nabokov began to experiment with the literary styles that would later establish him as one of the most stylistically inventive writers of the twentieth century. Critics agree that the short stories penned by Nabokov in Russian during the 1920s represent his stylistic apprenticeship, his attempt to discover the true voice that would characterize his later fiction. Despite his fifteen-year stay in the German capital, Nabokov always claimed to have never really learned the German language, and his social circle reflected his almost exclusive association with the other expatriate Russians who settled in Berlin’s Russian district near the city’s zoological gardens. Nabokov’s at times insular life in Berlin (which he called ‘‘an odd but by no means unpleasant existence’’) is perhaps alluded to in ‘‘A Guide to Berlin.’’ There, the narrator is shown interacting with only one other character, an unnamed drinking companion whose Russian nationality may be implied in his alienated description of Berlin as a ‘‘boring, foreign city, and expensive to live in, too. . . .’’

Despite Nabokov’s apparent aloofness toward his new German home, Berlin played a prominent role in much of his early fiction. Several of Nabokov’s works from the 1920s take place in the German capital. In addition to the early Russian-language short stories ‘‘Blagost’’ (‘‘Grace,’’ 1924) and ‘‘Pis’mo v Rossiyu’’ (‘‘A Letter that Never Reached Russia,’’ 1925), Berlin is the setting for Nabokov’s first novel, Mashenka (published a year after ‘‘A Guide to Berlin’’ and later translated as Mary): the story of a young Russian emigre living in a Berlin pension, or boardinghouse, who longs to be reunited with the lover he left behind in Russia. Similarly, in Dar (1937, later translated as The Gift), Nabokov used Berlin as the setting for the story of a young Russian emigre writer whose romance and eventual marriage to a Russian woman is directed by a benevolent fate. Finally, in Korol’, dama, valet (1928, translated as King, Queen, Knave), Nabokov identified the setting only as ‘‘Metropolis’’ but left little doubt about the city’s true identity—Berlin: ‘‘In the very name of that still unfamiliar metropolis, in the weighty rumble of the first syllable and in the light ring of the second there was something exciting to him; the famous avenue, lined with gigantic ancient lindens; . . . luxuriantly grown out of the avenue’s name.’’

Although Nabokov’s closest ties were to Berlin’s Russian emigre circle, he enthusiastically embraced the growing German film movement, which encompassed such prominent figures as Fritz Lang, Josef von Sternberg, and Erich von Stroheim. During the period in which Nabokov wrote ‘‘A Guide to Berlin,’’ documentary films about Berlin (for example, Walter Ruttmann’s Berlin, Symphony of a City) were an especially popular subject for German filmmakers, and Nabokov even served as an extra in a number of German films. Both Nabokov’s fascination with the purely visual language of cinema and the popularity of these Berlin documentaries may well have played a part in the writing of ‘‘A Guide to Berlin.’’ The documentary, ‘‘day-in-thelife’’ quality of the story’s ‘‘guidebook’’ structure, for example, as well as Nabokov’s use of brief, acutely visual vignettes and sharp images of color and light may hint at the influence of the German film movement on the story’s development.

Literary Style

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2274

Point of View
In ‘‘A Guide to Berlin’’ Nabokov presents several short vignettes about ordinary life in Berlin in December, 1925, from the vantage point of an unnamed narrator who describes these scenes to a drinking companion later in the day. The point of view of the story is that of the narrator’s first-person subjective ‘‘I.’’ In ‘‘The Pub’’ section, Nabokov introduces the voice of the listener—the story’s second point of view (and its only use of spoken speech)—who complains that the ‘‘guide’’ he has just heard is dull and pointless. At the end of the story, the narrator sees himself as the barkeep’s child views him by glimpsing his own reflection in the mirror that hangs on the wall behind the child. The story’s third point of view is that of the silent child, whose field of vision and consciousness the narrator imagines as he views himself through the mirror.

