I nearly didn’t read this book.
When I heard about the Nabokovian inspiration for it, I was immediately daunted.
Confession: I have not read Nabokov. I understand his writing is sublime, and that may be the problem. I’m intimidated.
Therefore, when I heard that Gail Jones’ A Guide to Berlin was named after one of Nabokov’s short stories and contained many Nabokovian allusions, I assumed this book would not be for me.
But then it popped up at the library. And when a new release presents itself to you at the library, you take it. So I did.
Wow! Wow! Wow!
This is a beautiful book. Not only is the writing quite mind-blowing (and accessible) but things happen. Actually, something very, very big happens.
Over the summer, I read another piece of literary fiction where, again, the writing was lovely. But the plot went nowhere.
Now, beautiful words and language are fine and all, but in a story, things need to happen, and they certainly happen in A Guide to Berlin.
On her first trip to Berlin, Cass, a twenty-something year old aspiring writer from Australia, visits one of Vladimir Nabokov’s houses, where she meets Marco, a 39 year old real estate agent from Italy.
Marco runs a book group, of sorts, for Nabokov aficionados to which he invites Cass to join.
‘It was a new kind of community, no academic, not social, but some new species linking words and bodies with an occult sense of the written world.’
Also in the group is Victor, the Jewish-American college professor, ‘the lovers’ – Yukio, the Japanese blogger and his English/Japanese translator girlfriend, Mitsuko, and finally, Gino, an old friend of Marco’s who is travelling for a year and trying to write an undefined story.
So far, so normal ‘ish.
Each week, the group gathers and shares a ‘speak-memory’, a kind of literary speed-dating device where an intensely remembered life event is articulated in rich, spoken prose. These people, like Nabokov, are noters and observers, able to read meaning into symbols and recurrences and see the world as if it were magnified.
Victor speaks of the shame and grief he experienced at the deaths of his holocaust-surviving parents, and how the discovery of Nabokov’s writing fulfilled in him a ‘…longing for a pure and concentrated reality.’
Mitsuko details her love for her father’s work as a 13th generation potter and her theory of objects carrying time.
‘I like this idea – that an object sucks in the memory of its use.’
Yukio relays how the sarin-gas attack on Tokyo’s subway caused him to become a recluse, hiding away in his room for 4 years in his ‘double-click’ world, until meeting his ‘rental sister’ Mitsuko – who talked him out of his room, introduced him to Nabokov and inspired his return to normal life.
‘I wanted little shadow things. Another person’s hands, and something playing between us.’
Gino recounts the day of his father’s death from injuries at a train station bombing, coincidentally on the day Gino was born.
Marco describes the shame of his epileptic fits and the way Nabokov inspired his desire for ‘silent propinquity’ or ‘seeing and notating with care.’
Lastly, Cass, talks about her childhood – a ‘rough kind of utopia’ in Australia’s remote reaches, northwest of Broome. However, she cannot speak ‘the unspeakable’ – that is – the death of her brother.
She is not the only one keeping secrets.
After the group experiences an extreme trauma, Cass comes to understand that while the group’s speak memories were ‘startling… how they overlapped and repeated in their private fixations..’ they were ultimately a mediated version of the truth. ‘The most earnest and open story still meant nothing assured. This was the surprise of other people: their wealth of remorseless secrets.’
A Guide to Berlin is a book of thoughts and ideas, of literary allusions and beautiful writing.
Most striking is Jones’ conjuring of Berlin itself – the ceaseless cold and the sense of a city that is yet to resolve its traumatic past.
‘The white sky was menacing. The plates of ice on the Spree, uneven and jagged, resembled a spray of shattered glass after wartime bombing.’
One of the positives (for me) of this work, is that you don’t need to have read Nabokov to appreciate this book. In fact, it may help if you haven’t.
I was shocked to read a terribly mean review in The Guardian in which Jessa Crispin derided the book as having ‘all the substance of a cardboard forest backdrop in a school play’. (I will not link to the review, as I don’t want it to receive any more clicks than absolutely necessary).
Crispin is neither a fan of the story, nor the writing, and claims that Jones ‘takes the most obvious features of Nabokov’s writing, the stylish prose and precise word choice, and abandons his piercing psychological insight and historical weight.’
Not only do I disagree with nearly everything Crispin says, it also strikes me as being terribly unfair to judge one writer’s work against another. A novel should be reviewed on its merits alone. Not against the merits of others’ work.
I’m not saying that all reviews must be positive all the time. Reviewers should be honest, but constructively honest, and never derisive.
Reading is, after all, a relatively subjective business. What I like, others may loathe, and vice versa.
However, I wholeheartedly believe that there is an audience out there for every book that’s published. Sure, it might be a small audience, but to me, every reader matters.
When I write about books, I see my role as helping the reader to understand whether this book is for them. I want to inspire people to read, not publish click-baity take-downs of reputable writers. The market for fiction, especially literary fiction, is hard enough without authors having to contend with dreadfully negative and disrespectful reviews.
If I don’t like a book, or I don’t finish it, I don’t write about it, mainly because I’m fairly sure there will be others who do like the book. I’d hate to turn-off anyone from picking up a book, of any kind.
Fortunately, in this case, I think Jones will have the last laugh.
This week, A Guide to Berlin was named on the longlist for Australia’s most prestigious literary award for women – The Stella Prize.
I hope it does well, for so many reasons, not least of which is that it may cause Crispin to re-consider her views, although this may be unlikely. After some basic research, it has become clear to me that Crispin has ‘form’ in relation to negative reviewing, and has even cultivated a level of ‘celebrity’ for what she does.
She is welcome to it.
For more information on A Guide to Berlin, visit Random House Australia
I too was a little daunted, but I love Gail Jones’ work and from the beginning was drawn into a book where she excels with her characterisation. I got a real sense of them all. In reference to Nabokov, I now want to read him. This book was as compelling and dark as I imagine a Berlin in winter to be. I can’t say the ending satisfied me, but any other ending would have disappointed. As to the ‘other’ review I will not read it; a review can be negative, but mean is intolerable.
Thanks Pauline for your considered view. I happen to agree with you! I too now want to read Nabokov – and feel slightly less daunted about the prospect – and I have Gail Jones to thank. I was also drawn-in by the characters (which this other reviewer described as ‘stereotypes’) and developed a real fondness for them. As for the ending, I think it served, in some way, to reinforce one of the points Jones was making – that a story and writing can be wonderful, yet ultimately, there’s something inside of us that longs for more…
I didn’t find that review to be mean. There was nothing personal in it. She took issue with the use of broad stereotypes in the novel and addressed that. She compared the book to Nabakov because the book is about Nabokov, to some extent – she didn’t come up with that out of nowhere. The book still sounds interesting to me. I love scathing reviews, and they don’t always turn me away from a book.
Hi Laura. I take your point that it wasn’t intended a personal attack, per se, on Gail Jones. But I do think it ridiculed the work and showed no effort on behalf of the reviewer to really engage, in a substantial way, with the material. How could a writer not take that personally? When a writer has invested their hearts and minds in a work, the least a reviewer can do is TRY! I’m sorry you like scathing reviews. I hope you never have to be on the receiving end of one… Cheers, Cassie
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