Nabokov in Berlin

Nabokov (second from left) on a tennis court behind the cinema “Universum” - which later became Schaubühne
Nabokov (second from left) on a tennis court behind the cinema “Universum” – which later became Schaubühne

One cannot visit Nabokov’s Berlin in the way one can visit Joyce’s Dublin or Kafka’s Prague. It no longer exists. There are, of course, certain ghosts. We know that he hunted for butterflies at Grunewald, and that he taught tennis on Kurfürstendamm. Charlottenburg was once home to so many Russian expatriates that it was nicknamed Charlottengrad, but that community disappeared at the beginning of World War II. Just as his ghost haunts Berlin, so the ghost of Berlin haunts Nabokov’s body of work. His first novels, written in Russian and set in Berlin, offer an interesting perspective on Nabokov’s oeuvre, and on his place in the pantheon of twentieth-century writers.

Nabokov was a notoriously cranky novelist. (Even decades after his death, it causes me some anxiety to wonder what he might think of this essay.) His predilections and pet peeves are well documented, the subject of countless essays and interviews.  Berlin did not escape the disdain he held for soft music, cocaine, Freud, fascism, gossip reporters, and Dostoyevsky. He moved here in 1922, after the rise of the Bolsheviks, hoping to escape the fate that befell many of his aristocratic peers. His arrival in Germany was less than auspicious. In March of 1922, Nabokov’s father was killed shielding Pavel Nikolayevich Milyukov from an assassin.

Though his sister and mother moved to Prague, Nabokov remained in Berlin, supporting himself by giving boxing and tennis lessons. In 1925 he married Véra Evseyevna Slonim, and in 1934 his son, Dmitri, was born. The world owes Véra Nabokov a great debt, not unlike the one it owes Sophia Tolstoy. Hopefully there is a special place in heaven reserved for the woman who not only licked Nabokov’s stamps for him, but also prevented him from throwing an early draft of Lolita into the garden incinerator.

While he lived in Berlin, Nabokov spoke, worked, and wrote in Russian. “I was beset by a panicky fear of somehow flawing my precious layer of Russian by learning to speak German fluently,” he wrote later in Strong Opinions. During the years he spent in Berlin, he wrote three novellas and seven novels, all of which he and his son later translated into English.

Most of these works follow Nabokov’s fellow expatriates as they struggle, sometimes hilariously, to adjust to their new lives. They feature many of the themes that can be found in his later work: love triangles, madness, metafiction, and memory. Berlin features most prominently in Laughter in the Dark, set in the 1930’s film world.

However, the Berlin that appears in these novels is a backdrop, rather gray and negligible, especially compared to the erudite dreamscape of Ada or Ardor, or the nightmarishly picturesque New England of Lolita and Pale Fire. In the introduction to Glory, Nabokov wrote, “In the days I worked on this book, I did not have the knack of recreating Berlin and its colony of expatriates as radically and ruthlessly as I have done in regard to certain environments in my later, English, fiction.”

The city is slightly more prominent in some of his short fiction, most notably “A Guide to Berlin,” published in 1925 and translated later by Nabokov himself with the help of his son, Dmitri. A character in the story, a series of vignettes, calls Berlin a “boring, expensive city.” The narrator, however, observes with typically Nabokovian detail the ordinary facets of urban life. To Nabokov, tortoises and streetcars were worthy of as much careful observation as any other phenomenon. Though he may have found Berlin boring, Nabokov’s way of looking at the world meant that even what was tasteless and subpar was worthy of poetic observation.

Véra, who was half Jewish, lost her job in 1936 due to the rise of the National Socialist Party. Nabokov considered totalitarianism, like Freudianism, poshlost. The word has no single translation in English, but it is key to understanding both Nabokov’s work and his personal history. Poshlost, to him, meant “corny trash, vulgar clichés, Philistinism in all its phases, imitations of imitations, bogus profundities, crude, moronic, and dishonest pseudo-literature.” To Nabokov, Nazism was a failure of taste, as well as one of morals.

