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November 2022 Issue [Memoir]


A father’s guide to Nabokov’s Berlin
A man helps a pregnant woman into a waiting car

Illustrations by Jorge González



A father’s guide to Nabokov’s Berlin

Halensee is the second smallest of the ninety-six Ortsteile, or districts, that make up Berlin. For the better part of five years, I lived just a few miles away without knowing it existed. I can pinpoint the moment this changed—shortly after noon on September 11, 2018—not because of the event that had occurred seventeen years before, when I was in my first month of college in New York, but because of one that had occurred seven hours earlier. It was then that my partner, Lisa, woke me up and whispered, “My water just broke.”

I first heard the name of the place from a handsome young physician in the obstetrics wing of Charité, the university hospital in the city center. After some initial tests, we’d been sent downstairs to wait in the cafeteria for an hour and a half. Now the doctor was explaining with inappropriate cheerfulness that an intake error caused by a shift change meant that we had never been processed; all the beds were in use, and would be for the foreseeable future. Since the most recent measurements showed only mild contractions and a normal fetal heart rate, we would be transferred elsewhere. Precisely where, he didn’t yet know. “We’ll have to see where the journey takes us,” he said—a masterpiece of bureaucratic German, its collective subject comprising an I who does the seeing and a you who does the going. One of his colleagues disappeared down the corridor with reassuring urgency. But she soon found that there were no beds available at a second, then a third, then a fourth clinic—mid-September being well-known as the time when one reaps what is sown during the week Germans call Zwischen den Jahren (“between the years”).

“Good news!” the physician said, upon the fifth attempt. “We’ve found you a bed at the Martin Luther Krankenhaus.” Great news, we agreed, and asked where that was. He looked at his clipboard and read the address aloud. When Lisa, who grew up in East Berlin, asked him where that was, he shrugged. Three hands dove into two front pockets and a purse, respectively, and began typing. The physician was the quickest.

“Somewhere near Ha-len-see,” he said, drawing out the word as though it were a foreign dish he was tasting for the first time.

My eyes darted back and forth between him and Lisa. She expanded the map on her phone and showed me a pink trapezoid in the southwest corner of the city.

“How do we get there?” I asked. “By ambulance or something?”

The physician emitted a curt laugh. “It might take several hours before we’d be able to have an ambulance ready for you,” he said. “I recommend organizing your own transportation.”

As I leaned into the back of a taxi to spread out a towel, the driver met my eyes in the rearview mirror.

“They forgot to register you, didn’t they?”

With a vanilla façade that looked like an upside-down steamboat, the Martin Luther Krankenhaus occupied an entire block on the south side of Caspar-Theyß-Straße. The almost perfect quiet of the street, and the unattached, ungraffitied buildings across from the hospital gave me the impression I always have when I leave the international crescent of neighborhoods in the east that constitute what I think of as my Berlin—namely, that I am actually in Germany. Lisa was registered, and her contractions and her cervical dilation were measured. We were told that we still had a long day ahead of us. If nothing changed in a few hours, she would be given medicine to induce labor. In the meantime, we went on a walk around the neighborhood.

We crossed a bridge that spanned the six lanes of the autobahn and the train tracks of the Ring and drifted into one of those unlovely stretches whose Sixties architecture is a sure indicator that the area was bombed to rubble during the war. We walked until we came to a church with a rusting clock and a pyramid-shaped belfry that looked not unlike the one in our neighborhood, then slowly returned to the hospital via a parallel street, which, if anything, was even less attractive. Halfway down the block, at No. 22, were two wooden benches outside Die kleine Weltlaterne, a storied pub, where Lisa paused to rest. While she read the laminated newspaper clips about the pub’s history as a meeting place for artists, musicians, and writers, I stepped into a niche-like doorway to smoke a much-needed cigarette. There I noticed a plaque—not one of the city’s blue-and-white Gedenktafeln, but a plain steel sheet that in German and Russian read: the writer vladimir nabokov (1899–1977) lived in this house in the years 1932–1937.

Illustrations by Jorge González

Nestorstraße 22 was the last of ten apartments Nabokov occupied in Berlin, and the one in which he lived the longest. Nabokov never disguised his antipathy for Berlin, the city where he spent the first part of his exile from Russia, where he buried his beloved father, a liberal politician assassinated by Russian protofascists in 1922, and which he fled in 1937 after the assassin was freed from prison and given a prominent role in émigré affairs by the Gestapo. He proudly downplayed his knowledge of German and stayed mostly within the dwindling “colony” of Russian expatriates. His interactions with locals were limited to shopkeepers, city officials, and a handful of students to whom he taught English, French, and tennis to supplement his income as a writer and to support his widowed mother.

