Inside Story

Current affairs & culture from Australia and beyond

1324 words

Innocent abroad

31 August 2015

Books | Susan Lever reviews Gail Jones’s A Guide to Berlin

A Guide to Berlin
By Gail Jones | Vintage Australia | $32.99

Vladimir Nabokov is known most widely for his scandalous and disconcerting satire of American mores, Lolita. For his admirers, though, he is a writer who takes readers unresistingly into his imaginative world and suggests to them that life is so full of meaning that they, too, might write if only they could find the hidden patterns. His novels Lolita, Pale Fire and Ada are masterpieces, but it is his memoir, Speak, Memory, that is most likely to inspire readers to recall those vivid moments in their own lives when the world appeared to contain vast possibilities.

Nabokov readers can become obsessive, and his work has a habit of turning up in strange transformations – the Lolita girls of Japan, for instance – and even in pop songs (the Police’s “Don’t Stand So Close to Me”). I write as one who has walked the streets of Ithaca, New York, identifying every house the Nabokovs rented there, thrilled to find my flat in Highland Avenue was close to John Shade’s home in Pale Fire.

These effects can be magnified in the case of published fiction writers. Lorrie Moore’s latest collection of stories, Bark, includes her version of Nabokov’s story “Signs and Symbols,” and Gail Jones, in her new novel, takes her cue from a lesser-known story, “A Guide to Berlin,” first published in 1925 and not translated from Russian until 1975. Jones’s central character, a young Australian woman called Cass, finds herself drawn into a group of Nabokov fans after she is observed photographing the house in Nestorstrasse, Berlin, where the Nabokovs had an apartment from 1932 until they left the city in 1937. She joins two Italian men, an American college professor and two young Japanese who meet regularly in a series of Berlin apartments, not so much to talk as to tell stories inspired by Nabokov. Marco, one of the Italians, is a real estate agent with access to empty apartments suitable for their meetings.

They quickly develop a “Speak, Memory” game in which each of them, in turn, tells a story of past life, full of Nabokovian detail and allusion. Victor, the American, is the son of Polish Holocaust survivors who migrated to New York. He recounts their story of poverty and isolation in an alien culture, and announces his gratitude to Nabokov’s memoir “for this resurrection in formal prose, Russian-style. And for encountering a Europe my family might years ago have known. And for the novelty, above all, of unconventional seeing.” Later Victor and Cass visit the Berlin zoo and Victor stares into the eyes of an ancient tortoise in the aquarium, excited that it may be the same tortoise that looked at Nabokov in his 1925 story. It is an effort to retrieve lost time, the looking forwards and backwards at a given moment, that lies at the heart of Nabokov’s writing.

Other stories contribute some of the history of the world since Nabokov’s time in Berlin: the Japanese couple tell their love story, including the effect of the Sarin gas attack in Tokyo and the phenomenon of young men locking themselves away in their bedrooms for years; Gino, the other Italian, recounts how his father died as a result of a terrorist bomb explosion at Bologna central train station; Marco’s father has disappeared, while his Jewish grandparents died in Nazi camps. Butterflies, chess moves, forced exile, fathers mistakenly killed by terrorists – the Nabokovian patterns emerge. Cass, aware of her own less exotic history, suppresses the story of her loss of a brother in a cyclone, though she links it, privately, to the death of Nabokov’s brother Sergei in a concentration camp. Compared to the European stories, Australia is a kind of Zembla – the “distant northern land” in Pale Fire – a dream-world of reversals. All of the group are writers of one sort or another – academics, bloggers, essayists, aspiring novelists – and their stories are self-consciously eloquent. Cass’s trepidation before her turn to speak and her deliberate editing of her past indicate how fictional such confessional stories must be.

Between the story sessions, Cass explores the messy world of Berlin in winter, a place where signs of the past intrude on everyday life. She rides the U- and the S-bahns and visits Berlin’s many memorials, museums and cemeteries with her new friends. She listens to the difficult German of her apartment caretaker, from the old East, and Gino takes her to meet Afghan refugees camping in Oranienplatz. The present overlays the stories of the past with its own problems of displacement and injustice – but it also offers new discoveries to delight the New World tourist. As the members of the group get to know each other better, alliances and hostilities emerge. Eventually, Gino challenges the literariness of the group – and, indeed, of the novel we are reading – with an outburst about their blindness to the world they are living in: “Where is now rather than our own deeply intoxicating pasts?” He accuses them of literary snobbery, “smug, hidden from the fucked-up world,” and forces a violent intrusion on their story-making. It is, of course, only a fictional intrusion and the novel’s eloquence continues to hold experience at bay.

Jones is an elegant and marvellously controlled writer who knows her Nabokov (and her Italo Calvino) well. She manages to give each of her storytellers sufficient differences of accent and emphasis to be plausible, and somehow writes narratives that reference Nabokov just enough, without becoming programmatic or predictable. Even with English as a supposed second language, they speak lucidly – though it is interesting that there is no Russian, German or French speaker in the group. Jones may be claiming Nabokov for readers of English. (It was his son, Dmitri, not Vladimir himself who translated “A Guide to Berlin” into English.)

Cass may seem a little too passive in the face of these strangers in a strange city but she serves the novel’s need for an observant innocent abroad. In this respect, the novel has striking similarities to Sebastian Schipper’s recent film Victoria, in which a young foreign woman allows herself to be caught up with a group of charming Berlin petty criminals, with violent consequences. Through Cass, Jones observes the discordant details of Berlin – the Italian restaurants run by Sri Lankans, the discomfort of living in rundown grey buildings and the beauty of a snowy winter with the “delicious glassy crunch beneath her boots” of snow, the mix of people on the suburban trains, an old man playing “Nessun Dorma” on a saw in the underground. It is like touring winter Berlin in the hands of an articulate and hypersensitive guide – not Nabokov, but certainly in the spirit of his own Guide.

Indeed, Jones never pretends to be Nabokov. She has little of his playfulness and transgressive comic sense, but she is brilliant at encapsulating the small things that make his work so memorable, and this novel does honour to the master. She gives us the pleasures of beautiful writing while reminding us that all fictions, all writing, have a complicated relationship to reality. Nabokov declared that he despised politics in writing, yet his whole life was shaped by the major political events of the twentieth century. Jones, with her band of Nabokov scholars, places him back inside a small part of this history.

If you love Nabokov you are likely to enjoy this novel. If you’ve experienced the discomforts of contemporary Berlin – or anywhere in old Europe – in the off-season you may enjoy it more. Even without these credentials you are sure to delight in its exquisite writing. •

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A quality of aliveness: detail from Julia Margaret Cameron’s 1865 portrait of Mary Hillier, as Sappho the Greek poetess, wearing an ornately embroidered dress and a necklace of lozenge shaped pendants. Victoria and Albert Museum

A quality of aliveness: detail from Julia Margaret Cameron’s 1865 portrait of Mary Hillier, as Sappho the Greek poetess, wearing an ornately embroidered dress and a necklace of lozenge shaped pendants. Victoria and Albert Museum