The narrator of ‘‘A Guide to Berlin’’ is an unnamed Berliner who tells a drinking companion at a Berlin Bierstube about the events of his day in December, 1925. He narrates the entire story in the present tense but occasionally recalls or imagines events that occurred in the past or that could occur in the future. The narrator’s narrative is subjective and personal: he idiosyncratically imagines, for example, that the shape of two utility pipes resembles the letters in the name ‘‘Otto’’; he declares that the street car will ‘‘vanish’’ in twenty years though he cannot actually know this; and he concludes that the red star of the Russian Bolshevists ‘‘originated’’ in the ‘‘crimson five-pointed star’’ of the starfish, though there is no evidence for his belief. The tone of his narrative about the city and its denizens is one of sympathy and beneficence: the women who give him their seats when he rides the streetcar are ‘‘compassionate’’; the conductor is like a ‘‘pianist’’ in his dexterity; the baker is ‘‘angelic’’ in his flourcovered clothes; and the pink and yellow animal carcasses on a butcher’s truck are the ‘‘fairest’’ sight on Berlin’s streets.

The setting of ‘‘A Guide to Berlin’’ is Berlin, Germany, shortly before Christmas in December, 1925. In this period Berlin and Germany were undergoing a significant transition. The economic hardship—notably runaway inflation, brought on by Germany’s defeat in World War I—was disrupting German society and threatening its attempt to establish and nurture a democratic form of government after years of monarchical rule. The Berlin the reader encounters in ‘‘A Guide to Berlin’’ is viewed in small, sharply focused fragments. It is a busy, industrious place, a blend of obsolete technologies like the ‘‘rickety,’’ ‘‘old-fashioned’’ streetcar and the new energy of construction and economic change represented both by the soon-to-be-installed sewer pipes and the construction workers and other laborers the narrator glimpses through the streetcar’s windows. Lurking in the shadow of this modern Berlin is the narrator’s memory of St. Petersburg, Russia, the city of his youth, which is twice recalled by the image of the obsolete horse-drawn tram.

In the mid-1920s, Nabokov and the majority of his fellow Russian expatriates lived in central Berlin in the Schoneberg district, south of the Zoologischer Garten, the Berlin Zoo of Nabokov’s story. In this same neighborhood forty years later U.S. president John F. Kennedy would give his famous ‘‘Ich bin ein Berliner’’ speech. In ‘‘A Guide to Berlin’’ the narrator concludes his tram ride by touring the Berlin Zoo, which reminds him of a man-made Garden of Eden and conjures up images of the legendary submerged kingdom of Atlantis and of the exotic Galapagos Islands. While the narrator’s sympathy toward the city is clear throughout the story, in the last section Nabokov gives the reader another view of Berlin, that of the ill-natured listener, for whom the city is simply ‘‘a boring, foreign city, and expensive to live in, too. . . .’’

In describing ‘‘A Guide to Berlin’’ in 1976, Nabokov wrote that ‘‘despite its simple appearance this Guide is one of my trickiest pieces.’’ The simplicity Nabokov referred to is the story’s apparently straightforward ‘‘guidebook’’ structure: its five seemingly cut-and-dried sections, each dealing with a different aspect of Berlin life, from sewer pipes and streetcars to working Berliners, the zoo, and a pub. As Nabokov hinted, this ‘‘simple’’ organization masks an unusual and complex structure. The story’s opening paragraph and its closing section, for example, act as frames for the middle sections of the story by introducing the character (the unnamed listener) and the setting (a Berlin tavern) that the narrator will return to in the last section after his departure from the zoo.

After the opening frame, Nabokov presents five sections that begin with realistic, ‘‘guidebook-like’’ descriptions but that open or expand out into philosophical or impressionistic language. For example, the narrator’s precise, realistic description of the unburied sewer pipes in ‘‘The Pipes’’ dissolves, by the end of the section, into an imaginative comparison of the pipes’s shape to the letters in the name ‘‘Otto.’’ Similarly, ‘‘The Streetcar’’ begins with a narrow declarative assertion of fact about the future of the streetcar, but ends with an emotional artistic manifesto about the role of the literary artist. The ‘‘Work’’ section also opens by announcing the narrator’s intent to give ‘‘examples of various kinds of work,’’ but the plain ‘‘examples’’ the narrative presents are in fact colorful, cinematic images of human variety and activity.

