September 2015

Noted
by Brenda Walker

‘A Guide to Berlin’ by Gail Jones
Random House; $32.99

A Guide to Berlin is the sixth novel by Gail Jones, an Australian novelist whose fiction consistently interleaves literature and the visual arts with the oppressive histories of colonialism and 20th-century military conflict. The protagonist in her writing is usually a young woman – passionate, solitary, watchful – who seems aligned in temperament with Jane Eyre, or with Lucy Snowe in Charlotte Brontë’s other great novel, Villette. This self-contained and observant character gives us a model for intelligent femininity, pitting friendship and personal action against the desperate sweep of history. Jones’ novels and two short-story collections have been exceptionally highly acclaimed. Sixty Lights, her second novel, was listed for the 2004 Man Booker Prize.

In A Guide to Berlin, Cass, a young Australian, joins a group of other foreigners in a circle dedicated to sharing stories. This is the ancient structure of clustering stories we find in The Decameron and The Arabian Nights, and like these older fictions, which are shadowed by the plague and the threat of execution, the world of A Guide to Berlin is extremely dangerous. Berlin itself has historically been a zone of horror, and there are perpetual reminders of this: a mysteriously empty furnished apartment, the stumbling stones commemorating victims of the Holocaust. It is also one of the places identified with Vladimir Nabokov, and a fascination with the work of the Russian-born writer connects the storytellers in this novel. Berlin is currently fashionable and brilliant, and the novel gathers together the contemporary and the historical city with great economy.

Initially A Guide to Berlin seems to be a dance of stories: an exhibition of the way they and their audiences meet and intertwine. However, it is much more than this. Members of the group know one another through stories, but they are also lovers, friends, adversaries and wanderers of the great city. The stories are refracted through these interactions and the novel becomes, at one level, a remarkable investigation of reading and speaking, and of the interaction between high literature and immediate human experience. This interplay is given particular urgency because of the dangers the characters face towards the end of the novel, when the circle of storytellers is dispersed.

The novel is a demonstration of both the power of storytelling and its limitations. There is no sentimentality about literary affinities here, and in A Guide to Berlin patterns of loss in 20th-century European history – of friends, lovers, location and literature – appear as part of the celebration of reading and story. Our assumption that we are exempt from literary and historical tragedy is challenged. This is one of the reasons why A Guide to Berlin is so very fine – it is a full and moving exploration of the experience of knowing others through literature and life.

Brenda Walker

Brenda Walker is an Australian writer and a Winthrop Professor of English and Cultural Studies at the University of Western Australia. Her memoir, Reading by Moonlight, was published in 2010.

Cover

September 2015

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