Review: Tanya Dalziellon Gail Jones

The Flurry of Letters: A Guide to Berlin by Gail Jones

In his 1930s memoir Berlin Childhood around 1900, the philosopher Walter Benjamin writes from exile of Berlin on the cusp of modernity.  Aware that he will most likely never see his home city again, Benjamin ruminates on how to write of an impending obsolescence in the past. ‘Images and allegories’, he insists, ‘preside over my thinking’.

Among the images governing Berlin Childhood are snowflakes:

But sometimes in winter, when I stood by the window in the warm little room, the snowstorm outside told me stories […] What it told, to be sure, I could never quite grasp, for always something new and unremittingly dense was breaking through the familiar. Hardly had I allied myself, as intimately as possible, to one band of snowflakes, than I realised they had been obligated to yield me up to another, which had suddenly entered their midst. But now the moment had come to follow, in the flurry of letters, the stories that had eluded me at the window.

The flurries Benjamin compares to the play of words on the page, his apprehension of snowflakes and stories (and allegory itself), while not describing the narrative of Gail Jones’ A Guide to Berlin, can be pressed to illuminate the book’s figurative gesture: something new and unremittingly dense breaking through the familiar.

Jones’s latest novel focuses on Cass Turner, a 26-year old Australian who travels to Berlin with the knowledge of the horror Benjamin foresaw, and with plans to write. She also carries a small hope that in Berlin she ‘might recover her own presence’, hinting at hidden personal catastrophe and shame that later emerge in the narrative.

Her ardour for the literature of Vladimir Nabokov sees her drawn to a group whose five other members share her fervour; they volley between themselves phrases from Nabokov’s stories to share, to impress, to seduce. Replacing with a hyphen the comma punctuating the imperative title of Nabokov’s autobiography, the group convenes to participate in ‘speak-memory disclosures’ at vacated dwellings in Berlin that are soon to be rented or sold. (Marco, the collective’s unofficial ‘leader’ works as a real-estate agent so has easy access to these rooms). The characters take turns across a number of weeks and gatherings to tell their life stories, which shape connections rather than invite comparisons. Each speak-memory is interlaced with Nabokov’s narratives, including his autobiography, and reveals an innermost vulnerability.

Nabokov’s memoir, with its spiralling narrative and ornate prose, is replete with acute distress. Like Benjamin, but in very different circumstances, Nabokov writes in his autobiography of a longing for a home to which he could not return because of the Bolshevik Revolution. Yet Speak, Memory is also a story of how the redemptive possibilities of memory might surmount loss. What is found in A Guide to Berlin is quite different, however: making memory speak does not necessarily ‘alleviate. … deep misery’; it might even worsen traumatic states, leading to tragic ends. Jones’s novel offers circumspection and sagacity, rather than homage, in its dialogue with one of the twentieth century’s greatest authors.

Jones’s work recurrently references literary works and writers. For instance, Five Bells, the novel that immediately precedes A Guide To Berlin, recalls Kenneth Slessor’s elegy on the death of Joe Lynch, Slessor’s friend who drowned at Circular Quay. The poem not only lends Jones’s novel its title; Five Bells also shares with Slessor’s poem a Sydney setting, a preoccupation with memory and time, and recognition of the limits of language in memorialising the dead. And A Guide To Berlin takes its name from a short story by Nabokov that is much discussed by the characters of A Guide to Berlin and prompts Cass and Victor – an American English professor, the oldest among the group, a man for whom Cass develops great affection – to visit the Berlin Aquarium to search out the tortoise Nabokov saw when writing his tale.