The Nabokov family left Berlin in 1937, spent a few years in France, and finally fled to the United States in 1940. It was there that Nabokov began to write in English, and produced his better known works, including, of course, Lolita.

Though he did not enjoy his time in Berlin, it was instrumental in the development of Nabokov’s unique sensibility. Much like his contemporary Franz Kafka, Nabokov’s perspective as a writer was shaped by his status as an outsider. In Berlin, this was very clear, as he was a Russian, writing in Russian, about Russians, in Germany. In his later, English works, written in America, this sensibility is less obvious, but more profound. There is an argument to be made in favor of Lolita as the Great American Novel, for who but an outsider could so savagely depict American identity and morality?

“The writer’s art is his real passport,” Nabokov once claimed. But he also understood the importance of setting. He claimed that, without knowing how an 1870’s sleeping car was arranged, one could not truly understand Anna Karenina. His hand-drawn map of Joyce’s Dublin shows an attention to detail that is both loving and ruthless. For all that he disliked Berlin, I doubt even Nabokov would deny its influence, however subtle, on his work.

While Nabokov was living in Germany and writing in Russian, Franz Kafka was living in the Czech Republic and writing in German. While their styles could not be more different, both Nabokov and Kafka occupied a liminal space that manifested itself in a body of work that is difficult, if not impossible, to place within a national canon.

His are limitrophe works of art: testing the borders between prose and poetry, between American, Russian and European. However, despite the misfortunes he faced, it’s hard to think of Nabokov, the trilingual, butterfly-hunting, Cambridge-educated intellectual as a perpetual outsider in quite the same way that Kafka was. But his early novels reveal a side of Nabokov that is maybe less obvious in his later work: a great unease that manifests itself as black humor. Though Nabokov raised black humor to an art form, mostly famously in Lolita, that unease, that sense of perpetual, irrevocable loss, is not as present in his English work.

Kafka’s nightmares became the twentieth century’s realities. Of course it is unfair to compare Nabokov (or anyone, really) to someone as singular as Kafka, but it does raise the question: did Nabokov sacrifice something in his quest for aesthetic excellence?

This is perhaps the most devastating charge that can be leveled against Nabokov. Isaac Babel, Nabokov’s contemporary and countryman, who was executed by the regime Nabokov escaped, said: “he’s a great writer, but he has nothing to say.” It’s true that, compared to the other post-war literary greats, Nabokov’s work borders on the frivolous. He considered “social comment, humanistic messages, political allegories, [and] over-concern with class or race” to be poshlost. One must wonder if this philosophy prevented Nabokov from dealing with more serious issues in his work. No one can deny his brilliance, stylistic innovation, or indelible influence on contemporary literature. However (and he would certainly mock me for saying so) when we consider Nabokov in the light of the worldwide existential crisis that followed World War II, his work seems to deliberately ignore pressing philosophical issues.

The answer to this critique, I think, is to recognize that Nabokov’s aesthetics were his politics. The dizzying beauty of Nabokov’s language is not a mirage, no shimmering curtain covering up emptiness. Nabokov’s characters are wounded by history. They are displaced, dismayed, distrustful of the new world they must occupy. The expatriate community in Berlin offered Nabokov a perfect opportunity to explore and explain how people rearrange their lives in the wake of disaster. Some, like the protagonist of Mary retreat into memory.  Some, like the characters in Laughter in the Dark and Despair, fall madly in love. Others simply go mad. His characters are neither political metaphors nor historical eidolons.

Nabokov saw psychoanalysis and totalitarianism as fundamentally similar, and though this sounds like an absurd, faintly elitist perspective, his early novels reveal the reason for this pronouncement. Though it may be easy, or tempting, to say that Nabokov ignored, or was immune to, the intense political atmosphere in Berlin, this is not quite true. Its influence on him and his work was subtle, but not insignificant. Nabokov is deeply concerned with individuality. In his work, as in his life, he rejected any attempt to reduce human beings to anything less than individuals.

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