A Guide to Berlin by Gail Jones: An homage to Nabokov

Cover imageTwo things attracted me to Gail Jones’ new novel: its Berlin setting – a city with which I’m almost as infatuated as I am with New York as a backdrop – and the prospect of the elegantly, poetic writing I’d enjoyed so much in her previous novels. I liked the synopsis, too: six people – all Nabokov aficionados, all visitors to Berlin – gather together to discuss the work of their literary hero but begin by telling their own stories. Those in the know will have realised, of course, that Jones’ title mirrors that of a Nabokov short story.

Cass is in Berlin hoping to write. She’s rents a pokey studio flat and travels the U-Bahn exploring this wintry city so different from her native Australia. One day a young man approaches her as she looks up at one of the many apartments Nabokov lived in and asks her if she’d like to join the small group he’s gathered to discuss their literary idol’s work. There are six members including Cass: Victor is an American academic, recently retired; Marco was once at university with Gino, a fellow Roman; Yukio and Mitsuko are Japanese, and obviously in love. At the first meeting they decide that each member will tell their story, openly and freely – a ‘speak-memory’ in honour of their hero. Victor begins with his tale of Holocaust survivor parents. Gino’s life has been marked by the horrible coincidence of his father’s death on the day he was born. Marco’s father walked out when he was eight, seemingly unable to cope with his son’s epilepsy. Mitsuko and Yukio’s stories are more happily linked – she was the Lolita Girl, dressing in little girls’ clothes, who rescued Yukio from his self-imposed isolation, the reason for which he explains in his own story. Finally, it’s Cass’s turn but she finds herself unable to speak of the loss of her brother, talking only of her childhood home and love of butterflies. The group resolve to discuss their love of Nabokov’s work when they next meet. Then things take a very dark and unexpected turn.

Jones’ descriptions of Berlin in winter are wonderfully atmospheric, so vivid that they provide a stage set against which the drama of her novel unfolds. She perfectly captures the louring greyness of the Berlin sky and the beauty of the first snowfall. She took me back to winter holidays, complete with the brightly coloured fibre-glass bears which are all over the city, the only colour at that time of year. At times it reminded me of the Decameron as each character tells their story but, of course, the abundant literary allusions are to Nabokov’s life and work. Some are overt – the titular story is summarised nicely, Cass’s love of butterflies, the speak-memories echoing Nabokov’s own autobiographical memoir, Mitsuko’s Lolita outfits – some are more oblique – a fire engine is described as a ‘pale fire’ against the Berlin grey. I’m sure there are many more that I failed to identify, having only scant knowledge of his work.  All beautifully presented, then, but the event which precipitates the group’s dissolution felt painfully staged, stretching my credibility and leaving me somewhat disappointed.  I enjoyed it but I think Sorry remains my favourite Jones novel.

If you’d like a second opinion you might like to visit Kim over at Reading Matters who’s reviewed the book as part of her year reading Australian literature. You can follow that on Twitter via #ReadingAustralia2016. I can recommend it!

10 thoughts on “A Guide to Berlin by Gail Jones: An homage to Nabokov”

  1. In what seems to be becoming a trend for me this year, I abandoned this just before the big event (I flicked through to see if I thought it was going to appeal to me more later). I don’t know if it’s because I haven’t read much Nabokov but I didn’t click with this at all. I found the characters tedious. A shame because I’ve only heard good things about the author. Do you recommend another of hers to try?

    1. I would say Sorry for is beautifully elegant writing. Probably just as well you didn’t continue to the big event. The way the rest of the characters dealt with that seemed implausible to me. It would be a shame to judge Jones’ writing by this one, though.

  2. I’ve been wanting to read Gail Jones for years. I’m not sure how I keep missing her. This sounds incredible. I’m a huge Nabokov fan. Thanks for the great review.

    1. Thank you. I think you’ll enjoy this if you’re a Nabokov fan. As I read it I was sure I was missing lots of allusions to his work.

    1. It was interesting, Suze, but the direction it took was so implausible that it left me disappointed. If you’re keen to sample Jones’ writing I’d say Sorry is a better place to start.

  3. Thanks for linking to my review, Susan. I was disappointed by this novel. I agreed it felt too staged, and I didn’t like the way it suddenly became a kind of crime novel in the end.

    I have to say, I did not like “Sorry”, either. But I’m a huge fan of “Five Bells” and “Sixty Lights”, both reviewed on my blog.

    1. You’re welcome, Kim. Yes, the crime slant seemed more than a little implausible to me. Such a shame. I’d been looking forward to this one.

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