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Authors: Gail Jones

A Guide to Berlin

BOOK: A Guide to Berlin
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About the Book

‘A Guide to Berlin' is the name of a short story written by Vladimir Nabokov in 1925, when he was a young man of 26, living in Berlin.

 

A group of six international travellers, two Italians, two Japanese, an American and an Australian, meet in empty apartments in Berlin to share stories and memories. Each is enthralled in some way to the work of Vladimir Nabokov, and each is finding their way in deep winter in a haunted city. A moment of devastating violence shatters the group, and changes the direction of everyone's story.

 

Brave and brilliant,
A Guide to Berlin
traces the strength and fragility of our connections through biographies and secrets.

‘(What I hate) Folding an umbrella, not finding its secret button.'

Vladimir Nabokov,
Interview
, 1970

1

It was Marco Gianelli who spoke in the darkness.

When they were all standing together, shocked and numb, when they saw each other's faces remade as rogues, pinched, white, shrivelled inwards with guilt, dull with logistics and the banal business of dragging dead weight, he was the only one among them who was able to speak. He raised his arm in the snowy air and with this gesture assembled them. He asked them to pause.

There was a moment in which all they did was wait. Snowfall enshrouded them. A feeble wind spun the flakes. They heard traffic in the night, muffled and distant, they heard the heave of each other's raspy breath.

It was a formal speech, really, absurd in the circumstances.

Marco said that the death of any human was without metaphor or likeness. The death of any human was incomparable. It was not a writerly event. It was not contained within sentences. It was not to be described in the same way as the beauty of an icicle, or three wrinkles parallel on the forehead of a remembered governess, or the play of shadow
and light on a swimming body, or the random harmony of trifles that was a parking meter, a fluffy cloud and a tiny pair of boots with felt spats.

2

Before the snows truly began, the city was a desolating ash-grey, and bitterly cold. Cass had never before seen such a grey city. It felt stiff and dead. There were the fleshless arms of cranes, slowly swinging, there was the rumble-slide of ubiquitous trains and trams, there were busy buses, skidding pedestrians, instructive red and green lights blinking their cartoon man, but still Berlin seemed to her collectively frozen. The white sky was menacing. The plates of ice on the Spree, uneven and jagged, resembled a spray of shattered glass after a wartime bombing. There must have been old people, she thought, gazing through the grime of an S-Bahn window, who looked down at the river and canals and recalled something blasted and asunder, piles of bricks, lives scattered, and a windowless episode in their childhoods. It would have been an easy connection, this shiny reminder of things broken, this pattern of severity and damage showing the forsakenness of the world. It was hard to imagine the icy water thawed and re-sealing, or the sky returning to a lively blue.

She had a sense of contraction, of huddling against the weather. Later, it figured in her mind as Stalinist classicism, the wind tunnel of the vast and inhuman Karl-Marx-Allee, and the shapes of people in padded jackets bending against the cruel air. A scene from Eisenstein, perhaps, with a gelid lens and the special effects of monumental vision, swollen by an aerial view and historical misery. Black outlines on white snow, impersonality, extinguishment. Exaggeration of this kind was irresistible.

In that early, fierce cold, Berliners coped better. They rode in sealed cars. They shut themselves in offices. Whole apartment blocks seemed to have not a single person about. In the city they dived into subways, seeking the shelter of corridors. There was an other-world of radiant bakery booths and the musty smells of takeaway food, of paper stands and convenience stores and stalls wholly of plastic and trinkets. Subterranean refuge was deeply appealing. There were tiny florists lined with clusters of unnaturally bright blooms – fuchsias, tulips, tropical orchids. Cass loved these above all: the tiny florists.

 

On the day of her very first meeting with the group, Cass bought ten tulips of startling orange, streaked with crimson. They appeared rare and magical. She bought them on impulse, attracted by their torrid colour. Near the exit to the U-Bahn stood rows of aluminium buckets stuffed to the brim with imported and hot-housed flowers. The Vietnamese florist, a sad-looking man with white hair, swept her choice from the bucket, shook it briefly, then laid the bunch on a metal table and swathed it in paper. His movements
were swift and bored. Cass realised almost immediately that this was an untimely purchase. Now she would have to carry the tulips throughout the afternoon, guard them against bruising, hope the petals didn't break, or crush, or freeze.

