Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Nabokov's guide to Berlin, and Kawabata's guide to Tokyo

The yakuza in Confessions of a Yakuza takes over the gambling racket in 1920s Asakusa, a part of Tokyo I, like most tourists, had visited to see the famous Shinto shrines and also of course the kitchenware stores, including the ones that sell the wax food.  Wanting to learn more, I read Yasunari Kawabata’s The Scarlet Gang of Asakusa (1929-30), not knowing that it was basically Tokyo Asakusaplatz, a true cousin of Alfred Döblin’s novel.

Advanced Japanese writers went through a rapid Western Modernism phase in the 1920s, reading Ulysses in English, for example.  This Kawabata novel is one of the results.  The novel is if anything more fragmented than Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929), more digressive.  The main characters are very young prostitutes and the main stories are about their fight to survive, but chapters and digressions wander everywhere (within the boundaries of Asakusa).

It is a brutal neighborhood, but it is also the home of Western-style theaters and most of Tokyo’s movie palaces.  Ultra-modern.  The whole place, including Tokyo’s tallest building, had been wiped out in the 1923 earthquake, and it would all be obliterated again in the war, but anyway in 1929 everything is brand new and exciting.  Kawabata’s prose tries to capture this energy in a dozen different ways.

I have to say, I found this book darn hard to pull into quotations.  Few passages, on their own, make any dang sense.  I am having the same problem with Berlin Alexanderplatz, frankly, but Kawabata’s book is even crazier.  The University of California Press edition, translated by Alisa Freedman, is, incidentally, superb – a map, photos, the original newspaper illustrations, an essay by Donald Richie, pages of desperately needed annotations.

I think of Kawabata as a quiet and restrained writer, in both subject and prose.  Scarlet Gang is anything but that.  It is written by a Kawabata who had not yet found his style and was trying out some new things, which he would soon jettison.

So that’s: same time as Döblin, similar style, similar subject, completely different place.

For the same time, same place, different subjects, and a completely different style, let’s turn to the Berlin stories of Vladimir Nabokov.  His beginnings as a fiction writer were in Weimar Berlin, where he wrote for a tiny audience of fellow Russian exiles.  The book will never exist, but a Nabokov’s Berlin collection, with the most Berlin-ish short stories and excerpts from the most Berlin-ish novels, would be pretty interesting.  For now, I have to piece Nabokov’s Berlin together from his complete Stories and King, Queen, Knave (1928) and so on.

Curiously, Döblin and Nabokov, writing at the same time, create characters who prefigure fascism through their passiveness when confronted with charismatic leaders.  Curiously, both characters are named Franz.

The style, though.  Let’s look at “A Guide to Berlin” (1925), a story that in its own way is highly fragmented.  The narrator tells his friend, over a beer, what he saw during the day.  “We sat down and I start telling my friend about utility pipes, streetcars, and other important matters” (155 of Stories, 1955, tr. VN and his son).  The tortoises at the zoo, life in the street.  Like this:

A young white-capped baker flashes by in his tricycle; there is something angelic about a lad dusted with flour.  A van jingles past with cases on its roof containing rows of emerald-glittering empty bottles, collected from taverns.  A long, black larch tree mysteriously travels by in a cart.  The tree lies flat; its tip quivers gently, while the earth-covered roots, enveloped in sturdy burlap, form an enormous beige bomblike sphere at its base.  A  postman, who has placed the mouth of a sack under a cobalt-covered mailbox, fastens it on from below, and secretly, invisibly, with a hurried rustling, the box empties and the postman claps shut the square jaws of the bag, now grown full and heavy.  (157-8)

The drinking companion is skeptical this adds up to much – “’Who cares?’”  But for Nabokov this is the stuff of art, looking closely, making it strange.  He’s the Berlin writer who has read Petersburg.  Where is the art, the interest, in a mailman emptying a mailbox?  It depends on how you look at it.

A book that does exist is Nabokovs Berlin (2001, note the absent apostrophe) by Dieter Zimmer, which is full of amazing facts about Nabokov’s life in Berlin.  Sadly, I cannot really read this book because it is in German.  The highly relevant picture up above, of the Graf Zeppelin over Wilhelmplatz in 1929, is on page 53.  The book has few pictures of Alexanderplatz because Nabokov’s characters rarely make it that far east.


  1. I also think of Kawabata as a restrained writer (Thousand Cranes and Snow Country. That he would write a novel more fragmented than Berlin Alexanderplatz is both surprising and intriguing. Having not read this novel I would still rate the books by all three of these authors some of the best that I've encountered.

  2. Isn't it interesting? I do not know what I was expecting from young Kawabata, but it was not the novel he actually wrote. Snow Country is from only a few years later, but is so different.