A Guide to Berlin

Vladimir Nabokov, 6th year of exile

A photograph of the young Vladimir Nabokov taken at KaDeWe, Berlin's department store, during his 6th year of exile, as the writer's handwritten caption indicates.

After the Bolshevik Revolution of 1929 and the Civil War, more than three million people fled Russia. For many, Berlin was the first place of refuge, and the biographies of nearly all of the most prominent intellectuals, artists, writers of the first-wave emigration include a Berlin chapter. In the early 1920s, the German capital became home to almost 400,000 Russian emigres. A vibrant center of the dispora, it was the first and most active center of emigre publishing between 1920 and 1923.

It was here that Valdimir Nabokov made his literary debut under the pseudonym V. Sirin, with his short stories and poems appearing in emigre periodicals, with his first novels published by Berlin-based publishing houses. The Berlin chapter of his creative biography is very rich, even though Nabokov never felt at home in the city. After fleeing Russia in May 1919, the Nabokovs settled in the German capital, and the young author visited his parents often while studying at Cambridge, moving to the city after graduation in 1922—the  year his father was killed in Berlin, during an assassination attempt on the life of Pavel Miliukov, who was a prominent politician and proponent of constitutional monarchy in Russia. Having fled Nazi Germany in 1937 with his wife Vera and their son Dmitry, the writer never visited Berlin again.

Vladimir Nabokov's short story "A Guide to Berlin" (1925) features vignettes of the city seen from an outsider's perspective. The text does not simply capture the author's subjective impressions of Berlin, but rather can be seen as staging a dialogue with it—across space and time.

In this story, the city is written by an anoymous narrator, a "walker," in Michel de Certeau's terminology, one of the "ordinary practitioners of the city [who] live "down below'" and who explore it first-hand, moving through the crowds, weaving their bodies through urban fabric*. Our narrator shows no interest in the traditional historical and cultural landmarks of Berlin and presents a personal view of the city as seen from the perspective of a pedestrian.

 

[*Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Steven Randall (Berkeley: University of CA Press, 1984) 93.]
A Guide to Berlin