A Guide to Berlin by Gail Jones: a curate’s egg of a novel
“A Curate’s Egg” is a phrase that originated in a cartoon published in the satirical magazine Punch in 1895. It means something which was partly good but which was ruined by its bad part. It’s a phrase that describe so well how I felt about A Guide to Berlin by Gail Jones.
This novel became available via Net Galley the week after I’d just returned from a holiday in the city. Berlin is a fascinating vibrant twenty first century city but you don’t need t delve too hard to find the remnants of its former dark past. I was curious how Jones would explore the differences between the present and the past of the German capital.
A Guide to Berlin brings together six travellers – from Rome, New York, Japan and Australia – united by their shared devotion to Nabokov who lived in several houses in the city. The book is itself a homage to Nabokov – he wrote a short story with the same name when he was 26 years old – and is full of allusions to his work though since I’m not that familiar with his work, I missed most of them.
The six are an odd bunch. They meet once or twice a week in empty rooms and in turn give an individual “speak-memory” in which they each reveal the story of their life from childhood, disclose a personal suffering they’ve experienced and how they found solace in Nabokov’s writing.
The story is told through the eyes of one of those travellers, Cass, an Australian girl who has come to Berlin with aspirations of becoming a writer. She becomes our guide to the city as she visits its museums and the zoo, travels on the underground, experiences the bitterness of its winter and discovers the Stolperstein; bronze plaques embedded in the pavements to commemorate the Jewish families evicted by the Nazis from each building. Jones captures the essence of the city and its spirit well through precise references to street and district names and the detail of its tram network.
If only the effort that went into the creation of atmosphere and sense of location has been carried through in equal measure to the plot and characterisation. But these are the novel’s two biggest problems. Firstly it’s hard to feel much warmth for Cass. She’s a young girl swept up in the enthusiasm of what she considers an adventure and is excited about her discoveries. But she deadens that excitement by seeking to make sense of everything in terms of a sequence or pattern. Waking one morning, for example, she is thrilled to find the city covered in snow for the first time during her stay. She is initially ecstatic but her desire to understand its meaning robs it of the magic. Snow merely becomes “All those hexagons.” It also explains why she doesn’t seem able to turn any of her experiences into prose. In fact there is never a time when we see her engaged in the writing process, she simply observes.
The rest of the group are even less interesting. They believe the memories they share of past sufferings are rich in symbolic meaning. But this proves to be their undoing because every story they tell becomes flatter and flatter the more they try to decode each element. A more self indulgent, pretentious and dull bunch it would be hard to find. Half way through the book I decided I’d had enough and went in search of more rewarding company.