A Narrative Guide



The interactive "score" of Nabokov's "A guide to Berlin" shows the progression of the narrative verb by verb in each chapter (left to right, horizontal axis) and the fluctuations of time across past-present-future (bottom to top, vertical axis), representing the work of memory and imagination, and the interconnectedness of time in this text.

This map also captures the narrator's movement in space. The locations—home, streetcar, zoo, and pub—are color coded, showing that the narrative generally parallels the linearity of physical movement (left to right), but that it also undermines it a little, as the first groups of dots indicates.    

[This schematic representation showing the "verbal pulse, or heartbeat" of Nabokov's story was created by assigning a numerical value to each verbal form in the text (with the exception of such verbs as "to be, seem, etc," which do not denote an action, but rather are descriptive). The value was not based on grammatical tense, but rather on time. The verbal forms as they occur in the text served for anchoring temporal movement. More specific indications of time (rather than tense), however, (e.g. exactly when, how long, for how long, etc an action was or would be taking place) are usually to be found elsewhere in the sentence, paragraph, or the text as a whole. Most "humane" methods were employed in converting the "hard data" of the verbal forms into quantitave data that is still very rooted in qualitative analysis—a close reading of the story and its interpretation.      

The present—whether simple present or continuous—was designated as the neutral "0" point. The past and future values range from -1 to -9 and from 1 to 9 respectively. The further a future action, or an event is removed from the present, the higher it is on the vertical axis. Similarly, the further a past action is removed from the present, the lower it is on the vertical axis. The numerical values reflect the temporal values of each verb RELATIVE to all others, so that the exact number of days, weeks, or years that separate one event from another are not portrayed and cannot be calculated using this representation.] 



The narrative trajectory, the textual pattern of “A Guide to Berlin” is defined by the geometric shapes of a circle and a line. The progression of the narrative (excluding the preface) follows the narrator’s movement in space, with the individual sections of the guide coinciding with the steps of his journey both temporally and spatially. 

The events of that day and the corresponding parts of the story can be summarized as follows: the narrator walks out of his house early one winter morning (“The Pipes”), rides the streetcar through Berlin (“The Streetcar,” “Work”), visits the zoo and the aquarium (“Eden”), and meets his friend at the pub (“The Pub”). 

But while the narrator has a specific destination and follows a definite route in physical space, the narrative trajectory does not represent a straight line and lacks the teleological quality of conventional linear plot development. As the guide unfolds, the narrator’s position in Berlin keeps changing, but the story does not trace his physical movement, nor register his precise location. Rather, the individual sections capture vignettes of the city, and the narrative moves to and fro in a wavelike motion, with additional strands woven into it, with lines intersecting and forming loops and curls. 

There are many instances of parallel lines meeting in “A Guide to Berlin," and the peculiar geometry of the narrative is itself a literary device. Parallelism is, in fact, a form of estrangement, as Shklovsky theorizes in “Art as Device,” for it serves as a vehicle for “the transfer of an object from its customary sphere of perception to a new one” and thus brings about “a distinct semantic change.”* 

The lines in “A Guide to Berlin”—both on micro- and macrolevels—tend to violate the laws of Euclidian geometry and intersect often, interacting with each other in a number of surprising ways, in the manner wittily described by Nabokov himself:

“If parallel lines do not meet it is not because meet they cannot, but because they have other things to do. [… There are authors whose fiction] suggests that parallel lines not only may meet, but that they can wriggle and get most extravagantly entangled, just as two pillars reflected in water indulge in the most wobbly contortions if the necessary ripple is there.”**

The narrator-guide sets off many ripples in the story he tells and causes the text to undulate, with a gentle rise-and-fall of recurrent themes, motifs, and seemingly random details, with one wave breaking on the shore, never fully dissolving into foam when succeeded by another, but merely subsiding, retreating beneath the surface, only to reemerge again.

Additional complexity is introduced into the pattern of the story by the preface, which frames it as a conversation between two men at a pub after the narrator’s visit to the zoo. In the very first section, however, the narrative departs from the setting and moment of narration thus defined and retraces the narrator’s steps, circling back to the beginning, and arriving at the pub in the last section. But this trajectory is a perfect circle only as far as the topography of the city is concerned. In the textual space, the narrative line swerves and spirals up in the final scene, which returns to the beginning, but adds another level of signification to the story. The narrator reaches his final destination in Berlin, while the reader, following the narrative movement through the space of the text, arrives at an unexpected resolution.



[*Victor Shklovsky, Theory of Prose, trans. Benjamin Sher (London: Dalkey Archive Press, 2009) 12.
**Vladimir Nabokov, Nikolai Gogol (NY: New Directions, 1971) 145.]
A Narrative Guide