Of course, A Guide to Berlin is not the first book to have Nabokov emerge as an envoy in the lives of its fragile characters.  Perhaps the most enigmatic appearance of the Russian author in literature is within the pages of W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants, a book whose digressive, accumulative narrative enacts what might be nominated, after A Guide to Berlin, its own speak-memories. Sebald’s novel is comprised of four stories, each of which focuses on an émigré who has been irreparably affected by the terrors and upheavals of the Second World War. And in each story, Nabokov is briefly evoked as a spectral figure with a butterfly net, a description that does nothing to convey the narrative force of this half-presence which recalls those invisible observers of uncertain purpose haunting Nabokov’s narratives. (Such observers are arguably attributed a fuller, cinematic life in Wim Wender’s Wings of Desire, a film Cass expressly recalls in A Guide To Berlin and whose gliding angels she links with her own sense of transparent ghostliness). The unnamed first-person narrator in The Emigrants declines to comment on this curious return of Nabokov just as Cass’s flash recollection of moths, ‘the anti-butterfly’, from another of Sebald’s novels Austerlitz is unexpected and unexplained in A Guide To Berlin. In Austerlitz these Lepidoptera are melancholic creatures; they invoke ‘awe’ in the protagonist and prompt imaginative empathy, with Austerlitz wondering ‘what kind of fear and pain they feel when they are lost’. Their recollection in Jones’s novel impresses the insight that Nabokov, Benjamin, Sebald and A Guide to Berlin share: the potential of metaphorical language to discern patterns in contingency and coincidence.

It seems therefore prosaic to evoke Benjamin’s snowflakes to draw attention to the weather that shapes the world of A Guide to Berlin. Speaking about the weather is an unpromising subject and as Cass acknowledges at one point in the novel, the topic is entirely ‘unoriginal’. It might seem enough to remark in casual passing that Jones’s novel takes place during a few weeks of a particularly bitter northern hemisphere winter. Yet, for all its mundaneness, the ‘slow-falling flakes’ the winter brings are the images that meaningfully preside over A Guide to Berlin.

In Five Bells, despite the summer heat of Sydney, images of snow, lifted from literature, form connective patterns between two characters whose paths ‘had mysteriously intersected’ three times during the day in which the novel takes place but who exchanged only a few words. Catherine’s grief for her brother calls forth ‘the intimate presence of snow’ concluding James Joyce’s short story ‘The Dead’; Pei Xing recollects ‘a section of Doctor Zhivago that is full of snow’, which her father had meticulously translated.

For her part, Cass in A Guide to Berlin is at a loss to understand why everyone seems to ‘defer the ‘real’ Berlin until spring’. The winter she enters is confronting. Cass – ‘the Australian […] from Sydney’ as Marco introduces her at her first group gathering – is radically underprepared for this climate, and it throws off-balance her antipodean sensibilities. It is a season also out of kilter with its habitual poetic associations with absence, monotony and arrest. One of Benjamin’s favourite literary subjects, Charles Baudelaire, has snowstorms swallow a body frozen stiff in ‘Le Goût du néant’, and he is hardly alone in attributing to winter a sense of deadening ennui. In distinct contrast, the first snowfall has Cass imaginatively volitant, ‘She remembered reading somewhere that if one watches falling snow long enough, it would seem as if one’s building is floating upwards. This was true. Verifiable. She was ascending, already, her elation was a levitation’.  From then on, each time ‘she found herself in snow she felt again the charm of the first moment she had rushed to her window. Each time she faced the fierce arctic air, she was relieved when it sprang alive with a bulge and billow of soft flakes’.  And when it is not falling, ‘she wanted snow. Cass wanted that powdery light, that world-filling softness. She wanted total immersion’.

Such snowy moments in the novel resonate with Benjamin’s intuition about playful, meaningful convergences between words and flurries.  It is not simply that the narrative tells of Cass’s snowy desires; like the flurries they relate the words themselves, and the narrative they constitute, have a material quality; they give a sense of mellifluous descent, repetition with quiet variation and gentle accumulation. Their slow gathering is accented, and they are shared between the characters for their aesthetic pleasure, and the dense networks of private meanings and histories they carry – words such as ferrule, lemniscate, ensellure, meerschaum.

Cass’s response to the weather is contrarian, but its meaning is understood by Gino, Marco’s friend and rival for Cass’s sexual attention, who confides, ‘I also love snow’. Her reaction fits with her image of herself as anachronistic, precocious, serious and largely separate.  She is almost disbelieving that Berlin should house a Ramones museum. And whereas Mitsuko and Yukio, the Japanese lovers of her own age and who comprise a third of the group, enthusiastically head out to a nightclub ‘to hear a famous Japanese DJ play remixes of David Bowie. Super-cool!’ – a contemporary, international image of Berlin as palimpsest – Cass listens alone on her laptop to ‘Mischa Maisky on cello’, anticipating, welcoming even, her future as ‘an old woman, alone in a dark room, with only Bach’s cello to keep her company’. With all these word-flurries, all that desire for physical and mental absorption, and (at the same time) all that drift of distance, it is hard to avoid the speculative idea that the world in which Cass moves can be conceived as a sort of snow-globe.