She rose up from the U-Bahn with her tulips wrapped in a flimsy paper triangle and saw the blue U sign curved above her, hung like a secret code. She slid escalated into frosty air and the noise of the street, generously surrounded in her loneliness by so many sights almost meaningful. A small crowd stood ahead, waiting patiently at the bus stop. She would have liked to join their implicit community, and for a moment considered jumping onto the bus and going wherever it took her. But she consulted her map and headed north, walking as quickly as she could.

Goethestrasse was easy to find. This was an area in which all the streets were named for writers or philosophers, as if they added an intellectual authority or value to property. Leafless trees lined the street, which must be attractive in the spring. Cass located the building, an elegant
altbau
with an art deco vestibule and a hairdresser occupying part of the ground floor. She scanned the names on its brass plate, then buzzed ‘Oblomov', as instructed.
Oblomov
: Russian. It was a palpable, egg-like, literary name.

The group's meetings, she'd been told, moved around the city, as if necessarily furtive or vaguely illicit. It appealed to her, this idea of unsettled conversation. She climbed the three flights of stairs, cumbersome and oversized in her winter coat, and when she arrived knocked on the door with a tentative tap, then a second time, to be heard.

Marco appeared before her, pulling the heavy door open.

‘The Australian,' he announced in English. ‘Our newest international. Here is Cass, from Sydney.' He leant from the doorway and ceremoniously kissed her on both cheeks.

There was Victor from New York. Marco and Gino from Rome, Yukio and Mitsuko from Tokyo.

‘From Sydney,' Cass repeated, embarrassed for no reason.

‘Four rhymers,' Victor quipped, ‘and we two singular others.' He extended his hand, and, following his lead, each shook hers in turn. It was a conventional beginning, as if they were all acting a part. Only Yukio seemed reluctant.

‘Sydney,' said Yukio, joining the echo-effect of their self-consciousness. He could not meet her gaze, but stared at the floor behind the curtain of his asymmetrical fringe. Cass was distracted by his clothes, a version of faux-distressed street fashion from the 1990s, all dangling chains, ornamental tears and discordant layers. He wore a peace-sign on leather string around his neck. Mitsuko was also idiosyncratically outfitted: gauzy blue stuff had been stitched in a frill to the bottom of her jumper, she had badges and jewelled spots casually disposed across her chest, and threads of yellow ribbon entwined wormlike in her chemically pink hair. Cass judged them to be in their late twenties, about her age.

She glanced at the others, cautiously appraising. Victor looked his part, a literature scholar in his sixties, professionally nondescript and self-effacing in beige. He had a walrus moustache and slightly florid skin. Gino was handsome, generically so and therefore unprepossessing, impassive in a black turtleneck. Possibly thirty. Marco appeared suave and a little aloof. He was dark, eastern-looking and self-assured. Cass shyly turned away. Though not usually her type, it was
Marco whom Cass thought distinctively attractive, and it had been at his invitation she had agreed to come.

The introduction acknowledged the prestige of their own cities, arrayed as exemplars. Victor, clearly the chatty one, was already inventing a joint future. They might be the beginning of a movement, a new form of literary devotion. He spoke as one who possessed a great fund of beneficence and fellow-feeling. There was a sense in which he simply assumed everyone was as visionary as he, and as bent on friendship and the artful sharing of literary adventures.

‘Now we need a Londoner, a Parisian and a Muscovite!' Victor added. ‘Beijing, New Delhi, Buenos Aires, Madrid.' He paused. ‘Oslo, Lisbon, Reykjavik, Jakarta … Dublin, we need Dublin.'

The others smiled indulgently at his imperial announcement. They each held a glass of something dark, and Cass guessed the drinking had begun some time before she arrived. On the floor stood a chunky squarish bottle, already empty, and another two in waiting. Mitsuko, clearly pleased another woman had been included in their group, was offering a glass. It was Russian, Cass learnt afterwards. Some kind of brandy tinged ferociously with fermented black plums.