Yet it was here that he met his future wife and lifelong partner in literature, Véra Slonim, at an émigré charity ball on May 8 or 9 of 1923, depending on who was asked. It was here, almost nine years to the day later, at a private birth clinic near Bayerischer Platz in Schöneberg, that Véra gave birth to their only child, Dmitri. And it was here, under the pen name Vladimir Sirin, that Nabokov became one of the outstanding Russian-language novelists of the twentieth century. The “ochered walls” of the “oblong room” on the third floor of Nestorstraße saw him put the finishing touches on Despair, write all of Invitation to a Beheading, draft a chapter of what would become his autobiography, Speak, Memory, and complete most of The Gift—the last and, in his view and mine, the best of his Russian novels. (The apartment appears there as Agamemnonstraße 15, whose owners slightly oversell it as a “small” but “hoch-modern” flat in a “wonderful district.”)

Nabokov was “a devoted and indulgent father,” as his biographer Brian Boyd puts it. Graded on the curve of writers in his generation—especially male writers—he probably should have won some kind of parenting award. He had himself enjoyed one of the more blissful childhoods in recorded history, and he and Véra wanted to ensure that Dmitri would have the same, despite the family’s straitened circumstances and precarious position as one politically suspect exile and two Jews in Hitler’s Berlin. Nabokov looked after Dmitri during the day while Véra—the primary breadwinner at the time—worked at a law office, frequently taking him to play in the “primeval paradise” of the Grunewald, not far from their apartment. “Never in my life have I sat on so many benches and park chairs, stone slabs and stone steps, terrace parapets and brims of fountain basins as I did in those days,” he would write in Speak, Memory.

Echoing a description of Véra’s and reflecting the experience of many parents before and since, Nabokov found raising Dmitri to be a combination of “hard labor and heaven.” He would go on to describe his concern for his newborn son as “couvade-like.” But Nabokov’s interest in Dmitri’s experience of infancy was not just that of a father; it was also that of a novelist-metaphysician for whom becoming a parent was a key step in formulating his idiosyncratic theory of time.

The Gift, which he began writing when Véra was pregnant, tells two quasi-autobiographical stories. In the first, “an ostentatious device on the part of fate” beneficently contrives to make a happy match out of Fyodor Godunov-Cherdyntsev and Zina Mertz, two Russian émigrés living in Berlin. In the second, a Künstlerroman, Fyodor evolves from the author of an unsuccessful volume of poetry, to the author of a short story about his lepidopterist father’s disappearance in Central Asia, to the author of a controversial biography of the beloved nineteenth-century novelist and social reformer Nikolai Chernyshevski, to the author of The Gift, the novel that we have been reading. In the opening chapter, written when Dmitri was two, Nabokov has Fyodor explain why he has taken childhood as the overarching theme for his collection of poems. “My probing thought often turns towards that original source,” Fyodor says, meaning birth, before which there exists what he calls a “reverse nothingness.” In imagining the “nebulous state of the infant,” he hopes to prepare himself for death, “the darkness to come.” He trains and strains his memory to recall the moments just after what he calls “primal non-existence,” turning his life “upside down” in his poetry so that “birth becomes death,” a kind of “dying-in-reverse.” What for? To find evidence for the contrary proposition: that dying is a kind of birth in reverse; in other words, that there is life after death.

Like so many of Nabokov’s characters, for good or for ill, Fyodor “lust[s] for immortality—even for its earthly shadow!” He is a proponent of what we would today call possible worlds theory, which, in its strongest form, holds that all possible arrangements of the universe are equally, and simultaneously, real. He elaborates on the theory during a daydreamed conversation with the poet Koncheyev. Fyodor objects to what he calls our “barbaric perception of time” as a kind of accumulation of present moments or momentary presents, constantly rising from the “watery abyss of the past and the aerial abyss of the future.” Fyodor is skeptical that time even exists. He spatializes it, positing that the past and the future coexist with the present, but are generally hidden from view as a result of our “finiteness.” He encourages Koncheyev to experience the “retrospective thrill” of imagining that in the future someone will come to sit in the spot in the Grunewald where they have had their conversation, just as, on the final page of the book, he tells Zina that “one day we shall recall” how Agamemnonstraße appeared to them as they prepare to enter their apartment together, alone, for the first time.