The snow-globe is a sorrowful improbability in Sorry, Jones’s novel that admits the ongoing traumas of settler colonialism in Australia.  The snow dream had by Stella Keene (unhappily exiled), ‘As if beneath a plastic dome’ and repeatedly retold, becomes her daughter’s melancholy inheritance, ‘her own private treasure […] a vertical sadness’. It is only in such a mythopoeic space that ‘there was snow falling softly in the desert’.  In wintry Berlin, however, snow is omnipresent, and when the snowflakes fall Cass feels momentarily metamorphosed, ‘She might have been experiencing transfiguration’.

If the claim for approaching A Guide to Berlin as snow-globe holds at all, it is with Benjamin’s apprehension of miniaturised scenes under glass in mind. He was enamoured with snow-globes as dialectical images; expectant that, with their stilled focus on an isolated, frozen scene, snow-globes might make visible historical relations and, at being shaken back into life, enact a transformative tremor. He accorded big responsibilities to such a little object.  And his allocation to the snow-globe of the qualities of suspension and shattering is redolent for thinking about the structure and thematics of A Guide to Berlin.

If, as the cultural critic Celeste Olalquiaga tells, early Victorian snow-globes most commonly encased small figures holding umbrellas, then the pervasive presence of umbrellas throughout A Guide To Berlin, from the epigraph onwards, can be remarked on in terms that exemplify the ‘symbolic convergences’ the book’s characters marvel at. Victor tells of his father working as an umbrella maker; Victor exclaims ‘Umbrellas’ on seeing the contractile bodies of the jellyfish at the Berlin Aquarium, a response Cass determines as a sign of his ‘personal aesthetics derived from childhood enchantment and the authority of ideal forms’. Equally the reference could derive from the language of biology (exumbrella, subumbrella).  On dropping her umbrella in a Berlin street, Cass notices properly for the first time the Stolpersteine, the commemorative brass plaques marking victims of Nazism.

Therefore it would be wrong to suggest that the group of six is removed from circulation and isolated from history, as objects placed in glass dome might seem to be. Yukio is on Twitter and ‘Facebook with many, many friends’, and the nightclub he dances in with Mitsuko is a former swimming pool bombed during the war. The Japanese couple immerse themselves in contemporary Berlin whereas Marco is arrested by the city’s memorialisations of the past, particularly Micha Ullman’s ‘empty bookshelves underground in Bebeplatz’. But as Cass makes her way through Berlin, her experiences are certainly presented as dream-like and at some remove. ‘She felt somehow tenuous and unbelonging; her riding [on the S-Bahn and U-Bahn] was the symptom of absent centre and inexplicit purpose’. Cass is geographically displaced but more than this physical circumstance, her inner life is suspended by the shame she feels at her childhood response to her brother’s death.

There is also some sense of detachment that characterises the gatherings of the six. The apartments in which the group cloisters itself encourage a feeling of separation from the world. Little is known of the histories of the past owners and occupants of these spaces; removed objects leave their shadows on the walls of one apartment. This notion of self-sufficiency, or isolation, is underlined by the soliloquy each character speaks, and there is a further theatricality, a heightened intensity, associated with these meetings and speeches.  Strong liquor is ritually consumed; characters are costumed with Victor sporting a shapka ‘of artificial fur, a tourist item, and the dangling earflaps looked childish and comical’, and Cass noting repeatedly the complementary clothing Mitsuko and Yukio wear. As signs, she reads onto them the couple’s class position (they are rich, Cass determines) but the costumes also perhaps cast the lovers as the twinned wings of the butterfly that, with the snowflakes, is the novel’s sovereign airborne image. Through the novel’s insistence on their literary and biographical affiliations with Nabokov ¬¬– he writes of himself at length in Speak, Memory as a roaming, restless ‘lepist’ – the butterflies and the affective pull they have on the novel’s characters might be thought of as the patterning of memory.

The stories told in these sequestered spaces accelerate intimate friendships.  As Cass reflects, ‘How could one not care for this gentle man [Victor] who had wanted someone else’s past and whispered “umbrella” to the violent night to help him sleep?’ If Cass’s impulse is ‘to care’, the book itself contends with the ethical (and narrative) responsibilities that witnessing, reading, listening to, and writing the trauma of others involves.

