stop 3 - Disappearing Tram

Nabokov's Disappearing Tram

"A Guide to Berlin" (1925)

Our narrative excursion on Petersburg’s trams ends in another city.

Berlin numbered amongst the stops on the pathway drawn by Valdimir Nabokov's life in emigration. Born in St Petersburg in 1899 (at 47 Bol'shaia Morskaia), Nabokov lived in Berlin from 1922 to 1937.

We encounter the tram in his 1925 short story, "A Guide to Berlin". Anachronism is already strongly associated with the tram; it seems old-fashioned from the outset. Like Bely's anachronistic tramvai, Nabokov’s streetcar allows us to see places and times layered over one another. The seeming antiquity of the tram recalls the horse-drawn coaches of by-gone days.

The tram simultaneously elicits nostalgic memories and projects a vision of its own "future recollection" – it is an object which contains with in itself the trace of how it will be remembered. Memory and its movements across time are the conditions of aesthetic experience for Nabokov: the tram, an urban fixture of the most mundane variety, bears the mark of the ennobling passage of time, and offers a glimpse of art.

Nabokov's tram may be on the streets of Berlin, but it retains a hint of removed kinship to its Petersburg counterpart – Gumilev's "Lost Tram." Nabokov refers to the tram-car's "stern" (korma in Russian), likening the vehicle into a ship. The nautical comparison returns us indirectly to Gumilev's poem, via Rimbaud's "Le Bateau ivre".

"Somewhere in Abyssinia drunken Rimbaud was reciting to a surprised Russian traveller the poem Le Tramway ivre…"
Vladimir Nabokov, Look at the Harlequins! (1974)

The route of the Petersburg tram continues off the map and into more distant time and space.