Books by Walter Benjamin

THE COMPLETE CORRESPONDENCE, 1928-1940 by Theodor W. Adorno
Released: Dec. 10, 1999

Letters exchanged between 1928 and 1940 by two prominent German intellectuals and scholars of literature, music, and culture, Walter Benjamin and Theodor Wiesengrund-Adorno, now published in their entirety for the first time in English. Benjamin's and Adorno's first meeting in 1923 in Frankfurt sparked in each a strong interest in the other's intellectual pursuits, and eventually led to a dedicated friendship that endured through difficult years of exile. Their exchange continued until Benjamin's suicide in the Pyrenees, provoked by the threat of forced deportation to Nazi-controlled France. As each correspondent held the other's professional opinion in high esteem, both spend many pages discussing current research, criticizing each other's manuscripts, and reviewing the latest academic publications. Their letters help to trace the shaping of such significant projects as Benjamin's work on Kafka and Baudelaire and Adorno's on Wagner and jazz, and command respect for their erudition in a wide range of fields, from philosophy to modern culture. As first names eventually replace "Herr Wiesengrund" and "Herr Benjamin,— the letters shed more light on the personalities and daily preoccupations of the two friends, who shared the problems of immigrant life (for Adorno in London and later the US, for Benjamin in France). We learn about their efforts to publish their work and earn money and recognition in a foreign culture. Benjamin reveals concerns about his son Stefan's mental health and his adventures in procuring a dwelling place in Paris. Adorno, on the other hand, frequently helps his friend with contacts and recommendations, including the arrangements for Benjamin's abortive immigration to America. Finally, the imminent political cataclysm in their native Germany, particularly the situation of the Jews, sets the worried tone of their later correspondence. While the absence of a comprehensive editorial introduction outlining major landmarks in their biographies and careers is unfortunate, these letters do let Benjamin and Adorno speak eloquently for themselves on many complex issues. Read full book review >
THE ARCADES PROJECT by Walter Benjamin
Released: Dec. 1, 1999

A heavy book, to say the least, from one of the exiting century's greatest thinkers, Walter Benjamin (Selected Writings, Vol. I: 1913-1926, 1996, etc.). Heavy because of its 960 pages, and heavy because of its standing as Benjamin's final, and unfinished, work, this tome will prove a curious blessing for those wearing the right equipment. Begun in 1927 as a planned collaboration for a newspaper article on the arcades of nineteenth-century Paris, the project soon bloomed in Benjamin's mind (appearing in different incarnations in his essays and articles), and would continue to bloom until his suicide in 1940. The arcade came to represent, for Benjamin, the architectural idiom for the liberation of 19th-century bourgeois history. This kaleidoscopic work is arranged in 36 categories with such loosely descriptive headings as —Prostitution,— —Boredom,— —Catacombs,— —Dream City,— and —Theory of Progress.— It makes sense why Benjamin would refer to this work as —the theater of all of my struggles and ideas.— Everything seems to be in there, making it at once awe-inspiring and inscrutable in its present form. Had the war not kept it from its final flower, this theater might have been one of the greatest intellectual works of the century. As it stands, it is merely brilliant. Read full book review >
SELECTED WRITINGS by Walter Benjamin
Released: Dec. 1, 1996

A cause for excitement among literary essayists and critics: Walter Benjamin's scattered works are at last being translated and collected in a carefully edited edition. The great German essayist died by his own hand while in flight from the Nazis. Between 1913 and his suicide in 1940 he wrote a great many essays and reviews in his native German. Relatively few have appeared in English translation. Hannah Arendt, who knew him and admired his work, edited a concise selection of his essays under the title Illuminations in 1969. The scholar Peter Demetz published a further selection under the title Reflections in 1978. Though these solid editions remain in print, and though various of Benjamin's other works have appeared here and there in translation, most of his writings—including some of his most extraordinary accomplishments—have never been translated. The loss for American readers is substantial. At long last, under the general editorship of Jennings (German/Princeton), and in collaboration with other prominent Benjamin experts, a three-volume, chronologically organized edition of the essays, memoirs, reviews, aphorisms, fragments, and other short forms is being issued. The present volume includes a fine translation of the crucial essay on Goethe's novel The Elective Affinities. The overall quality of the translations is high, even though they are by diverse hands. And in Benjamin's special case, this is no mean accomplishment: His German prose can be arrestingly precise, but it can also be extraordinarily difficult, and not infrequently it is nearly opaque. His peculiar gift was not for writing lucid, logical essays but instead for lightning flashes of sudden, precise, and idiosyncratic illumination. The translators have supplied useful (though relatively sparing) explanatory notes, and the editors have appended a narrative chronology of Benjamin's life through 1926. While there is some overlap with existing editors, this new Benjamin set will be the standard work. (For a biography of Benjamin, see Brodersen, p. 1436.) Read full book review >
Released: June 1, 1994

Demanding yet eloquent and immensely rewarding personal documents of one of the century's leading literary and aesthetic critics. It's the grimmest of ironies that one of the earliest letters here should find the young philosopher standing metaphorically ``at a border crossing''—for Benjamin would end his life by his own despairing hand at a Spanish frontier post in 1940, his entry barred as he fled the advancing Nazi armies. Yet that image of the perpetual traveler on the threshold well suits the writer portrayed in these letters: equally a self-professed materialist devoted to the modern age and a bibliophile immersed in the literary past; close to many circles—Adorno and the Frankfurt School, Brecht's literary collective, Gershom Scholem's Zionism (the three men were among his correspondents, as well)—yet fully a member of none; a voracious consumer of the world yet always something of an outsider. The most bleakly memorable section here is the letters- -almost half the total—recording Benjamin's long and lonely years of exile, beginning with Hitler's seizure of power and ending with his own death. Here Benjamin faces up to his own uncertain prospects, as the material means for his work—living space, even the writing paper he coveted—dwindle and vanish. Constantly changing postmarks bear witness to his peripatetic and increasingly desperate search for refuge; above all, he bears witness to his growing sense of emotional and intellectual isolation. Yet he sets to his work, ``the shelter I step beneath when the weather grows rough outside,'' to recover something from the very culture whose collapse is about to engulf him—a quixotic venture that nevertheless compels our admiration. Unfortunately, this volume—simply a translation, with no new editorial apparatus, of the 30-year-old German edition—is a little unforgiving on the general reader: It's a shame the publisher hasn't supplied more biographical, historical, and cultural context to encourage nonspecialists to make Benjamin's fascinating acquaintance. Read full book review >