A Visual Guide


"A Guide to Berlin" ("Putevoditel' po Berlinu") was first published in book form as part of the collection "Return of Chorb" ("Vozvraschenie Chorba"). В. Сиринъ, Возвращенiе Чорба, First Edition, Berlin: Slovo, 1929.


"A GUIDE TO BERLIN" by V. Nabokov

Composed of five independent sections with a short preface, Nabokov's "A Guide to Berlin" appears to follow the generic norms structurally, but deviates from them thematically. 

The unconventional nature of this "Guide" manifests itself in the very titles of the individual chapters: "The Pipes," "The Streetcar," "Work," "Eden," and "The Pub," only the last of which would be likely to appear in a traditional guide or a travelogue. The genre is further destablized by the use of elaborate style, intricate syntax, and figurative language. The story departs from the genre both in that it contains unconventional material and in that it endows quotidian objects with poeticism and artistic worth. 

Using the power of his imagination and a keen awareness of the interconnectedness of time, the narrator transforms the city that his friend perceives as "boring, foreign," and "expensive to live in" into an artistic laboratory with a distinct topography. 

The images below show the material space of 1920s Berlin—snapshots of the city's everyday existence. The excerpts from the story pertaining to the objects portrayed illustrate how the physical space of Berlin is transformed into fictional space through the narrator's use of imagination, memory, and art. My own comments are meant to elucidate the composition and significance of certain "transformations."


[The quotations from the text are italicized throughout, with emphases in bold added.]


The utility pipes, “the street’s iron entrails, still idle, not yet lowered into the ground,” do not function in the text merely as a literary device laid bare. The pipes are still pipes, and the narrator’s description is rooted in the material nature of these things. The careful orchestration of time and duration in this passage—the past of the object of representation and the immediate present of the moment of perception—gives the pipes a biography and enacts the process of their transformation
from physical utilitarian objects that make a loud metallic sound when being unloaded from the trucks, “with a hollow clanging,”
into “round tunnels” that serve as the space for children’s games
into a visual illustration of how poetic language functions.
Through all of these stages, however, the pipes retain their materiality and concreteness and never become pure symbols that are imposed on reality. 


A different kind of estrangement is performed in the second section of the guide that parallels the preceding description of the pipes and intersects with it in several points. Time serves as the main defamilizaring tool, and the idea of reflection, both in life and in art, is echoed here both thematically and structurally.


"Here are examples of various kinds of work that I observe from the crammed tram [...]"



Having accepted that a hotel called “Eden” may be the closest an émigré can come to paradise, the narrator of “A Guide to Berlin” turns the “kindly mirrors of future times” onto himself and, by noticing his reflection in a real mirror, projects himself into the future memory of a (presumably German) boy in Berlin’s “Löwenbräu.”

Sitting in the pub with his friend, the narrator catches sight of the pub owner’s son in a small room at the far end of the tavern. On the wall above the child, there is a mirror. In it, the narrator can see his own reflection, and that mirror image—the mirror serving as a point of intersection for the parallel lines of the narrator’s and the boy’s lines of sight—represents what the boy sees as he gazes from the room into the tavern.

Metaphorical and real mirrors combine in this scene to allow the narrator to “glimpse” the boy’s “future recollection,” to imagine a future, for which the present moment in the pub will have become past. But as long as this moment is remembered, it will be connected to that future present—the present of the boy grown up, now perceived as a future. And in that recollection, there will be a violent trace of the narrator’s own even more distant past—smuggled into the future by the mirror reflection of his disfigured body.

It is perhaps ambitious to hope that the boy will indeed remember this moment, which is so extraordinary from the narrator’s perspective, and in his recreation of it, but is perhaps perceived by the boy as quite a commonplace occurrence. This scene, however, does demonstrate our narrator-guide's ability to transcend time, fully experiencing the present moment of public, measurable time, sensing both the weight of his own past and the pressure of the future).

His ability to project a recollection of himself into the boy’s future memory, and then to relive it in advance, to repeat someone else’s future recollection in the present, to experience the “now” as a moment in the past, testifies to the fact that he is able to traverse time in its “stretching-along,” to revert its flow and experience it both forwards and backwards.

In this brief moment, the narrator does seem to be plunged into “deep temporality” of existential time when the past, present, and future are united. He is able to reconcile several temporal layers and blur the boundaries of time by inscribing himself into another’s future memory, at least in—or maybe through—art. 

[*Vladimir Nabokov, "The Art of Literature and Common Sense," Lectures on Literature (San Diego: Harcourt, 2002) 374.]
A Visual Guide