Sections 1 through 4 of ‘‘A Guide to Berlin’’ all begin with simple declarative statements that are then followed by a series of long sentences often containing additional clauses. The subject of each of the story’s sections also tends to expand in scope as the story progresses: the story begins with the four sewer pipes (section 1), broadens to encompass the activity in the streetcar (section 2), widens still further to the frenetic economic activity out on the street itself (section 3), and opens out yet again to the wide expanse of the zoo (section 4). Finally, although each vignette appears to be independent, each is subtly linked: the reflection of the streetcar’s lights on the pipe in section 1 foreshadows the narrator’s description of the streetcar in section 2, as well as the Berlin street scene he glimpses from the streetcar’s window in section 3. And the image of the winking lion on the tavern sign at the story’s opening, the horses pulling the St. Petersburg trams in ‘‘The Streetcar,’’ and the butchered sides of beef on the truck at the close of ‘‘Work’’ all anticipate the appearance of the animal world of the zoo in ‘‘Eden.’’

Because of the short length and everyday subject matter of ‘‘A Guide to Berlin,’’ the story’s sharp and vivid imagery plays a central role in achieving its effects. At least one scholar has noted that the story’s vignettes and images seem to be constructed cinematically, that is, like the visually arresting images of a movie. For example, Nabokov repeatedly uses color to create memorable imagery: the tavern’s ‘‘sky-blue’’ Lowenbrau sign with its white lettering; the ‘‘bright-orange heat lightning’’ of the passing tram’s lights reflected in the snow; the ‘‘chrome yellow’’ and ‘‘pink’’ beef carcasses hauled into the butcher’s bloody ‘‘red shop’’; and the ‘‘crimson’’ starfish that reminds the narrator of the Soviet Union’s national emblem.

In addition to color, Nabokov also emphasizes images that are sometimes constructed, as if by the black-and-white film of a camera, out of only light and darkness. In ‘‘The Pipes,’’ for example, the narrator describes a stark photographic contrast: ‘‘an even stripe of fresh snow stretches along the upper side of each black pipe.’’ In the climactic image of ‘‘The Pub’’ Nabokov creates a light-andA shadow effect through his description of the scene visible to the bar keep’s son: ‘‘He will remember the billiard table and the coatless evening visitor who used to draw back his sharp white elbow and hit the ball with his cue, and the blue-gray cigar smoke, and the din of voices, and my empty right sleeve and scarred face, and his father behind the bar, filling a mug for me from the tap.’’ In this intensely visual image, the narrator describes only parts of the things before him—an elbow, a pool cue, a sleeve, a face—because, like the film camera lens Nabokov may have used as his model here, the boy can only see what the light in the room exposes.

Nabokov employs at least four major symbols in ‘‘A Guide to Berlin’’: the guide, the streetcar, the zoo, and the mirror. The story’s conventional title prepares the reader to anticipate a factual, descriptive introduction to the major sights and locations of Berlin. Nabokov sustains this impression by dividing the story into brief, simply titled sections named like a tourist’s guide after places and activities characteristic of urban life. As the narrator’s idiosyncratic and subjective descriptions of Berlin soon make clear, however, his ‘‘city guide’’ is really a manual for writers in how to portray ordinary objects and people so as to ennoble and justify them for future generations. In the story’s last scene Nabokov has the listener, who seems to represent a kind of insensitive everyman, underscore the fact that the story he has just heard is a ‘‘guide’’ altogether different than the one he had expected (‘‘That’s a very poor guide. . . . It’s of no interest.’’). The narrator’s true audience, however, seems not to be the listener, who utterly fails to see or understand what the narrator does, but rather some future sympathetic reader who may look with ‘‘kindly,’’ comprehending eyes on the narrator’s creation.

