Review: The Storyteller

Fanciful side of a heavyweight thinker


By Walter Benjamin (Trans: various)
Verso, £12.99

This is a collection of incidental works by the multi-faceted thinker Walter Benjamin. Many were not published in his lifetime, which was short: 47 years, ending in suicide in Spain while trying to flee to America from Nazi-dominated Europe. Some are mere fragments, from as early as Benjamin's teenage years in his native Berlin.

The book is formed of three sections devoted to dream-worlds, travel and play. It is preceded by a scholarly introduction and translated from German by three hands.

The dreams of the first section are often only lightly touched up for publication. Many are surreal and verge on the prophetic, bringing to mind the art of the era: Giorgio De Chirico, Paul Delvaux, Georg Grosz. The volume as a whole nods in this direction, each chapter being prefaced with a drawing by Benjamin's friend Paul Klee. The writing is artful, suggestive and elusive. Reading someone else's dreams can seem tedious, but Benjamin's may offer a wonderland for analysts.

The second section provides co-ordinates to an outer world yet remains inward, too. Punctuating it are reviews, a genre Benjamin lived by and excelled at. The interplay between private apprehension and public utterance casts growing light on the writerly psyche. Nightscape vs day, man naked or with his hat on - there is no lack of prose poetry.

Benjamin's dreams may offer a wonderland

Relationships are almost non-existent. When they occur, they bring to mind Thomas Mann's aphorism: "Only at the two opposite poles of human contact, where there are no words or at least no more words, in the glance and in the embrace, is happiness really to be found, for there alone are unconditional freedom, secrecy, and profound ruthlessness."

An upside of Benjamin's sensibility is the capture of silence, meditative and rich. Travel to some places - Norway, for example - evokes description so vivid that reality takes on the Technicolor of fantasy. In a tale about an Irish eccentric in Ibiza, it becomes apparent that the mature Benjamin was capable of providing the storyteller's twist that readers of an era of Zweig and Maugham were used to. That he usually refrains from this is part of a modernist refusal of bourgeois pleasantry that he shared with friends like Bertholt Brecht.

The last section includes children's rhymes, occasional ditties, riddles, jokes, proverbs, fanciful etymologies, slang and "radio games" that Germanophones of the era might tune in to for amusement. Benjamin sends up his experience as a broadcaster. He explores the psychology of his vice of gambling. He excoriates political correctness avant la lettre by mocking contemporisation of Grimm's Fairy Tales. Translation of a cultural context can be tricky, but contemporary Anglophone audiences should appreciate the cleverness here. They may also be reassured by a review revealing that Benjamin liked nothing better than devouring detective pulp-fiction while traversing pre-Nazi Europe on trains

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