A cause for excitement among literary essayists and critics: Walter Benjamin's scattered works are at last being translated...


SELECTED WRITINGS: Vol. I: 1913--1926

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.

Pub Date: Dec. 1, 1996


Page Count: 518

Publisher: Harvard Univ.

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 1996

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