There are aspects to Gail Jones’ new novel, A Guide To Berlin, that feel like the city I find myself in. The international nature of its' residents brings a constant questioning of where you’re from, what brings you here, what makes you stay. The cold, dark gloom of winter that is rapidly approaching is described with all the claustrophobic pain that locals warn we are facing. And Jones captures the hauntedness of Berlin, the recurring reminders of it’s history and grief that are inescapable. Jones is quoted in the Sydney Morning Herald: ‘One of the things that fascinated me about Berlin was how can you live in a place that represents calamity, atrocity, organised murder, that was obliterated after the war?’ As Jones continues later in the interview, the Germans’ ability to memorialise and own their tragedies is a stark contrast to Australia that one constantly faces here. And there’s an obvious connection between the start of her central character Cass’ journey and my own: ‘She had come to Berlin to write, an ambition as vague as it was hopeful, verified only by her saying so.’
But I also felt a distance between Jones’ Berlin and the one I love. Perhaps it is that the novel is set in a different neighbourhood from my own. But while my friends here are all internationals, fellow expats finding their way, the premise of the novel, that six strangers meet over their love of the Russian writer Nabokov and divulge their deepest secrets and grief, never felt plausible to me. As the narrator says: ‘Only in fiction had Cass encountered the lengthy declaration of life stories’. In many ways these forced declarations are like the Berlin that Jones describes — an overly romantic vision of the city, lit by the glow of damp street lights and covered in an impenetrable mystery. At times I felt it was akin to clichéd descriptions of bountiful Italian countryside, full of family run Trattorias where tourists are pulled into romantic dalliances over bowls of perfectly simple pasta. Berlin’s affection, like any city, is to be earned. That Cass arrives with the perfect studio apartment, travels the city with perfect understanding of it’s train lines and ticket machines, rarely stumbling at the foreign language, is completely implausible to me in a city that in many ways remains overwhelming and challenging after almost six months here, though this was countered slightly by Cass’ particularly Australian under-preparedness for the Northern European cold, which certainly rang true.
A Guide To Berlin works best as a character study of the city, of it’s possibilities for residents old and new. But as the novel progresses, the story becomes less and less likely and I found myself losing affection for the group, their choices far-fetched and their characters ugly and twisted. Perhaps I was also alienated by my own lack of understanding of Nabokov and his ties to the city. Nabokov remains a blindspot in my reading, and as I read I knew there were references to his work woven throughout the narrative that I did not connect. The language also became a barrier — Jones’ narration felt stifled at times, overly-formal and literary, looking to echo the great writers that the city has nourished, but with a disconnection that felt at times like a translated work, rather than that of a flowing native speaker, or of a writer looking to echo the grandness of the European city with an old-fashioned narrative, rather than a contemporary voice which would have been a closer fit to the novel’s twenty-six year-old central character.
Ultimately A Guide to Berlin did not capture my imagination or eventually my attention. But there was something there that kept me reading, in the same way that despite the difficulties of living on the other side of the world from my family and friends, in a climate particularly hostile to a vitamin-D craving South Australian. In Berlin Cass hopes she ‘might recover her own presence’, she might recalibrate and find a meaning in what she has left behind, might find the courage to put words not-yet-spoken onto the page. Though there was much to Cass’ story that seemed unlikely and unsettling, this search for a truer version of herself connected with me. It is ultimately the same reason I am here, the same reason many of us have been persuaded by Berlin’s hard-worn affections. There is a reason there is a strong literary tradition here, as well as a musical and philosophical one. Because despite everything the city throws at you, it also makes you feel like anything is possible.
While the streets of Berlin are not yet as snow-laiden and gloomy as those in A Guide to Berlin, they are certainly on their way. Yesterday we had our first flurries of snow for the winter, and this morning a light dust remains on the roofs of apartment buildings and parked cars. But while the dark grey skies and the cold damp air are not exactly filling me with joy and energy, it is a good excuse to spend a little extra time in the kitchen and make the most of the new season fruits and vegetables. In Frankfurt one of the treats on offer at the market we stumbled across were potato latkes (Kartoffelpuffer) served with herbed sour cream or apple sauce — crispy on the outside, soft and comforting in the middle, with a cool sauce giving both a contrast in texture and a sharpness to counter-act the slightly greasy fried latkes. With parsnips just starting to arrive at the market I was keen to try these gluten-free Parsnip Latkes with Honey Roasted Apples by Delicious Everyday. They kept the same textures as the traditional potato version, but offered an added earthy warmth from the parsnips. The roasted apples were a perfect accompaniment - still firm enough to bite but soft enough to contrast the crunchy latkes. The leftover apples made a great topping for porridge the next morning too. But I must admit, I switched the cashew cream for quark, a German sour cream cheese, and as we were eating these for dinner served them with some garlicky greens. As the weather continues to drop and I look for any reason to fill the apartment with the warmth of the oven, these will likely become a regular staple at our place over winter.
For anyone else needing an introduction to Nabokov, particularly of his time in Berlin, five of his early stories (A Guide to Berlin, The Aurelian, Cloud, Castle, Lake, Spring in Fialta and Lance) were recently gathered into a singular release, Nabokov’s Berlin Erzählungen. You can read more about the author’s time here in this piece by Slow Travel Berlin, and more about his relationship with his wife Vera, and how it was shaped by their time in Berlin, in both The New York Review of Books and on Literary Hub.