Victor rambled on. Engrossed in his own vision, he enjoyed both the listing of city names and the ambition of global connection. There was something emphatically enthusiastic, American perhaps, in the scope of his imagining. Cass thought of the way children arrange coloured pencils, angling and aligning their sharpened tips to produce a peacock fan.

‘To world domination!' he raised his glass.

But no one really believed it. Victor was a fantasist, it was clear in the optimistic tone of his voice. Somehow each knew, even then, that their number would be no more than six. Theirs were a few circumstantial spokes, faint rays going nowhere. They could not last. They were adventitious. They were constructed essentially by happenstance and would be destroyed a few weeks later.

3

Only yesterday Cass had told Marco that she was not a ‘joiner'.

On the bitter January morning, when ice on the pavements caused fractures and calamities to hundreds of toppling Berliners, so that fire-engines, as well as ambulances, were enlisted to pick up the injured, Cass photographed Vladimir Nabokov's house at Nestorstrasse 22. Shivering, cold, suffering pathetically in a minor key of frozen hands and feet, she aimed her phone through the watery light at the disappointing building across the street, and a man appeared, standing silently beside her. Taking her to be an American tourist, he introduced himself in English: Marco Gianelli. He lived almost opposite number 22, he said, and kept an occasional vigil on weekends. From his window, where he liked to read, he could spot like-minded souls.

‘Souls?' she had asked him.

‘“
Let us speak frankly. There is many a person whose soul has gone to sleep like a leg
.”' Marco smiled.

Cass recognised the quote. He saw the spark of recognition.

‘You see? Like-minded. How many people do you know who might cherish and share those sentences?'

Before them stood the apartment block in which Nabokov had lived with his wife Vera from 1932 to 1937. Their son Dmitri, born in 1934, would have been an infant there. Now it bore a small commemorative brass plate – Cass hadn't noticed until Marco drew it to her attention – and at street level was a restaurant, sombrely closed and unlit,
Die kleine Weltlaterne
: ‘the Little Lantern of the World'.

‘Only true devotees,' he added, ‘bother to take a photograph.'

For a few seconds all she could think of was her frozen feet. Then Cass was aware of Marco's visible breath, and hers, the way the rigour of the cold had brought their faces close, the sense of a deeper transaction and puzzling arousal. It was a pick-up line perhaps, but one superior and strategic: identifying a literary nerd, the assumption of shared experience, the seductive and insinuating facility of quotation.

Marco moved slowly and did not pressure or insist. He stood apart as she lingered, with nothing much to do or see, and when he proposed coffee in a warm place, Cass was grateful for the suggestion simply because it would release her briefly from the rude assault of the weather. A fire-engine sped by, to remind them of the danger of ice.

Later Cass would learn that Marco was considered the philosopher of the group. He seemed sensible, mature and level-headed. He knew the books but had committed only a few lines to memory. He knew Nabokov's life, but mostly in a general outline. He was interested in the writing, he told them,
primarily the writing
, not in what he later called ‘our collective mania'.

In the unspoken consent of small groups, they saw him as
their leader, even though Victor had the more obvious claim. Victor deferred – they all did – to Marco's old-fashioned and serious manner. Marco talked quietly, with eloquence; he drank in moderation; he seemed the neutral, calm figure in their eccentric crew. He displayed a Roman sophistication they had seen in movies, a way of tilting his head back after the first listless drag of a cigarette, a habit of leaning towards women as he listened to them, implying automatic intimacy, a tendency to flick open the
Corriere della Sera
when he was bored with conversation. He wore citrus after-shave and expensive clothes. He liked to smooth his springy black curls with a gesture of his palm. Only Marco spoke English, German and Russian with equal fluency; this confirmed his access to extra levels of significance. It was as if he possessed a layered understanding of their lives in words, and as if only he, having contrived it, knew the true meaning of their intersection.

They walked together up Nestorstrasse, turned right, walked a little further, then entered a tucked-away bar. It was one of the few places nearby, Marco claimed, that served halfway decent espresso. Like Italians everywhere, he felt responsible for the quality of local coffee and obliged to apologise for the disgraceful variations that existed beyond his country.

Cass unwound her scarf and removed her gloves and coat in the shadowy bar. The heating was infernal and the air was foul. It was a grim interior.

