“…his eyes had automatically filled with a burning mist, and everything he looked at-out of the accursed necessity of looking at something-was subject to intricate, optical metamorphoses. The page with criss-cross blue lines grew blurry; the white numbers on the blackboard alternately contracted and broadened; the arithmetic teacher’s voice, as if steadily receding, would get more and more hollow and incomprehensible, and his desk neighbor, an insidious with down on his cheeks, would say with quiet satisfaction: ‘Now he’s going to cry.” (29, Nabokov).
I was reading Nabokov’s “A Guide to Berlin” and got interested in this idea of shells that comes up in the short story. I find it particularly compelling because the story seems to be interested in objects and people that will one day reside in another person’s memory. The last line of the story reads, “What indeed! How can I demonstrate to him that I have glimpsed somebody’s future recollection?” It occurs to me that a clever way to express the memory of a past object or person as reflected in the future is in the shell it leaves behind. In particular, I am thinking of the narrator’s description of a turtle in the fourth section, “But that dome above it-ah, that dome, that ageless, well-rubbed, dull bronze, that splendid burden of time…” When the turtle that the narrator views at the aquarium dies it will leave behind its shell. The shell, rather than the turtle, is the “splendid burden of time.” In fact, in future generations it will be the shell that allows a person to recreate the turtle that once lived in it. There are other moments like this in the text. The narrator refers to the conductor’s hands as having a “harsh chitinous crust.” As an expert entomologist I doubt that Nabokov was not aware that chitin is the long-chain polymer that makes up exoskeletons of arthropods, of which crustaceans and insects are both members. That is to say, I suspect Nabokov is being very particular in his language here, and he means to refer to the conductor’s hands as if they were some kind of insect-like exoskeleton. Like the turtle’s shell you might imagine that even when the conductor has long since stopped existing these hands will remain just as the discarded exoskeleton of an arthropod. My last example is more of a stretch, but I would mention the pipes of section one. The narrator describes them as the “street’s iron entrails.” The pipes are like the remains of something, as if the bones of the street had been exposed. I almost imagine them fossilized, the only thing later generations can physically look at to imagine the streets they once undergirded, the children’s play they once provided.
I am interested in all these things: the turtle shell, the chitinous nails, the pipes, because they imply a continued existence after the things around them fade away and in doing so show an obvious importance for the recreation of the past. It is through these objects that an accurate picture of the past will be triangulated. The attitude of a narrator seems to be that of a kind of curator probing his daily life for the objects that will recall their specific time in future days. I guess this is why something like a shell, an exoskeleton, bones, or entrails would be important, because they function as the associative triggers by which the accurate reconstitution of the past is knit. What is so odd about this story is that the narrator is reverse engineering this process. This is a story in the present tense, and the narrator’s attention would seemingly serve the future. It is an odd thing to curate the present, to make your audience feel as if their lives belonged in a museum as the streetcar will. It’s a little like asking a turtle to notice the shell on its back.