'Perhaps tying works of art to their originating topography is vulgar and needs to be kept discreet. But history needs Nabokov. During the artistically formative years, he lived here in the 1920s and 1930s, he peerlessly described how Berlin's 300,000 Russian émigrés endured life after the Bolshevik Revolution.'
Vladimir Nabokov was starting his career as a writer when he found himself in Berlin. “It is clear, for one thing, that while a man is writing, he is situated in some definite place; he is not simply a kind of spirit, hovering over the page…Something or other is going on around him.” The short 1934 novel Despair from which this quote comes is already heavily self-ironising compared with the stories of the previous decade. But like them it is studded with incidental Berlin experiences, from the shape of the city’s S-Bahn train line on the map to the comedy of a German misspeaking English. “I suppose only the pest. The chief thing by me is optimismus.” If Nabokov’s Berlin was in his head, it was nevertheless not invented.
He lived from 1932-37 with his wife and son at Nestorstrasse 22, in the smart, quiet residential area of Wilmersdorf, comparable with London’s Chelsea. The unfussy mansion block was his first real home after the curtailed teenage years in Russia. The previous decade in Berlin had been a series of removals from one rented address to the next after his father was shot dead by Bolshevik agents in 1922. “That flat of ours in one of those newfangled houses built in the modern, boxlike, space-cheating, let-us-have-no-nonsense style…” So the imagined author of Despair commented as his creator moved in. The building was dull with an awkward tower in brick and glass towering up at its helm. The protagonist of Nabokov’s next big project, The Gift, dwelling in Agamemnonstrasse, thought that the boring architect of his block had suddenly gone mad. After the war, these leafy streets had to be raised from the rubble. (Tiny bronze plaques mark their 1954 resurrection). The Russian writer Vladimir Nabokov lived here, 1932-37, it says, but you could easily pass by that dim bronze plaque from 1999, fading into a brownish façade.
Perhaps tying works of art to their originating topography is vulgar and needs to be kept discreet. But history needs Nabokov. During the artistically formative years, he lived here in the 1920s and 1930s, he peerlessly described how Berlin’s 300,000 Russian émigrés endured life after the Bolshevik Revolution. A city “swarming with ragamuffins” (Despair) and here and there “an urban vagabond with an early evening thirst” (The Fight, 1925). Here were thousands of lonely people haunted by poverty and nostalgia. Divorce or widowhood sealed their fate. In An Affair of Honour (1927), the cuckolded Anton Petrovich went through the motions of a classic Russian duel only to find himself stuck in a shabby Berlin hotel after his opponent didn’t show. “He looked at the moth-eaten plush, the plump bed, the washstand, and this wretched room…seemed to him to be the room in which he would have to live from that day on…[With] the door shut, he grabbed [a] sandwich with both hands, immediately soiled his fingers and chin with the hanging fat and, grunting greedily, began to munch.” So the writer imagined the crude Germanisation of a lost man. Nabokov, for whom all life after 1917 contrasted with his childhood on a Russian country estate, was a perfectionist, who noticed how even his own mother fell from wealthy grace. Miraculously, his brutal insights produced their own kind of beauty on the page.
“And do you know with what a marvellous clatter the brightly lit train, all its windows laughing, sweeps across the bridge above the street! Probably it goes no farther than the suburbs, but in that instant the darkness beneath the black span of the bridge is filled with such mighty metallic music that I cannot help imagining the sunny lands toward which I shall depart as soon as I have procured those extra hundred marks for which I long so blandly, so light-heartedly.” (A Letter that Never Reached Russia, 1925.) Light-heartedness and a tendency to fairytale was the key. The Russianness of that keenly visual fantasy strikes home today. Malevich with his desire to unite peasant harmony and modern technology, early Kandinsky’s animated countrysides and Chagall’s magic carpets all come to mind.
Nabokov’s Russians in Berlin, from a less modern world, are struck by the bright lights and vulgarity of the big Western city. From the same 1925 Letter: “A cinema ripples in diamonds…farther on, a stout prostitute in black fur slowly walks to and fro, stopping occasionally in front of a harshly lighted shop window where a rouged woman of wax shows off to night wanderers her streamy, emerald gown and the shiny silk of her peach-coloured stockings…I am so light-hearted that sometimes I even enjoy watching people dancing in the local café, Many fellow exiles of mine denounce indignantly…fashionable abominations, including current dances. But fashion is a creature of man’s mediocrity, a certain level of life, the vulgarity of equality, and to denounce it means admitting that mediocrity can create something (whether it be a new form of government or a new kind of hairdo) worth making a fuss about.” Visually and socially this is the same Berlin as Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929) but what these two writers do with it defines their distinctiveness: one political, the other a fabulist.
