Nabokov casts a long shadow

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Ge­ordie Wil­liamson

Vladimir Nabokov had many jobs dur­ing his lean years as a Rus­sian ex­ile in in­ter­war Ber­lin. He was a ten­nis coach, a tu­tor, a trans­la­tor, a com­poser of chess puzzles and also, at one point in the early 1920s, an ex­tra. The young au­thor, who in those days wrote un­der the pseu­do­nym Sirin, would catch a train to the sub­urbs and work for one of the many film pro­duc­tion com­pa­nies then op­er­at­ing in the Weimar equiv­a­lent of Hol­ly­wood.

Only a re­mark­able life could gen­er­ate such in­ter­est in its minu­tiae, and Nabokov’s bi­og­ra­phy at­taches to the rev­er­en­tial imag­i­na­tion of his ad­mir­ers like fil­ings to a mag­net. Surely there are those who have scoured the back­ground of films by Robert Wiene, FW Mur­nau or Fritz Lang — those mas­ters of Ger­man cin­e­matic ex­pres­sion­ism whose ef­forts in­formed Sirin’s tyro nov­els and sto­ries — hop­ing for a glimpse of that haughty ge­nius swelling a crowd scene.

In A Guide to Ber­lin, Gail Jones has bent her con­sid­er­able tal­ents to cap­tur­ing such evanes­cent traces. Her new novel might be set in present-day Ber­lin, but it is ev­ery­where haunted by Nabokov’s ghost.

And fair enough: the au­thor of Lolita was a great fan of spec­tral phe­nom­ena. His idio­syn­cratic belief sys­tem com­bined quan­tum en­tan­gle­ment with old-fash­ioned ei­dolism; he saw the di­vide be­tween this world and the next as hope­lessly per­me­able and he re­garded ev­ery­day re­al­ity as en­coded with mes­sages from the other side, like an acros­tic in a poem. Doubt­less he would have ap­plauded Jones’s el­e­gant ne­cro­mancy. But it is not wholly for him that she writes.

Be­cause Nabokov is less the sub­ject of A Guide to Ber­lin than its ex­cuse. The nar­ra­tive cen­tres on a group of float­ing in­ter­na­tion­als — one Amer­i­can, two Ital­ians, two Ja­panese and a lone Aus­tralian — who meet regularly in apart­ments around Ber­lin, os­ten­si­bly to dis­cuss the great Rus­sian but, as win­ter and the group’s bonds deepen, to talk of their own lives as well.

This dart­ing cotil­lion of per­sonal re­la­tions has at it cen­tre a 20-some­thing art school dropout named Cass. She spent her child­hood in a re­mote Top End com­mu­nity, and she has car­ried that sense of melan­choly iso­la­tion into adult­hood. Adrift in Ber­lin, Cass reads and rides the U-Bahn, at times vis­it­ing sites of sig­nif­i­cance from Nabokov’s years in the city. It is out­side an apart­ment where the au­thor had once lived that the Aus­tralian meets Marco Gianelli, a fel­low Naboko­vian and mem­ber of the cir­cle she will soon join.

Jones uses these meet­ings much as Christina Stead did in her first pub­lished book, The Salzburg Tales, to show off dif­fer­ent facets of the same the­matic and stylis­tic jewel. There is the older, ver­bose, avun­cu­lar Jewish-Amer­i­can scholar Vic­tor, whose par­ents owned an um­brella-mak­ing fac­tory in New Jersey af­ter es­cap­ing from the war and its at­ten­dant dark­ness decades be­fore. And there are Yukio and Mit­suko, fash­ion­able bo­hemi­ans who found love af­ter Mist­suko was hired to pro­vide ther­apy and sup­port to Yukio, a teenage hikiko­mori suf­ferer who for years locked him­self away from work, life, friends and study.

But it is to the Ital­ians that Cass is most pow­er­fully drawn. Marco is a literary scholar too, though one who has a real-es­tate rental busi­ness in Ber­lin to make ends meet. He’s se­ri­ous and sweet, and in this sense very dif­fer­ent from his old friend Gino, who is given to acer­bic com­men­tary and mys­te­ri­ous ab­sences. Cass’s grow­ing at­trac­tion to them vi­o­lates the bal­anced com­mu­nal spirit of the group and nudges the plot to­wards a sud­den, vi­o­lent cul­mi­na­tion.

