Gail Jones, A Guide to Berlin (Random House 2015)
After ten or so pages of A Guide to Berlin I was weighing my options. Did I really want to read another 240 pages about a small group of Nabokov enthusiasts in Berlin who meet to tell each other stories from their lives? Especially when those pages promised to include overcooked writing like this:
Shivering, cold, suffering pathetically in a minor key of frozen hands and feet, she aimed her phone through the watery light at the disappointing building across the street, and a man appeared, standing silently beside her.
The main thing that kept me reading was the desire to have one more shortlisted book under my belt before the NSW Premier’s Awards are announced in a week or so. Plus: some fabulous literature has been built around the conceit of a group of travellers telling each other stories to pass the time; I would love to revisit Berlin; the first page foreshadows a death and therefore, perhaps, interesting developments; and I hoped that the self-conscious literariness of the narrating voice might turn out to be a function of character rather than the author’s natural (I use the word loosely) style.
I did read on. The group of six people tell their stories, and are much more moved by them than I was. Berlin is present mainly in the naming of streets, landmarks and train lines. The main character, Cass, visits the Pergamon and the aquarium, and the tale-tellers do tell each other their favourite spots. Death happens at about the three-quarter mark, but it feels like a plot device, or at best a pretext for more introspection. And the self-conscious literariness keeps up all the way, with some beautifully quotable paragraphs but an over-riding sense that the writing is more interested in itself than anything else.
I’ve never read any Nabokov. Given that the characters frequently quote him to each other, maybe a reader familiar with his work would in effect be reading a different, infinitely more enjoyable book than I read. I hope many people love this book. I’m not one of them.
That much was written when I had about 50 pages to go. I was hoping I’d have to ditch my draft and start all over again, this time singing the novel’s brilliance. After all, a lot can happen in 50 pages. Alas, the concluding pages are pretty much taken up by the narrator’s fairly callow reflections on the limitations of story, and the characters’ callous, self-preoccupied responses to some terrible deaths. Maybe the novel is subtly and elegantly holding both these things up for scrutiny, but if so the subtlety passed right by me. I was left with a feeling of deep disgust. Sorry!