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Nabokov in 1936: Berlin suited him until the Nazis, like the Bolsheviks before them, drove him into a second exile

Vladimir Nabokov was starting his career as a writer when he found himself in Berlin. "It is clear, for one thing, that while a man is writing, he is situated in some definite place; he is not simply a kind of spirit, hovering over the page...Something or other is going on around him." The short 1934 novel Despair from which this quote comes is already heavily self-ironising compared with the stories of the previous decade. But like them it is studded with incidental Berlin experiences, from the shape of the city's S-Bahn train line on the map to the comedy of a German misspeaking English. "I suppose only the pest. The chief thing by me is optimismus." If Nabokov's Berlin was in his head, it was nevertheless not invented. 

He lived from 1932-37 with his wife and son at Nestorstrasse 22, in the smart, quiet residential area of Wilmersdorf, comparable with London's Chelsea. The unfussy mansion block was his first real home after the curtailed teenage years in Russia. The previous decade in Berlin had been a series of removals from one rented address to the next after his father was shot dead by Bolshevik agents in 1922. "That flat of ours in one of those newfangled houses built in the modern, boxlike, space-cheating, let-us-have-no-nonsense style..." So the imagined author of Despair commented as his creator moved in. The building was dull with an awkward tower in brick and glass towering up at its helm. The protagonist of Nabokov's next big project, The Gift, dwelling in Agamemnonstrasse, thought that the boring architect of his block had suddenly gone mad. After the war, these leafy streets had to be raised from the rubble. (Tiny bronze plaques mark their 1954 resurrection). The Russian writer Vladimir Nabokov lived here, 1932-37, it says, but you could easily pass by that dim bronze plaque from 1999, fading into a brownish façade. 

Perhaps tying works of art to their originating topography is vulgar and needs to be kept discreet. But history needs Nabokov. During the artistically formative years, he lived here in the 1920s and 1930s, he peerlessly described how Berlin's 300,000 Russian émigrés endured life after the Bolshevik Revolution. A city "swarming with ragamuffins" (Despair) and here and there "an urban vagabond with an early evening thirst" (The Fight, 1925). Here were thousands of lonely people haunted by poverty and nostalgia. Divorce or widowhood sealed their fate. In An Affair of Honour (1927), the cuckolded Anton Petrovich went through the motions of a classic Russian duel only to find himself stuck in a shabby Berlin hotel after his opponent didn't show. "He looked at the moth-eaten plush, the plump bed, the washstand, and this wretched room...seemed to him to be the room in which he would have to live from that day on...[With] the door shut, he grabbed [a] sandwich with both hands, immediately soiled his fingers and chin with the hanging fat and, grunting greedily, began to munch." So the writer imagined the crude Germanisation of a lost man. Nabokov, for whom all life after 1917 contrasted with his childhood on a Russian country estate, was a perfectionist, who noticed how even his own mother fell from wealthy grace. Miraculously, his brutal insights produced their own kind of beauty on the page. 

"And do you know with what a marvellous clatter the brightly lit train, all its windows laughing, sweeps across the bridge above the street! Probably it goes no farther than the suburbs, but in that instant the darkness beneath the black span of the bridge is filled with such mighty metallic music that I cannot help imagining the sunny lands toward which I shall depart as soon as I have procured those extra hundred marks for which I long so blandly, so light-heartedly." (A Letter that Never Reached Russia, 1925.) Light-heartedness and a tendency to fairytale was the key. The Russianness of that keenly visual fantasy strikes home today. Malevich with his desire to unite peasant harmony and modern technology, early Kandinsky's animated countrysides and Chagall's magic carpets all come to mind.

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Joel Posner
July 1st, 2010
8:07 PM
This article is pretty cool. It is fascinating to study the interplay of an artist's imagination and his environment, in this case Berlin under Hitlers rule. To Michael Rollof: How anyone can find Speak Memory disappointing is beyond me. Hope, you'll recover eventually.

michael roloff
June 30th, 2010
3:06 PM
i found "speak memory" rather disappointing the second time around, which came after a pscychoanalysis which in my case freshened memory beyond proustian capacities it seems.

June 29th, 2010
4:06 PM
Exactly, in his, Speak memory, he writes, it was Milukov,former premier minister of Provisionary government that was targeted, targeted by people, Nabokov called "Russian faschists". You have to be aware,that after abdication of the T, Russia had Provisionary government, that was democratic, unfortunately,Bolsheviks seized power in the in the putsch. Monarchists that wanted to kill Milukov, blamed him for the abdication of the Tzar. Another thing, what is "Submerged Atlantica?" shouldn't it be "Submerged Atlantida?"

June 29th, 2010
3:06 PM
It was my recollection that Nabokov's father was assassinated by monarchists, not Bolsheviks. Wikipedia seems to agree.

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