Fiction – paperback; Harvill Secker; 272 pages; 2016. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.
Gail Jones’ latest novel, A Guide to Berlin, pays homage to Vladimir Nabokov, the Russian writer who inspired the title*, as well as the city of Berlin itself.
The book focuses on a group of six Berlin-based Nabokov fans from around the world — two Italians, a Japanese couple, an American and an Australian — who meet regularly to tell a “densely remembered story or detail” about their lives, what they dub “speak-memory** disclosures”.
The narrative largely revolves around Cass, the 20-something Australian who has decamped from Sydney to Berlin in pursuit of a dream: to write and to be near the family home in which Nabokov once lived. Here she meets Marco, the Italian academic/real estate agent, who organises the Nabokov get-togethers in empty apartments he’s trying to sell. And from there she is introduced to the others in the group: Victor from New York, Gino from Rome, and Yukio and Mitsuki from Tokyo.
Short stories woven together
The book is loosely structured around each character’s speak-memory, giving it the feel of a short story collection. It’s not quite as rigid as Jones’ previous novel, Five Bells, which follows the lives of five different characters in clearly delineated sections, but more fluid in the sense that Cass’s new life exploring Berlin is woven throughout the narrative: her adventures are simply punctuated by the Nabovok meetings she attends.
This helps to provide the story with a real sense of atmosphere. Jones does a lot of work telling us about Berlin’s haunted past and how its streets, shrouded in winter snow, almost echo with the footsteps of people long since dead. Indeed, Berlin feels very much like a character in its own right, and it’s beautifully evoked through the eyes of an antipodean experiencing a Northern Hemisphere winter for the first time:
Before the snows truly began, the city was a desolating ash-grey, and bitterly cold. Cass had never 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.
But I have to say I found A Guide to Berlin slightly disappointing. I can’t fault the prose, which is beautiful and elegiac and littered with Nabokov references that I’m sure fans will enjoy spotting. And there’s no doubting that Jones’ is a superb stylist, with every single word carefully selected to do a specific job, but that, on its own, isn’t enough to carry this relatively thin story, which occasionally feels fleshed out merely for the sake of it.
But I think my biggest gripe is this: it’s not a plot-driven novel, and yet, just as the reader begins to wonder how the story is going to end, the author relies on plot-driven devices to bring things to a head. The ending, as the blurb will tell you, is violent and shocking. But it also feels rushed — and far from authentic.
Yet, for all that, the story is an easy one to read, and I very much enjoyed spending time in Cass’s company and seeing Berlin through her eyes. I, too, have been a tourist a long way from home and I know of the torpor and melancholy that can arise when you’re suddenly confronted with horrendously oppressive weather day in day out and no support network to see you through.
This is a seemingly gentle and reflective story — about all kinds of things including truth, friendship, loyalty and travel — which slowly builds to a dramatic conclusion. I rather suspect if you’ve read Rachel Cusk’s Outline and liked it, you will like A Guide to Berlin too.
* A Guide to Berlin is a short story by Vladimir Nabokov, which was first published in 1925.
** Nabokov’s memoir, published in 1951, was called Speak, Memory.
The author is widely published, so UK and US readers should have no trouble getting hold of this one.