A Guide to Nabokov's "A Guide to Berlin" (1925)

“Their story begins on ground level, with footsteps,” Michel de Certeau writes of those who experience urban space by walking—a process which he conceives as one of articulating, enunciating, writing a place. Theirs is not an open legible city captured on a panoramic postcard or seen from the top of a skyscraper in a sweeping view that “makes the complexity of the city readable, and immobilizes its opaque mobility in a transparent text.” Theirs is a city of quotidian reality, a lived city, the space of which pedestrians write with their bodies. It is unreadable, de Certeau argues, not only because it is experienced incrementally and therefore always discrete, fragmented, impossible to grasp in its totality, but also because their footsteps—the very traces of their writing in space—disappear and do not lend themselves to reading. One could, of course, map their paths, but projecting their movement through space onto a flat surface would render the process of walking itself invisible, for the “thick or thin curves only refer, like words, to the absence of what has passed by.” Even though walking “speaks” trajectories, the trajectories themselves are mute when plotted on a map, de Certeau suggests. 

In Vladimir Nabokov’s short story “A Guide to Berlin” (1925), however, the lines and curves of the character-narrator’s physical movement through the German capital are transformed into a narrative that recounts his experience of the city during a single day and captures his pattern of walking not in diagrammatic, but in verbal form, which gives us an opportunity to explore not only what the narrator’s trajectory speaks, but also how it speaks in the text, so that the city he writes—both literally, through narrating, and figuratively, through walking—becomes readable.   

This project represents an attempt to analyze an anonymous Russian émigré’s experience of—and interaction with—the quotidian space of the 1920s Berlin in Nabokov’s story. 

Through de-/re-constructing the narrator’s “textual” map of Berlin, I explored the question of how space is experienced, or consumed. To uncover the real space, the object of that experience, however, I had to go outside the text, and a series of maps was created to put this idiosyncratic guide into context. 

More challenging, but also more rewarding was the process of mapping the narrative itself in its temporal aspect. “Humane” methods of close reading and interpretation were used to convert qualitative and often vague temporal markers into quantitative “soft” verbal data in order to produce schematic representations of narrative movement through space and time, in space-time, diagrams that, I hope, make visible the intricate narrative network of temporal correspondences, parallels, reflections, synchronies, and capture the work of memory and imagination—responsible for how cultural space is (re)produced in fiction.  

[Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, transl. Steven Randall (Berkley: University of California Press, 1984) 92-99.]
[Vladimir Nabokov, "A Guide to Berlin," The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov (NY: Vintage International, 2008) 155-160.]


Jenya Mironava, Harvard University