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, for example took a closer look at the immortalized in many sources exile of David Bowie.
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 wasn’t a fan of the city.
Nabokov’s family had to leave Russia after the 1917 February Revolution and eventually came to Berlin in 1920. He then experienced a particularly rough start in the new city: in 1922, his father was shot and died.
This could 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. As noted by Dieter E. Zimmer in ”Nabokov’s Berlin”, the writer preferred to stay within the Russian community of Wilmersdorf, Charlottenburg and Schöneberg.
Dieter E. Zimmer further observes that this withdrawal from the prevailing social circles could actually be 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.”
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. Getting an economic start in a new city is always tough. Nabokov’s job opportunities didn’t look all that bad – according to Wikipedia, they included giving language lessons.
Hating might be an inaccurate assumption, but Nabokov’s alleged frustration and mixed feelings wouldn’t be unlikely in association with a city that apparently wasn’t meant to be the setting for his literary success.