Five of Nabokov’s early stories (A Guide to Berlin, The Aurelian, Cloud, Castle, Lake, Spring in Fialta and Lance) recently appeared in a classic Reklam edition as Nabokov’s Berlin Erzählungen. Compare their themes with mid-1920s posters in the city’s national gallery and you can see how topical stories featuring variety shows, fun-loving girls and cinema were. But Nabokov gave the Berlin vignette additional spin with the gift of seeing everything symbolically. He was a Russian poet, influenced by the pre-revolutionary Blok. His mournful-magical imagery seems to me comparable with some of his contemporary Mandelstam’s. What tipped him back towards realism was a fascination with vulgarity. His later Berlin was awash with advertisements for consumer goods. Billboards and neon signs decorated the streets. The vices of modern culture fascinated Nabokov and would later almost overwhelm him in the US. His macabre and dramatic preoccupation with films and the cinema, outed in the short novel Laughter in the Dark, began in Berlin and finally ended in America when Hollywood cast Sue Lyon as Lolita.
As consumerism and Hitler rose together so Nabokov treated totalitarian politics principally as aesthetically repugnant. It was “another beastliness starting to megaphone” in Germany which in 1937 drove him and his half-Jewish wife Vera to leave Berlin for France and the US. It was almost too late. Berlin suited him. The anti-totalitarian novels Bend Sinister (1947) and Invitation to a Beheading (1938) which followed were remarkable, particularly the latter, for not insisting that totalitarianism’s victims were moral heroes, only men of taste. Nabokov, who saw in art the possibility of redemption, was tempted to think taste ruled out evil.
The shorter fiction of the 1920s and 1930s contains many passing reflections on the art he was already practising and the ways of those who fell short of his ideal. Errancy from paradise preoccupied him. He found lapses from perfection in all the material that came his way and treated criminality and insanity, but above all sexual perversity, in those terms. The writer in him understood how cleverly these deviations from a good world could disguise themselves, and how they might seduce a reader. Hence the rampant narcissism of Despair‘s Hermann Hermann who, when he makes a street tramp his double, thinks he can “cheat Nemesis by helping his shadow out of the brook”. Hence the perversion of the seducer and murderer Humbert Humbert, who, after all, desired only the downy legs of the child, not the hairy limbs of her mother. Nabokov’s most famous protagonists are fastidious criminals who know how to spin golden fictions out of their guilty dreams. With wit and imagery he makes us feel we are in paradise too, though our entertainer is the devil.
Post-war Berlin was the fallen city for Nabokov, and as he learned to transform even the most tawdry things he saw into a world of new enchantment, so in a concealed self-exploration he found out how to make his narcissists and perverts and woman-haters (lots of those), as well as his humble losers, lovable.
He loathed the idea of Freudian intrusions into his work. One can see why.
He always supervised his readers on how not to misread him. One 1925 story, A Guide to Berlin, even led step by step to an explanation of his art. The narrator tells a friend about some pipes being laid in the street, a tram, a few men at work, and a visit to the zoo and the pub. “That’s a very poor guide. Who cares about how you took a streetcar and went to the Berlin aquarium?” The obtuse interlocutor, fixated on his typical sights, misses the shift from reportage to poetry almost from the opening sentence. In the end, he has to be told how this writer will keep a hold on posterity. In the pub a child being fed in a backroom gazes out through a series of open doorways at the narrator, evidently a German war invalid. The scene might have been painted by Bachmann, Grosz or Dix to document social wrongs. But inwardly the narrator is Nabokov, telling us how what the child sees is his own future memory. The writer has a metaphysical assignment. Sitting in a Berlin tram, Nabokov knows “every trifle will be valuable and meaningful: the conductor’s purse, the advertisement over the window, that peculiar jolting motion which our great-grandchildren will perhaps imagine…I think that here lies the sense of literary creation: to portray ordinary objects in the kindly mirrors of future times.”
In all Nabokov’s work, the kindliness of memory recreates Eden, just as perversity razes it to the ground. He was a Russian writer, but one for whom surely Proust in Remembrance of Things Past was his immediate predecessor. We can lose our capacity to interpret the world as good. We can see only darkness. Despair talks about “the tunnel of corruption” — a somewhat Platonic image about how the good can fade. Nabokov commented that the novel’s Russian title Otchayanie was a long howl he couldn’t reproduce in English. He made it his task to find beautiful metaphors even for evil. See again those two political novels and, of course, Lolita. The Russian disaster that
destroyed his youth he likened in Guide to Berlin to a starfish at the bottom of the sea. The communist red star originated in depths to which it would return. Times would come when no one would remember “those stupid utopias and everything that upsets us” and the starfish would go on “pottering” among the submerged Atlantica.
Nabokov wrote about how Berlin struck his refined eye, with its ubiquitous trains, its shop windows, and its postcard sellers under the Brandenburg Gate and its comic rooftop statues, and how anything can become material to rebuild a private, redemptive Eden of the mind. Beneath his old flat in the Nestorstrasse there’s now a pub calling itself Die kleine Weltlaterne — The Little Lantern of the World. Not a bad coincidence.
He came out of a time which could not contemplate the collapse of life as an aesthetic paradise for the few. Yet collapse it did. In Penguin’s sumptuous new Nabokov Library, we can return to that paradise lost.