Looking for Nabokov

While the likes of Isherwood wallowed in the decadent fun of 1920s Berlin, another great expat author was immune to the capital's temptations: Vladimir Nabokov. Robert Rigney takes us on a literary tour...

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Vladimir Nabokov with his wife, Vera, at one of their many Wilmersdorf residences in 1934.

While the likes of Isherwood wallowed in the decadent fun of 1920s Berlin, another great expat author was immune to the capital’s temptations: Vladimir Nabokov. Robert Rigney takes us on a literary tour…

At the start of Vladimir Nabokov’s first Berlin novel, Mary, two Russian émigrés are trapped in a blacked-out elevator. It’s a symbolic situation, one observes. “The fact that we’ve stopped, motionless, in this darkness. And that we’re waiting”.

It was the situation of Nabokov himself, along with thousands of other Russians who poured into Berlin following the revolution. Some 300,000 arrived between 1922 and 1923, a time when Charlottenburg came to be known as “Charlottengrad” and Kufürstendamm, “Nöpski-Prospekt”(a local distortion of St. Peterburg’s Nevsky Prospekt). For these immigrants, the city was a waystation to further destinations – Paris, London or New York. While they were here they started newspapers and magazines, organised literary evenings, opened bookstores. Those who couldn’t support themselves through cultural endeavors performed odd jobs. Penniless counts waited tables; down-at- the-heels concert maestros entertained at piano bars. Nabokov taught English, tennis and boxing, “selling,” as his surrogate Fyodor Godunov-Cherdyntsev puts it in The Gift, “the surplus of a gentleman’s upbringing.” By the end of the 1920s, most of the Russians had cleared out. Inflation, the worsening political situation or offers of employment drove them away. Nabokov stayed on. Not because he particularly liked Berlin – in fact, he despised it, found it unbearably crude. He just couldn’t bring himself to leave; a kind of inertia kept him here.

He never bothered to learn German. And yet, despite his scrupulously maintained antipathy, Berlin somehow adopted him.

Nabokov spent 15 years in the capital, from 1922 to 1937. This was where he met and married his wife, Vera Slonim; where the two had their only child, Dmitri. But in all that time, he and his family remained aloof from the world outside Russian Berlin. He never bothered to learn German. A great deal of his imaginative life was preoccupied with conjuring up his lost Russian childhood. And yet, despite his scrupulously maintained antipathy, Berlin somehow adopted him. It insinuated itself into his life and art, chiefly The Gift, the novel of his Berlin years, serialised in Paris Russian periodicals in 1937-38 just after his departure. In it, Nabokov admits, through émigré poet Fyodor, that Berlin’s streets had “purchased, in future memories, space next to St. Petersburg, an adjacent grave.” Nabokov’s Berlin is a composite of hasty glimpses through tram windows, snatched by his characters en route to and from English lessons and literary soirees. It is a two-dimensional Berlin of lamps winking through linden trees, neon signs and those velvety asphalt streets, which Nabokov describes time and again: “as wide as shiny black seas”, “gleaming oily black”. It’s a lyrical and lonely place which mirrors the lyrical and lonely lives of his lost Russian protagonists.

It’s also very confined geographically. It consists of one district, Wilmersdorf, a quiet, leafy quarter of broad, well-paved sidewalks and stolid bourgeois apartment buildings bordering the glittering Kurfürstendamm. Here was where most of the Russians lived, in their tentative flats and grubby pensions, and it is here where Nabokov and his wife eked out their restless existence. Over 15 years he changed lodgings more than a dozen times, but never settled beyond Wilmersdorf’s confi nes.

Growing up, I happened to live in Nabokov’s first Berlin residence: the home of his father, V.D. Nabokov. While Nabokov was still an undergraduate at Cambridge, he’d spend his vacations in this flat with his family. He describes it in Speak Memory as “one of those large, gloomy, eminently bourgeois apartments that I have let to so many émigré families in my novels and short stories”. The building is a massive Jugendstil ship-like edifice at the end of a cobbled, chestnut tree shaded cul-de-sac in Schmargendorf, just off Hohenzollerndamm. “In Berlin there are cul-de-sacs where at dusk the soul seems to dissolve,” wrote Nabokov. Perhaps he had this one in mind. A fringe of garden surrounds the building, hemmed by rusted iron gates. Inside, a dark foyer with two tall mirrors and sinuous banisters. A typical Berlin Altbau, a survivor.

Now I live in Halensee, a neighbourhood that also contains traces of the writer. A bronze plaque on a bourgeois Altbau at Westfälische Straße 29 bears testimony to Nabokov’s residency in 1932, during which time he wrote Despair. Just around the corner, behind the modernist Schaubühne theatre, you can play tennis on the courts where Nabokov gave lessons.

Usually it doesn’t do to try to pinpoint exact places associated with an author’s art. But Nabokov’s descriptions of Berlin remain extraordinarily true to life, almost meticulously so. Take Grunewald, the expansive stretch of forest at the end of Hohenzollerndamm, a favoured sunbathing spot that figures in Speak Memory, The Gift and the 1924 short story The Fight.

“ Give me your hand, dear reader,” Nabokov writes in The Gift, “and let’s go into the forest together. Look at the glades with patches of thistle, nettle or willow herb, among which you will find all kinds of junk: sometimes even a ragged mattress with rusty, broken springs. Do not disdain it!” The mattress pops up again in Speak Memory, this time in surrealist conjunction with “a dressmaker’s dummy lying under a hawthorn bush”. And so do the sprawling mass of poor Berliners one could find at the lake shore on the weekends, who exuded “an inferno of odours that, somehow, I have never found duplicated anywhere else”, a smell, he writes, “of dried, smoked, potted souls a penny a piece”.

These days the forest is cleaner, quieter, less of a city park. Aside from a smattering of nudists who gather on a secluded part of the Grunewaldsee shore, most visitors tend to be fairly well-off residents of nearby villas. There are very few “potted souls”. Yet the forest, with its gullies and hollows, its “dove-grey” lake and surrounding pine-barren shores, is still exactly as Nabokov represents it. Here is the ravine where Yasha Chernyshevsky shoots himself in The Gift. And here is the park bench where you can collude in Nabokov’s fiction by picturing the scene where Fyodor, conversing with an imaginary poet, says: “Doesn’t it amuse you to imagine that one day, on this very spot, a visiting dreamer will come and sit and imagine that you and I once sat here?”