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 A moving, impressively informed novel based on the life of one of the century's most austere, provocative, and tragic intellectuals, Walter Benjamin (18921940). Parini, a poet, critic (John Steinbeck, 1995), and novelist (Bay of Arrows, 1992, etc.), has created not so much a fictional biography of Benjamin as a meditation on the experience of exile and the difficult emergence of modern thought. Born in Berlin in 1892 to a well-to-do Jewish family, Benjamin reflected many of the 20th-century's most turbulent currents. Even as an adolescent, his remarkable critical faculties were evident, and in quieter times, he might have subsided into academia. As it was, he was doomed to an increasingly uncertain living as a critic of art and literature and as a reviewer. He visited Russia in the 1920s after becoming fascinated by Marxism, and left Germany in the 1930s after the rise of the Nazis. He lived uneasily in Paris, doubly suspect for being both Jewish and a possible Communist, was interned for a time by French authorities, then fled to Spain in 1940. He apparently committed suicide soon after arriving there. Parini concentrates on several episodes in Benjamin's life (the period just before and during WWI, Benjamin's visit to Russia, his hard life in Paris in the late '30s, his flight to Spain), and uses several narrators (including his lifelong friend, the scholar Gershom Scholem, and his diffident lover Asja Lacis) to catch something both of Benjamin's brilliance and of his oblique, tormented personality. It's hard, though, to do much more in a novel than suggest something of the man's highly original (and still influential) theories about mass culture and literature. And Benjamin's character (made up in equal parts, it seems, of the bohemian and the scholar) remains somewhat elusive here. Nonetheless, Parini's portrait of an entire generation of intellectuals overwhelmed by revolution and war, and of their desperate attempts to make sense of their world, is resonant, convincing, and deeply sad. (Author tour)

Pub Date: May 1st, 1997
ISBN: 0-8050-3180-4
Page count: 320pp
Publisher: Henry Holt
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15th, 1997


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