‘I know,' said Marco, catching her expression. ‘But the coffee is drinkable. Trust me.'

There were three stags' heads, glumly staring, hung high along the wall. In an old mirror with faceted edges and a
smattering of gold letters, she saw them both reflected as Marco helped her remove her coat. She retreated from the poor translation that was her German version. Around them beer posters announced inebriated excellence with rampant bears, winking lions and the stern command of Gothic type.

The grizzled bar owner hailed Marco – ‘
Eh, paesano!
' – and they exchanged a few jolly words of Italian together.

It was hideous, really, the clammy air, the taxidermical decorations, the unripe banana stench of stale beer. The windows were wet with condensation and semi-opaque. There was an unhygienic, blurry light. Her own reflection had disheartened her, so pallid and barely there.

Marco seemed at home and stood by quietly, waiting to pull out her chair. He ordered the coffees, making a joke, which was met with a gruff laugh from the patron, now invisibly busy behind his crowded counter. Then Marco leant across the table as if confiding.

He had studied literature at university, he said, but was now working as a real estate agent, catering mostly to wealthy Italians who wished to buy a pied-à-terre in Berlin. Short term, he insisted; writing was his true vocation. His aim was to save enough to retire at forty-five to write his family history. He was thirty-nine, he had three sisters and an elderly mother with arthritis.

It was a life summary of poignant or wary concision. No wife was mentioned, no adoring girlfriend.

Cass, habitually reserved, was taken aback by Marco's disclosures. Was she expected to reciprocate? Should she confect a mini-biography? She was not sure why he'd told her of his literary ambitions and family. She responded simply. This was her first trip to Berlin, she had once studied
in art school, then at university, and now worked part-time in a small bookshop in an inner suburb of Sydney. She too hoped one day to become a writer, but considered it unlikely.

‘Everyone wants to write,' she said softly. ‘It's a universal affliction.'

She felt suddenly exposed, having proclaimed incompetence. When her cappuccino was placed before her she recklessly filled it with sugar.

‘Nabokov,' Marco returned to their shared subject, ‘lived in ten different apartment houses here in Berlin, often renting just a room, sometimes only for a month or two. The Nestorstrasse place was unusual because it was more truly a home. Five years, a long time. He knew few Germans and lived almost entirely within the Russian émigré community.'

Cass nodded, wishing for something spongy and buttery to soak in her gritty coffee. She was overcome by discomfort, as if her attraction to Marco seemed suddenly to place her at a disadvantage.

‘But you knew that, of course.'

He was testing her, she was certain. He was intrigued by her nationality and for some reason especially pleased that she was not English or American. Australians were inessential; that might be the key. Perhaps he imagined her in some bucolic or colonial mode, unformed and derivative. Or romping with childish fauna: koalas, kangaroos. Perhaps he thought her gullible and susceptible to old-world persuasions.

She looked at his beautiful hands, fiddling with unconscious fussiness at a sachet of sugar.

‘As a child,' he went on, ‘I was fascinated by Australia. Two of my father's older brothers emigrated there in the seventies, just after I was born. I never met them, but my
mother has a cache of their letters which I used to read and reread. They are vivid letters, full of improbable information and naïve boasting.'

Marco paused, halted before whatever came next in his story. Cass was too polite to ask what his father did, and too reticent to offer more details of her own. He drank his espresso in a single gulp and looked away. Some memory had captured him, some private recollection had pulled him inwards.

And it was then, resting on the brink of disclosing conversation, that Marco changed the subject and told her of his group. He listed the names and offered a little information on each. He had known Gino for years in Rome – before he trained in real estate he'd been a literature postgraduate at La Sapienza with Gino. Though neither stayed there very long, they'd formed an enduring friendship. He'd met Victor only recently, helping him find an apartment. He was a college professor on a six-month sabbatical. A lovely man, Marco added. Very high-spirited, very funny. Yukio and Mitsuko, both writers, had stopped beneath his window, just as she had, to photograph the Nestorstrasse apartment. Yukio was a blogger in Japan of some considerable fame; Mitsuko was an essayist and English–Japanese translator.

