Vladimir Nabokov was starting his career as a writer when he found himself in Berlin. “It is clear, for one thing, that while a man is writing, he is situated in some definite place; he is not simply a kind of spirit, hovering over the page…Something or other is going on around him.” The short 1934 novel Despair from which this quote comes is already heavily self-ironising compared with the stories of the previous decade. But like them it is studded with incidental Berlin experiences, from the shape of the city's S-Bahn train line on the map to the comedy of a German misspeaking English. “I suppose only the pest. The chief thing by me is optimismus.” If Nabokov's Berlin was in his head, it was nevertheless not invented.
He lived from 1932-37 with his wife and son at Nestorstrasse 22, in the smart, quiet residential area of Wilmersdorf, comparable with London's Chelsea. The unfussy mansion block was his first real home after the curtailed teenage years in Russia. The previous decade in Berlin had been a series of removals from one rented address to the next after his father was shot dead by Bolshevik agents in 1922. “That flat of ours in one of those newfangled houses built in the modern, boxlike, space-cheating, let-us-have-no-nonsense style…” So the imagined author of Despair commented as his creator moved in. The building was dull with an awkward tower in brick and glass towering up at its helm. The protagonist of Nabokov's next big project, The Gift, dwelling in Agamemnonstrasse, thought that the boring architect of his block had suddenly gone mad. After the war, these leafy streets had to be raised from the rubble. (Tiny bronze plaques mark their 1954 resurrection). The Russian writer Vladimir Nabokov lived here, 1932-37, it says, but you could easily pass by that dim bronze plaque from 1999, fading into a brownish façade.