Hating Berlin with Vladimir Nabokov

photo: Christian Schirrmacher / CC

Ever since I left Warsaw for Berlin, it’s become one of my favorite pastimes to mercilessly scrutinize Wikipedia to come up with names of artists that have once been just as excited as me to settle in the city on the Spree. I succeeded in many such cases, took a closer look at the immortalized in many sources exile of David Bowie, and even found some surprising names to join the list of people obviously grateful for their Berlin adventures, like that of the British painter Francis Bacon.

But as it turns out, not everyone enjoyed their stay to the same extent. Vladimir Nabokov, who lived here in the long period between 1922 and 1937 reportedly “never became fond of Berlin and at the end intensely disliked it”. If you’re anything like me, you’ve had your fair share of some Berlin inflicted distress and even though you wouldn’t really consider moving out, if you ever had the chance to express your frustration in a more elaborate manner than crashing an empty bottle of Sterni, you’d probably take it.

photo: Christian Schirrmacher / CC

Nabokov’s family was forced to flee Russia after the 1917 February Revolution and eventually came to Berlin in 1920. The future author of “Lolita” joined them after two years, after having completed his studies in Cambridge. He experienced a particularly rough start in the new city: in 1922, his father was fatally shot as he was trying to shield the actual target of a Russian Monarchist assassinator.

This must have caused the already reluctant Nabokov to ignore the mainstream Berlin lifestyle, which leads us to some reasons why he hated Berlin that we may resonate with. Throughout his whole time here, he’d remain in the Russian community, seldom venturing any further than Wilmersdorf, Charlottenburg and Schöneberg, the city center and the city’s parks and forests, notably the Grunewald.

Dieter E. Zimmer, author of the book “Nabokov’s Berlin”, notes however that this withdrawal from the prevailing social circles is actually a proof of the Russian writer’s good adjustment to the habits existing till this day: “Even ignoring much of Berlin seems a typical Berlin trait. Berlin is made up of many different milieus that hardly take any notice of each other.”

photo: Christian Schirrmacher / CC

This statement, although sounding a bit harsh, definitely corresponds to the way our community tends to behave today. Maybe it’s not so much about nationality anymore – once you get past the language barrier, lifestyle is all. The partygoers, the hipsters, the startup people, goths, each of these groups seems to create their own mini universe with their own mindset, priorities or lack thereof, events and sometimes even rules. Although this cultural diversity is definitely a thing to celebrate, the notion of all those different groups existing independently may feel a bit intimidating and unnecessary.

All the more intimidating when you’re a newcomer – not a rare condition nowadays if we think about the refugees. Nabokov’s situation was still pretty comfortable in comparison with this of the people coming to Berlin nowadays and then having to live in a place like the refugee accommodation at the Tempelhof airport. One could hardly expect them not to hate Berlin that can only welcome them with such poor conditions.

The social struggle wasn’t the only one to face. I hope it’s going to sound encouraging to some of you hustling multiple jobs to stay in the game when I tell you that even Nabokov started out like this. I suppose his experience was probably a bit better than mine though. I may not be an expert on Berlin’s shitty jobs, but there are some hotel rooms in this town that I used to have a rather non touristy relationship with. So taking my short-lived cleaning lady career into account, Nabokov’s side business doesn’t look that bad – it included teaching languages, tennis and boxing lessons, and even working as an extra at the Babelsberger Studios.

photo: Christian Schirrmacher / CC

But on the other hand, I can definitely understand his frustration with this way of earning money. After getting a degree and knowing his own potential – a potential that he fortunately had the chance to fully show later on – he must have hated the city that could only offer him a scant writing income and a bunch of odd jobs.

Sadly, he wouldn’t stay in Berlin long enough to celebrate his literary triumph that could be predicted already in 1928 after the success of “King, Queen, Knave”. As the anti-Semitic environment grew in power, Nabokov left for France in 1937, leaving a short story, “A Guide to Berlin” as the ultimate representation of the city he had been observing for no less than 15 years.

Michalina by
on November 17th, 2016
updated on November 20th, 2016
in Stories
1 Comment »

One Response to “Hating Berlin with Vladimir Nabokov”

  1. Jesse Hilson Says:

    Have you read his novel The Gift? It is set in Berlin and I think it outweighs “A Guide to Berlin” as an ultimate representation of Berlin, seemingly. It just feels like more of a mammoth evocation of a place than the story did. But I liked this article!

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