In her first novel, Black Mirror, Jones enquires as to how to write and memorialise the life of another beyond the blunt genre of biography. The would-be biographer in that book, Anna, is said to be unable to observe the ‘stringency’ of biography. In Dreams of Speaking, Alice moves from Australia to Paris to author a ‘presumptuously’ titled book, The Poetics of Modernity. There, she meets Mr. Sakamoto, who is researching the life of Alexander Graham Bell. He tracks ‘with biographical monomania all the flaunted public events and hidden private emotions’, but determines his project to be ‘folly’.  This ethical questioning also informs Jones’s two short story collections, A House of Breathing and Fetish Lives, which imagine those lives and (‘piteous’ in the case of Mary Wollstonecraft) deaths official history declines to record.

It is a short story in the latter volume, ‘Speaks Shadow’, that seems most resonant with A Guide to Berlin, and not only because it too is a meditation on snowflakes as images and allegories. ‘It was my Jewish lover who told me that every snowflake is an image of the Star of David […] In the image, said my lover, lies its shade, its shadow’.   The speak-memories of Victor and Marco in A Guide to Berlin interleave with what literary theorist Marianne Hirsch terms ‘postmemory’, the transgenerational diffusion of trauma that is so profound it comes to overwhelm and constitute the memory of the second generation. Like them, David Heller of ‘Speaks Shadow’ experiences an ‘excess of imagining’.  Victor suffers from both not knowing his parents’ Auschwitz experiences and the guilt of being youthfully incurious, submitting that ‘every torment is possibly theirs, and nothing wholly is; I insert them into any memoir, anxiously imagining, then have to remove them again’. Marco tells in his speak-memory of consoling his Jewish mother with the promise that, as a form of ‘recompense’, he will one day write the history of her reduced story, ‘Disappearances. Adoptions. Conversions. Secrets.’ Here particularly, and in a novel that repeatedly stages ‘convenient displacement’ in a city attempting to face its brutal past, the phrase ‘one day’ intimates deferral rather than a definite future date.

Further, ‘Speaks Shadow’ gestures towards an ethical position that A Guide to Berlin seeks to imagine, what historian Dominick LaCapra has nominated ‘empathic unsettlement’, an ethical, affective response to the suffering of others. It calls for listening and understanding that resists full identification with, and appropriation of, specific traumatic experiences of others. The first person narrator of ‘Speaks Shadow’, following the breakup with David, questions whether the intimate relationship had been a means ‘to claim the suffering of the Hellers as my own special suffering’. The soliloquies that constitute A Guide To Berlin are a call for open perspicuity and responsive listening.

But, if the soliloquies and the listening they demand take place in snow-globe-like suspension, contemplation of this ethical relationship is ultimately shattered. Intimate revelation and reciprocity had once constituted the group but the community is broken asunder by physical assault and the tangled roles each character has as witnesses to it. Drug-affected, Gino casts Victor from the balcony on which Cass had first ecstatically encountered snowflakes, ‘her wet head gathering the adhesive flakes’.  In a grotesque mirroring of the snowflakes’ vertical descent, ‘Gino lifted Victor, rested him, and then let him fall’. With his death, which the prologue anticipates, the remaining characters are knowingly ‘slipped into a genre’ and the soft, singular, eddying flakes congeal to form familiar shapes – ‘A snowman had been made’ ¬– devoid of metaphorical significance.

From that terrible moment, ‘an irrevocable plot has taken over’. Marco is propelled into shocked but purposeful motion to protect his friend, prompting questions regarding the ethics of friendship and effective response, with Cass, Yukio and Mitsuko thrown into stunned complicity with Marco’s resolve. Flurry-words are emptied of their poeticism and put into the service of explanations designed (perhaps unconsciously, as displacement would have it) to protect, conceal and solicit consent to the reality they construct: ‘It was an accident’. Victor’s death prompts reconsideration of all that has come before with the credulity of the speak-memories that laced together the characters rendered radically uncertain, ‘The most earnest and open story still meant nothing assured’. Bearing witness not only to Gino’s act and Victor’s resultant death but also to each other as ‘cowardly and passive’ results in the group’s rapid dissolution. Characters that had previously spoken at length fall mute, their intentions to speak out registered – ‘And I need to tell Rachael [Victor’s daughter], Cass thought’ – but never realised. Silent inaction leaves the narrative to envision a future time where the characters might consider ‘what might have happened if they had acted in a manner more responsible’.

