by Momme Broderson
Translated by Malcolm R. Green and Ingrida Ligers
edited by Martina Dervis
$35.00, hardcover, 333 pages, photos throughout, notes, bibliography, index
Walter Benjamin (1892-1940) is now generally recognized as one of the most original and influential thinkers of this century. Literary critic, philosopher, translator and essayist, Benjamin was arguably the most gifted writer of his time, and the enduring popularity of his work speaks for its accessibility and relevance.
But it is not only his work that captures the imagination of contemporary readers: it is also the story of Walter Benjamin himself, a man whose life bore the deep and often tragic imprint of the epoch in which he lived. From his Berlin childhood to his university years among the great luminaries of the late Weimar era, and finally to his suicide in flight from the Nazis in 1940, Benjamin's life was riven with conflicts intellectual, political, religious and historical.
Benjamin's career began at a spectacular moment in intellectual history: his acquaintances, friends and colleagues included Hannah Arendt, Theodor Adorno, Herman Hesse, Georges Bataille, Ernst Bloch, Bertolt Brecht, Martin Buber, Max Horkheimer, and Rainer Maria Rilke, among others. In the pages of Momme Broderson's biography, Benjamin's life and work are woven into an organic whole, each feeding into the other its inspirations and complexities.
Walter Benjamin is an indispensable guide not only to Benjamin's life but also to the development of his thought and to a profound, contextualized understanding of his written work. As recounted by Broderson, Benjamin's intellectual life was one of vitality and engagement that did not wane even after the Third Reich had smashed the foundations upon which it had thrived. And yet, this German Jew, dissident and socialist, was not to be unaffected by the ravages of fascism. Broderson's biography details Benjamin's exile from Germany, the banning of his books, the straining of ties as his intellectual circle was dispersed into hidden corners of a Europe under siege. Herded into a French internment camp with other refugees, Benjamin lobbied for permission to publish a literary journal of his imprisonment which, though never printed, survives in handwritten accounts of camp life which Broderson discovered in the Benjamin estate.
The extraordinary life of this indomitable intellect drew to a close on the French Spanish border in 1940. Fleeing France upon Petain's historic handshake with Hitler that September, Benjamin braved an arduous trek over the Pyrenees despite his heart condition, only to find himself stranded in the Spanish border town of Portbou. Spanish customs officials had been instructed to close the border, and Benjamin knew that a return journey to France would most certainly end in a concentration camp. Broderson here provides a thorough account of Benjamin's suicide at Portbouan act rendered all the more tragic when the border was opened to his traveling companions scant days later.
This biography was widely acclaimed in Broderson's native Germany, and extensively illustrated with nearly a hundred documentary photographs. It is the first comprehensive biography of Walter Benjamin to be published English.
Volume 1: 1913-1924
The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press
$39.95, cloth, 520 pages, notes, index
Harvard University Press is simultaneously publishing its first volume of Benjamins complete works. The first in several proposed volumes. It will make the wide scope of Benjamins interests better represented in translation. It is likely to become the standard edition of his works.
WALTER BENJAMIN'S PASSAGES
by Pierre Missac
translated by Shierry Weber Nicholsen
$12.50, paper, 233 pages, notes, index
It was in Paris in 1937 that Georges Bataille introduced Pierre Missac to Walter Benjamin. This meeting launched the young French scholar on a half-century of engagement with Benjamin's work that culminated in the writing of Walter Benjamin's Passages.
Taking a cue from his subject, Missac adopts a form of indirect critique in which independent details examined seemingly in passing emerge over the course of the book as parts of larger patterns of understanding. The interlocked essays move among such topics as reading and writing, collecting, the dialectic, and time and history.
Many of the subjects are standard in Benjamin studies, but the freshness and directness of Missac's response to them makes this book compelling. It is a work of sophisticated and imaginative criticism that shows how Benjamin's work anticipated the future and how it can be fruitfully extended.
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