How Benjamin Lived

Stuart Jeffries reviews the new biography of Walter Benjamin, Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life, in The Guardian.

In the summer of 1932, Benjamin was very nearly at the end of his rope. Professionally, his dreams of academic tenure had been crushed and he was struggling to make a living as a writer at the moment when opportunities for a Jew publishing in Germany were, thanks to Hitler’s poisoning of intellectual life, about to dwindle almost to nothing.

His personal life, too, was in tatters. Acrimoniously divorced from his wife Dora, all but estranged from his only child Stefan, having recently proposed to and been rejected by Olga Parem, a German-Russian woman he’d fallen for, he was so close to suicide that he had recently written his will and letters of farewell in a Nice hotel room to some of his dearest friends (“And even now that I am about to die,” he wrote to his former lover, the sculptor Jula Cohn, “my life has no greater gifts in its possession than those conferred on it by moments of suffering over you.”)

In this mood, Benjamin arrived at a little seaside resort called Poveromo (Italian for “poor man”) and started writing his remembrances of an upper-middle-class Jewish home in Berlin’s West End at the turn of the century. Meanwhile, in the city of his birth, the chancellor Franz von Papen was revoking the ban on the Sturmabteilung, the Nazis’ paramilitary wing, and thereby unleashing a torrent of political violence and terror that ultimately led to Hitler’s assumption of power. Radio stations for which Benjamin had presented talks became only mouthpieces for rightwing propaganda, the Frankfurter Zeitung, so long a home for his work, began leaving Benjamin’s letters and manuscript submissions unanswered. Publishers looked even more askance at his work than before.

Benjamin was clear-eyed about what this prefigured. . . .


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