They all met as a group each week, sometimes twice in a week, inspired and compelled by a shared interest in the work of Vladimir Nabokov. They tended to make speeches, Marco said, often effusive and cluttered with personal symbols. It was a new kind of community, not academic, not social, but some new species linking words and bodies with an occult sense of the written world. Like the parasite, he
said wryly, that Nabokov claimed spelt out the word ‘deified' in the jelly substance of its cells.

‘Victor hopes to confirm this,' Marco added, ‘and presents us with images of organisms that seem to display cursive writing. Mitochondria. Golgi bodies. He hands around photocopies of images taken through microscopes.'

Cass laughed. She couldn't help herself.

‘Yes,' said Marco, ‘I know it sounds a little crazy. But what a beautiful idea, don't you think? It's in
Ada
, the tiny being with “deified” written inside its body.'

‘Everywhere,' Cass said, ‘there are signs and symbols.'

‘So you must join us.'

‘I'm not a joiner. Really, I'm not.'

Marco was earnest in pressing his case.

‘Consider how empty most social encounters really are; how nothing is revealed, or known, nothing is risked or truly given. The inner self is disqualified in the rough currencies of social commerce. Who cares about complication? Who cares about Nabokov?'

‘Who indeed?'

She saw now that she had slightly offended him. Marco looked down at his hands.

‘Forgive me, I'm lecturing. I must sound like an old fogey. All we want is that our self in words be more precise, and mean more. Matter more, you might say. Make true connections.'

Cass thought, Yes, he does sound like an old fogey. But she was also touched by the plea, and by the evident sincerity. Outside, a second fire-engine sped through the ash-grey streets, alarmingly scarlet and incongruously silent. Cass
and Marco both noticed it, but neither commented. It fled past, a pale fire, into the frosty distance.

 

In the end he persuaded her. It may have been the sense of rare meeting or incipient sexual attraction. It may have been his charming appeal to an inner self, so primly defended. Nothing much at this time merited her full attention. The city was mysteriously closed in hibernation, and somehow inaccessible. Her vantage was one of ignorance, and her intuition was that whatever was concealed would take time to unconceal. She had come to Berlin to write, an ambition as vague as it was hopeful, verified only by her saying so. There was no evidence of her writing, for she had not yet begun. Her torpor would eventually –
necessarily –
lift. But she was a kind of tourist, after all, and bent on swift amusements. The weather oppressed her. She sensed herself frozen inside. She was like one of the ubiquitous cranes located high on building sites in Mitte, a stiff shape merely, stuck mechanical in mid-air.

Cass wondered what happened at the meetings, sometimes held in coffee shops, sometimes in empty apartments to which Marco had access. She was without friends in this city, aimless and contingent: why not follow the possibility of a literary fellowship? Marco said that the meetings so far had been rather anarchic; they were all a little odd, he declared honestly, and none of them were really ‘joiners'. At the next they would begin a ‘speak-memory' game, in which each would introduce themselves with a densely remembered story or detail. They had made a kind of pact, a narrative pact, to speak openly and freely. There was no
compulsion, Marco insisted. No pressure or obligation. But each would try to speak with candour in whatever manner or genre they chose. Victor had offered to go first.

Outside the bar, on the footpath, they murmured shy farewells. Marco scribbled an address on a piece of paper.

‘Oblomov,' he said.

Cass had no idea what he was referring to.

‘Five pm, tomorrow. Please join us. Please.'

He seemed reluctant to leave. They stood motionless for a few expanding seconds. Cass half expected another fire-engine to appear and zoom past, since the world was like that now: Berlin was already declaring itself in replications and convergences. Blue U and green S signs seemed everywhere suspended, faces were not entirely distinctive, the same yellow bus roared everywhere between orange LED-lit signs. Colour drew her attention; any interruption to the overall grey caught her gaze. She had noticed too the surreal apparition of fibre-glass bears - life-sized and brightly decorated, standing in erect human postures – a ubiquitous public art of comic-book taste.

Prone to awkwardness in these situations, Cass spun on her heel with what might have seemed a decisive impertinence. She pushed away from Marco into the freezing air, feeling the turbulence, and the faint thrill, of scarcely admissible feelings.

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