An even-handed account of the great literary critic's unlucky life, from his birth into Berlin's Jewish upper middle class to his suicide while in flight from the Nazis. Though he was little known during his lifetime (1892-1940), Walter Benjamin has emerged since the 1960s as one of the century's preeminent literary critics. The reasons for his obscurity make him a good subject for a biography. He was an eccentric and highly original thinker whose work was rejected by the rigid academic establishment of his time. He was a German Jew whose adult life coincided with the rise of fascism. And his major writings, not all of which are available in English (though an effort to publish them is now underway--see Benjamin, p. 1435), remain fraught with difficulties. Brodersen's life of Benjamin, which supersedes all previous works in both scope and authority, is in large part an intellectual biography. Its strength lies in the way he relates Benjamin's life (unlucky in love, failed academic aspirations, and an antifascist outsider) to his literary writings. Benjamin's subtle theories are lucidly explained by the author, who teaches German literature and cultural history in Italy at the University of Palermo. In addition, his presentation of Benjamin's Berlin childhood breaks fresh ground in clarifying the foundations of his thought, especially with regard to his relationship to Judaism. And not least of all, Brodersen adds a tantalizing element of mystery when he writes this anti-acknowledgment: ""My work received no support whatsoever from the trustees of the Benjamin estate in Frankfurt. My numerous requests for information and access to certain documents were all flatly refused."" He does not speculate on the archivists' motives for concealing the materials in their care. Brodersen's book is the best life of Benjamin we have and the best we are likely to have, until the archives are finally opened to scholars and biographers.