Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 901
Art and Experience
In ‘‘A Guide to Berlin’’ Nabokov presents a series of short vignettes of everyday life in the Berlin of the 1920s that illuminate the themes of time, memory, and the artist’s response to experience. The artist’s duty to record everyday experience is summed up in ‘‘The Streetcar’’ section, where the narrator declares, ‘‘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.’’ In the narrator’s eyes, the artist’s obligation to ordinary experience is not simply to record it, but to portray it with the same nostalgic generosity with which future generations will view it.
Throughout ‘‘A Guide to Berlin’’ Nabokov shows the narrator taking his idea of literary creation directly to heart. In the narrator’s own creation— the guide he narrates to his drinking companion— he portrays the everyday life around him with ‘‘kindly’’ eyes, as the future, he imagines, will also view it. For example, he transforms the mute ordinariness of the sewer pipe into a linguistic object by noting its resemblance to the letters in the name ‘‘Otto.’’ He compares the coarse, black-nailed hands of the streetcar conductor to the nimble hands of a pianist; he transforms the construction workers’ brute pounding into a musical ‘‘iron carillon’’; and he elevates a scurrying baker covered with flour into an ‘‘angelic’’ figure. Later, at the Berlin Zoo, the aquarium’s ordinary windows become the portholes of Captain Nemo’s submarine Nautilus in the Jules Verne novel 20,000 Leagues under the Sea, and the ugly ‘‘ancient’’ tortoise messily eating its leaves is transformed into an ‘‘ageless’’ symbol of the ‘‘splendid burden of time.’’
The narrator of ‘‘A Guide to Berlin’’ not only asserts that the artist’s duty to everyday experience is to ‘‘ennoble and justify’’ it as future generations will, he also actively memorializes it himself as he recounts the events of his morning trek through Berlin to his drinking companion.
Although the timespan of the story ‘‘A Guide to Berlin’’ consists of the events of a single day (a December morning in Berlin in 1925), and primarily a single morning, Nabokov shows the past and future repeatedly invading the narrator’s present. In addition to the everyday images that dominate the narrator’s trip to the Berlin Zoo, in ‘‘The Streetcar’’ section the historical past appears in the form of the narrator’s memories of the St. Petersburg trams he rode eighteen years earlier. In the ‘‘Eden’’ section, however, the narrator also refers to a more distant, primordial past when he compares the Berlin Zoo to the Garden of Eden of the Old Testament. He reinforces this sense of the past as a profoundly remote and primal place through his images of the ‘‘ruins of Atlantis’’ or ‘‘sunken Atlantica’’ and of the ‘‘ancient . . . cupolas’’ (shells) of the Galapagos Islands tortoises. Although the tortoise is ‘‘ponderous’’ and ‘‘decrepit,’’ for the narrator its very ancientness redeems it. By comparing its shell to the bronze dome of some architectural landmark, the narrator views the tortoise’s old age and decrepitude as a ‘‘splendid burden.’’ In ‘‘A Guide to Berlin,’’ time is used to represent both the ‘‘antiquity’’ and ‘‘rickety’’ obsolescence of the everyday world, as well as its ‘‘old-fashioned charm’’ and ‘‘splendid’’ age.
Memory and Reminiscence
In his autobiography Speak, Memory Nabokov wrote, ‘‘How small the cosmos (a kangaroo’s pouch would hold it), how paltry and puny in comparison to human consciousness, to a single individual recollection, and its expression in words!’’ In ‘‘A Guide to Berlin’’ human recollection is presented as the only antidote to the constant ‘‘vanishing’’ of the present into the past. The narrator asserts that the role of the artist is to portray the present in the heightened, nostalgic terms in which the future will see it. ‘‘A Guide to Berlin’’ is itself an example of the narrator’s recollection preserving and elevating the ordinary objects of the present by recording them sympathetically for ‘‘future times.’’
In the story’s last section, the narrator, seated with his friend at a Berlin bar, sees the barkeep’s son facing them from the bar’s back room. When the child lifts his eyes from his magazine to look out at the narrator and the listener, the narrator sees what the child sees through the mirror on the wall behind the child’s table. ‘‘Whatever happens to him in life,’’ he thinks, ‘‘he will always remember the picture he saw every day of his childhood from the little room where he was fed his soup. 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 sleeve and scarred face, and his father behind the bar, filling a mug for me from the tap.’’ Like the Berlin of 1925 that will live on in the works of some writer of the twenty-first century, the child’s gaze assures the narrator that he too will live on in the child’s ‘‘kindly’’ memory.
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