The streetcar explicitly unites the first three vignettes of the story. Its lights are reflected in the snow that covers the sewer pipes the narrator encounters in the first section. In the second section, the streetcar stands out as a symbol of a rapidly changing Berlin that in twenty years will replace the streetcar with a more efficient mode of transportation, just as the horse-drawn tram was replaced before it. ‘‘Everything about it is a little clumsy and rickety,’’ the narrator observes, and though he admires the conductor’s efficiency at taking change and handing out tickets, the streetcar itself seems to represent the old ways of the narrator’s distant St. Petersburg childhood: horse-drawn carriages, carriage boys in ‘‘long-skirted livery,’’ and the ‘‘cobblestones’’ of a village street. The frenetic activity of the story’s third section, ‘‘Work,’’ seems only to assert the streetcar’s obsolescence more pointedly: in a world quickly being transformed by construction workers and aswarm with motorized vans and trucks, the streetcar, like the ‘‘decrepit’’ tortoise of the ‘‘Eden’’ section, is an antique. And like the tortoise in the Berlin aquarium—and indeed like the crippled narrator himself—the streetcar is a symbol of a fading historical time that must wait hopefully for the ‘‘kindly mirrors of future times’’ to regain its past glory.

The zoo is the third major symbol of the story. From the opening sentence it is portrayed as the primary destination of the narrator’s morning trip through Berlin, and all his encounters in the story’s first three sections are preparations for his arrival there. The winking lion in the Lowenbrau sign in the opening paragraph, the horses pulling St. Petersburg’s old trams in ‘‘The Streetcar’’ section, and the dead animal ‘‘carcasses’’ being carted into a butcher’s shop in the scene before the narrator’s arrival—all prepare the reader for the animal world described in ‘‘Eden.’’ In that section, the narrator describes the zoo as a ‘‘man-made Eden on earth’’ that reminds ‘‘us of the solemn, and tender, beginning of the Old Testament.’’ Although, the narrator admits, zoos cruelly confine animals behind metal bars, they represent ‘‘Eden nonetheless. Insofar as man is able to reproduce it.’’ Like a writer’s stories and other acts of ‘‘literary creation’’ or artistic reproduction, zoos are artificial things. They are human attempts to re-create what is unreal or lost, whether the biblical Garden of Eden of man’s innocence and immortality or the original moments of past time that the writer can hope to portray and memorialize but can never relive. For the narrator the zoo symbolizes both the mortality that has been man’s fate since his expulsion from the Garden and man’s impulse to recapture ‘‘far-off times’’ through the act of literary creation.

The symbol of the mirror first appears in ‘‘The Streetcar’’ section, where the narrator describes the essence of ‘‘literary creation’’ as portraying ‘‘ordinary objects as they will be reflected in the kindly mirrors of future times.’’ The Berlin writer of the twenty-first century, whom the narrator imagines re-creating the world of 1920s Berlin through a streetcar in a museum, will employ the ‘‘kindly mirror’’ of his future vantage point to transform the yellow streetcar. It will then become a ‘‘valuable and meaningful’’ object, ennobled and justified by its age into something ‘‘exquisite and festive in its own right.’’ In the story’s final vignette, the symbol of the mirror reappears again in the form of the mirror hanging on the wall behind the bar keep’s son. From his vantage point in the bar the narrator sees his reflection in this mirror and thus can view himself as the child sees him. Once he is fixed by the child’s gaze (‘‘he is now looking our way’’), the narrator, like the faded streetcar, can live on indefi- nitely in someone’s memory.

Bibliography and Further Reading

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 137

Boyd, Brian. Vladimir Nabokov: The Russian Years, Princeton University Press, 1990, pp. 250-53.

Field, Andrew. Nabokov: His Life in Art, Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1967, pp. 141-42.

Grossmith, Robert. ‘‘The Future Perfect of the Mind: ‘Time and Ebb’ and ‘A Guide to Berlin’.’’ In A Small Alpine Form: Studies in Nabokov’s Short Fiction, edited by Charles Nicol and Gennady Barabtarlo, Garland Publishing Co., 1993, pp. 149-53.

Further Reading
Field, Andrew. VN: The Life and Art of Vladimir Nabokov, Crown Publishers, 1986. In a biographical study of Nabokov’s life and work, Field provides a detailed treatment of Nabokov’s life among the Russian emigres of Berlin in the 1920s.

Nabokov, Vladimir. Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited, Vintage International, 1967. Published when Nabokov was in his late sixties, this autobiography has been called ‘‘the finest autobiography written in our time.’’

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

Critical Essays


Teaching Guide

Explore Study Guides