“I am not, and never was, Fyodor Godunov-Cherdyntsev,” Nabokov later wrote in a preface to the English translation of The Gift. Nonetheless, that Fyodor’s views on time and mortality were very near to Nabokov’s own can be inferred from two facts. First, there is Véra’s testimony, in her foreword to a collection of his Russian poems, that potustoronnost—which means “the hereafter” or “the beyond,” but which the scholar Vladimir Alexandrov shrewdly translates as “the otherworld”—is Nabokov’s “main theme,” and “saturates everything he wrote.” Second, much of Fyodor’s argument reappears throughout Speak, Memory. That book opens with the “first gleam of complete consciousness” (Nabokov’s own) and comes full circle with “an infant’s first journey into the next dimension” (Dmitri’s). If Fyodor is on a quest for “infinity, where all, all the lines meet,” Nabokov finds their earthly shadow in the “converged” train tracks seen by the Berlin-born toddler who waits for hours with “optimism” and “patience” for a train to pass below the bridge where he and his parents are standing—the same one Lisa and I were now crossing on our way back to the hospital.

Anton was born fifteen hours later, hours that, even by the time-distorting standard of the pandemic years that were to follow, were the longest Lisa or I have ever experienced. Anton had a bacterial infection the doctors were unable to identify, which kept us in Halensee for the rest of the week. On the night of his birth, before we were able to secure a room together, I was sent away when the hospital closed for visitors. As I took the train home by myself, I was overwhelmed by a sense that reality had been suspended. I had just undergone a momentous experience, but it was one that I saw nowhere reflected in the world around me. Everyone in my car was enfolded in their private thoughts or distracting themselves from the same by peering into pages or screens, as I usually am. I had the intense urge to break the local taboo against speaking loudly on the train by announcing my news. The sequence of events vividly passed through my imagination, even if the words themselves did not pass through my lips, and when nothing gave my fellow passengers cause to change what they were doing, a terrifying thought insinuated itself into my sleep-deprived mind: Am I dead?

When I entered my empty apartment, with its strange, unused baby furniture, I found myself desperate to compare my experience with that of someone else. I might have called my father, but the thought of telling him that I felt as though I’d become a ghost struck me as absurd. Instead, for the first time in years, I pulled my copy of Speak, Memory off the shelf. In the last chapter, Nabokov describes his return home from the clinic where Véra gave birth to Dmitri. A once-familiar street, he writes, appears to him as though it has been reflected in “the mirror of a barbershop” and has become “an abstract world that all at once stops being droll and loosens a torrent of terror.” The proximate cause for his disorientation is that he is seeing the street for the first time at five in the morning—that is, at sunrise, when he is normally asleep in bed, as he “had often passed there, childless, on sunny evenings.” Yet no less important, I was coming to understand, was the fact that he was now seeing it with the eyes of a newborn parent.

The word “terror” caught my eyes. What Nabokov and I experienced on our way home from the births of our children was a response to a particular kind of death that is less than literal, but certainly more than metaphorical. For Nabokov, Boyd argues, writing is a way of transcending death, of experiencing “the full freedom of timelessness,” but death is also the moment in which we experience a release from the “prison” of time. In Dying for Time, the philosopher Martin Hägglund observes that these two positions are incompatible. Just as Nabokov’s “chronophobia,” as Hägglund terms it, cannot be separated from his “chronophilia,” we cannot reap the benefits of “immortality” without sacrificing what we gain from being time-bound creatures. But the experience of becoming a parent, as Nabokov describes it in Speak, Memory, suggests a third possibility—one which, if interpreted correctly, is possible to verify empirically: that death and rebirth are immanent in life itself.

“Children and books are marks to be left on the world without us, the world of our death,” the critic Michael Wood remarks in his reading of Speak, Memory. The similarity between children and books—and their shared function as surrogate immortalities—has been noted at least since Plato’s Symposium, but Nabokov gives the old analogy a twist. Along with other fundamental experiences, such as losing a parent, graduating from university, getting married, or becoming a citizen of a new country, all of which Nabokov would undergo—producing a work of literature and becoming a parent are markers of a kind of death-in-life, the passage from one social identity or existential status to another. They are grave markers of one’s previous self and are usually distinguished by an appropriate transitional ritual.

