Our Berlin, Your Berlin

Having discussed a bit the nature of life as a Russian émigré in class, I thought it would be interesting to delve a little deeper into how the characters in The Luzhin Defense conceive of Berlin.

Upon arriving in his (at this point in the novel, future) in-laws Berlin apartment, the future Luzhina’s father greets Luzhin with “Well, here you are in our good old Berlin” (121). The phrase “our good old Berlin” is odd on a couple of levels. First, the use of the possessive “our” sticks out simply by virtue of the fact that they’re from Russia. Second, “good old” would seem to fly in the face of the fact that they’ve decorated their apartment in a most poshlust manner to reflect their Russian-ness; perhaps the linguistic terming of the city as “our good old Berlin” is an attempt to overcome feelings of alienation inherent in émigré life.

When the lady from Russia comes to visit the (now married) Luzhins, one of the first things she says is: “So this is your Berlin…” (210). Here we have, similar to the scene quoted above, a Russian, who, unlike the scene above, is not an emigre, and who ascribes ownership of Berlin to the Luzhins.

Between the passages there exists a sharp dichotomy between emigres who now claim Berlin as their home, and those who never left the mother country–for even Luzhin’s in-laws have replaced Russia with mere kitschy images of it, and now own, in a manner of speaking Berlin.

So, to whom does Berlin belong, and what are the implications of that ownership?

Writing in The Luzhin Defense

Chapter 5, pp. 79-80

Now, a decade and a half later, these war years turned out to be an exasperating obstacle; they seemed an encroachment upon creative freedom, for in every book describing the gradual development of a given human personality one had somehow to mention the war, and even the hero’s dying in his youth could not provide a way out f this situation. There were characters and circumstances surrounding his son’s image that unfortunately were conceivable only against the background of the war and which could not have existed without this background. With the revolution it had been even worse. The general opinion was that it had influenced the course of every Russian’s life; and author could not have his hero go through it without getting scorched, and to doge it was impossible. This amounted to a genuine violation of the writer’s free will.

The Significance of Frau Monde

In “A Nursery Tale,” Nabokov’s protagonist, Erwin, meets a woman who although appears unremarkable, is in fact the Devil. Going by by the name Frau Monde, the Devil offers Erwin a chance to actualize his fantasy of possessing a harem composed of women he finds attractive.

It seems to me that any time an author, and especially one as precise and meticulous as Nabokov, includes a figure of pure evil such as the Devil in a text, special attention to that figure is merited as a possible way to uncover the underlying worldview of a story, and potentially its author. To that end, I want to discuss certain features of Frau Monde’s character that seem particularly interesting in light of her position as an embodiment of evil, namely that she’s German-born, is a (masculine) woman, and bears a name that, when translated into English, means “world.”

Last class, we learned that Nabokov harbored certain anti-German sentiments. Were these sentiments intensified after he witnessed Germany’s role in WWII, and, if so, did they contribute to a particularly harsh depiction of Frau Monde when he translated his 1926 short story into English? Or were they present in the Russian-language original as a manifestation of his dissatisfaction with life in Weimar Germany?

Then comes the matter of Frau Monde’s gender. A misogynist line definitely runs through at least some of Nabokov’s writings. I don’t think it’s an accident that his literary imagination conceived of the Devil as a woman. Furthermore, Frau Monde is portrayed as a masculine woman, with oversized hands and “mannish” eyebrows, the exact type of woman Erwin finds to be unattractive. Perhaps Nabokov could be seen as arguing that the Devil has both masculine and feminine traits, but I don’t really think so. To me, Nabokov deliberately presents the Devil as a woman who neglects to fulfill traditional societal norms of femininity.

Lastly, why does the Devil bear the last name Monde? Does it signify the extent to which Nabokov perceived the world to be evil? Why is it in French, specifically?