In her anguish at Victor’s death, reading and writing ‘appeared stupid and cynical’ to Cass. Yet the omniscient position that A Guide to Berlin admits at such moments, and which brings to mind Nabokov’s invisible observers, is not to be easily conflated with Cass’s third person point of view that otherwise focalises the story. These words ‘speak’ future memories when the characters cannot and they afford the possibility of initiating recognition, remembrance and justice.

And while Cass might dismiss reading in her grief, acts of interpretation are subtly foregrounded in A Guide To Berlin, as they are in Jones’s earlier novel, Sixty Lights. For all its interest in photography, Sixty Lights attributes a special concession to reading as ‘the metaphysical meeting space’ that affords a gift of knowledge. In A Guide to Berlin, Cass barely disguises her displeasure at Marco’s imputation that she has misread Nabokov’s ‘A Guide to Berlin’ because reading matters greatly to her. In their original encounter outside the (rebuilt) apartment block where Nabokov and his family took rooms, Marco’s seduction of Cass into the group, and eventually into bed, involves an appeal to reading. He asks her – rhetorically, of course – ‘Who cares about complication? Who cares about Nabokov?’ Cass part-playfully replies ‘Who indeed?’, a passing comment that nevertheless acknowledges a doubt about the role of literature in the face of traumatic history as well as purported contemporary indifference.  It is an uncertainty on which the narrative turns, and in which it is implicated. But Cass insists initially on reading as a precious pursuit, one that might even evidence an individual’s authentic temperament and worth. When she learns that Karl, the caretaker of her building, has an old book filled with etchings of snowflakes she is ‘compelled to revise her knowledge of him: he was, after all, an educated man, and one with assiduous – bookmarked – intellectual passions’. The narrative scripts Karl differently however, as a deus ex machina who unexpectedly appears at the Pergamon Museum to assist Marco through his epileptic convulsions, and is inexplicably at hand when the ‘incomprehensible’ act of Gino’s violence occurs late in the narrative.

A Guide to Berlin seems to recommend reading as a disruptive experience; it is part of the ethics the novel narrativises as it takes seriously Cass’s response to Victor’s speak-memory to ‘care’, and is alive to the conditions of vulnerability the sharing of stories of trauma and shame involve. A Guide to Berlin poses the question of how to respond to the demands of the dead, to history, to traumatic experiences and the memories of others, to friendship, with no equivocation.  Reading, like A Guide to Berlin itself, is presented as hopeful (if that word is appropriate given that Cass is seen, in the achingly bleak ending to the novel, ‘simply sliding away’) of playing a part in ethical discourse and admitting its own want of answers. It is committed to complex understandings, to images and allegories speaking memories and their traumatic shadows.

Works Cited

Benjamin, Walter. Berlin Childhood around 1900. Trans. Howard Eiland. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006.
Hirsch, Marianne. The Generation of Postmemory: Writing and Visual Culture After the Holocaust.  New York: Columbia University Press, 2012.
Jones, Gail. A Guide to Berlin. North Sydney: Vintage, 2015.
Black Mirror. Sydney: Picador, 2002.
Dreams of Speaking. North Sydney: Vintage, 2006.
Fetish Lives. Fremantle:  Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1997.
Five Bells. London: Harvill Secker, 2011.
Sixty Lights. London: The Harvill Press, 2004.
Sorry. North Sydney: Vintage, 2007.
The House of Breathing. Fremantle: Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1992.
LaCapra, Dominick. Writing History, Writing Trauma. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001.
Nabokov, Vladimir. Speak, Memory. London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1967.
Olalquiaga, Celeste. The Artificial Kingdom: A Treasury of Kitsch Experience. London: Bloomsbury, 1998.
Sebald, W.G. Austerlitz. Trans. Anthea Bell. London: Hamish Hamilton, 2001.
Sebald, W.G. The Emigrants. Trans. Michael Hulse. London: Harvill Press, 1996.
Wenders, Wim (dir). Wings of Desire. Road Movies Filmproduktion, 1987.