Each of these deaths is followed by a kind of rebirth, a passage to the “next dimension” of being—a series of otherworlds populated by a series of causally related but nonetheless distinct beings. The “common sense” view that “our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness,” with which Nabokov opens Speak, Memory, is one he rejects. Our lives, he insists, are instead like a street whose shadows, at certain decisive moments, fall on the wrong side. The otherworlds that Véra claimed were central to his metaphysics don’t necessarily exist in a temporal hereafter, but rather in a spatial here and now. I have come to believe that my sense of having turned into a ghost on the train can best be explained as what occurs when one becomes aware of the overlap between two otherworlds: in this case, the world in which I was not yet a parent and the world in which I had just become one. Literature helps us transcend time and death not as a kind of one-time magic trick—by creating a physical object that exists after the permanent extinction of consciousness—but rather by training us to view our apparent finitude from non-linear perspectives: Fyodor’s “retrospective thrill,” for example. The evidence for life after death that Fyodor seeks is not only to be found in one’s birth; if attended to properly, one can see the earthly shadow of immortality falling on us all the time.

Aside from that brief walk with Lisa through Halensee, my own Berlin overlaps with Nabokov’s in only a few places. The zoo and the aquarium, Kurfürstendamm and Kaufhaus des Westens, the Brandenburg Gate and Potsdamer Platz: tourist spots I typically see only when visitors are in town. To my knowledge, the one place in which we both spent significant time is the reading room of the Berlin State Library, where he did research for The Gift and I corrected the proofs of a novel that included a love triangle, a failed suicide pact, and a fictitious philosopher.

Perhaps that’s to be expected. After all, the distance between our Berlins is not merely the six miles between his address and mine, but the seventy-seven years between his departure and my arrival. These years saw the three Nabokovs flee Germany for France and France for the United States and become American citizens, and they saw Vladimir, now writing under his own name, go from being one of the greatest Russian-language writers to one of the greatest English-language writers of the century, the author of Lolita and Pnin and—later, in Switzerland—Pale Fire and Ada, or Ardor. These years also saw Berlin undergo several metamorphoses under the influence of multiple forces: the malignant visions of Hitler and Speer; the bombs of allied air forces and the bullets of Red Army soldiers; the appearance and disappearance of the German Democratic Republic and its wall; the return of the government from Bonn and the reprivatization of the city’s eastern half by West German property developers; and, most recently, the arrival of a new generation of exiles and expatriates, including one American who moved to Germany because he happened to fall in love with a Berlinerin he met in the Russia that Nabokov never returned to—except in memory and in writing.

As it happens, Nabokov and I would encounter each other in one other place, thanks precisely to the “passion . . . children have for things on wheels, particularly railway trains,” which Anton would come to share with Dmitri. Authors should “ignore all readers but one,” Koncheyev tells Fyodor in the Grunewald: “that of the future, who in his turn is merely the author reflected in time.” I thought of these words again during my research for this essay, when I read “A Guide to Berlin,” a little-known short story Nabokov wrote in 1925. In it, an unnamed émigré tries to persuade his drinking partner that their adopted city is not without its charms by envisioning an “eccentric Berlin writer of the twenty-first century” who “will go to a museum of technological history and locate a hundred year old streetcar” before going home to “compile a description of Berlin streets in bygone days.” In looking at the “ordinary objects” of the present “reflected in the kindly mirrors of future times,” the narrator says, “lies the sense of literary creation.”

There is, in fact, now such a museum. The Deutsches Technikmuseum opened in 1983, five years after Nabokov experienced the event we mistakenly call death. Since Lisa discovered it last spring, it has become Anton’s favorite place in the city; we have visited so often that for his third birthday his grandmother bought us all memberships. The museum, which occupies a former train depot, holds airplanes, boats, and cars, printing machines and early computers, a brewery, and even a working windmill on the grounds outdoors. But as soon as we’ve stored his jacket and his stroller, Anton heads straight to the old roundhouse where, among steam engines dating back to the early nineteenth century, there is a life-size model of the new JK railcar that is scheduled to enter service later this year, positioned next to a predecessor from 1908, which once ran beneath the pub where “A Guide to Berlin” is set. During a recent visit, Anton and I sat in the seats of the railway carriage where we will each spend an uncountable number of future hours. With reborn eyes, I peered through the JK’s window at the neighboring window of the “yellow, uncouth” railcar with its “old-fashioned curved seat,” and, in a second, I saw the years separating Nabokov’s Berlin from my own vanish into the doubled reflection of my face.

 is the author of the novel The Zero and the One.

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