In the mean­time, though, there is Nabokov: the dark mat­ter that pro­vides the re­main­ing nar­ra­tive mass. The group dis­cusses ev­ery­thing from the nov­el­ist’s short sto­ries ( A Guide to Ber­lin is the ti­tle of one of them), his years of re­search into but­ter­fly gen­i­talia, his coura­geous ho­mo­sex­ual brother Sergei, who went from be­ing a pre-war play­boy to an out­spo­ken critic of the Nazi regime and was mur­dered by the state in 1945, to Nabokov’s love of hy­per-spe­cific and re­con­dite words: meer­schaum, drisk, en­sel­lure, ophryon — the last of which refers to the in­vis­i­ble third eye, seat of mi­graine, epilepsy and in­spi­ra­tion.

And re­ally, de­spite the char­ac­ters’ su­per­fi­cially clever ban­ter, it is that third eye that Jones is most in­ter­ested in look­ing through. She sees a city re­built on top of thou­sands of unex- ploded bombs, in which Syr­ian refugees camp out in midwinter in their thou­sands. She sees a city where even the train sta­tions seem to re­tain some com­plic­ity in the Holo­caust, and where ev­ery other street is paved with ‘‘stum­ble stones’’, dis­crete plaques set into the ground memo­ri­al­is­ing some of the 160,000 Jews who once dwelled there. Ber­lin should prop­erly be re­garded as another char­ac­ter in the novel, so lov­ingly does Cass’s con­scious­ness register its rem­nant glo­ries, its con­tem­po­rary mal­adies, its to­pogra­phies of past terror:

Grad­u­ally the city was un­fold­ing for her; she saw that she might know her­self more sub­tly here, that the pres­sure of history, im­posed like a spy mis­sion, re­quired her to

Gail Jones’s re­mark­able nar­ra­tive pulses with feel­ing

de­velop a kind of in­ner sin­cer­ity. Small in the face of a ter­ri­ble history, for­eign, young, un­cool, an­tipodean, she might find here an ex­pres­sion of her ac­cu­mu­lated ques­tion­ing. It was a chal­lenge, she de­cided; there was a logic she must achieve, there were en­cryp­tions, there were pass­words, there were pos­si­ble so­lu­tions. Not only on the train sys­tem, but lit­tered ev­ery­where: signs and sym­bols, im­pli­ca­tions.

Signs and Sym­bols, as it hap­pens, is the ti­tle of another short story by Nabokov, one that comes clos­est to ad­dress­ing the to­tal scan­dal of the to­tal­i­tar­ian era in Europe. In it, the in­sti­tu­tion­alised son of el­derly Rus­sian-Jewish im­mi­grants suf­fers from ‘‘ref­er­en­tial ma­nia’’, imag­in­ing that ‘‘ev­ery­thing that hap­pens about him is a veiled ref­er­ence to his per­son­al­ity and ex­is­tence’’:

Phe­nom­e­nal na­ture shad­ows him wher­ever he goes. Clouds in the star­ing sky trans­mit to one another, by means of slow signs, in­cred­i­bly de­tailed in­for­ma­tion re­gard­ing him. His in­most thoughts are dis­cussed at night­fall, in man­ual al­pha­bet, by darkly ges­tic­u­lat­ing trees.

The re­mark­able thing about Signs and Sym­bols is that it can be read in two ways: from the par­ents’ per­spec­tive, it is a poignant and exquisitely mod­u­lated bit of literary re­al­ism; from the young man’s per­spec­tive, how­ever, ev­ery sen­tence con­tains rhymes and ref­er­ences that flash like sirens. Form and con­tent blend and ram­ify the sub­stance of his de­spair.

What Jones has done in this cool and in­tri­cate novel is to ex­pand the stylis­tic pos­si­bil­i­ties and ex­ploit the meta­phys­i­cal im­pli­ca­tions of Nabokov’s ex­tra­or­di­nary story. She is not the first to do so — fig­ures such as WG Se­bald pre­cede her — but a pe­cu­liar an­tipodean twist grants A Guide to Ber­lin its unique per­spec­tive. Hers is an unashamedly cere­bral work that will only gain by reread­ing; but it is also, like its Naboko­vian par­ent, a nar­ra­tive that pulses with feel­ing. Its pages fi­nally sum­mon not one ghost but mil­lions of them.

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