The Storyteller: Tales out of Loneliness by Walter Benjamin
With Illustrations by Paul Klee
Translated and edited by Sam Dolbear, Esther Leslie and Sebastian Truskolaski

It seems that I’ve been aware of Walter Benjamin for longer than I might have realised; although the first thing I read by him was “Unpacking My Library“, that was fairly recently (and I have revisited it at least once). A renowned German Jewish author, he had an illustrious career but took his own life in 1940 while fleeing the Nazis. But he was in the back of my mind as an important thinker and critic, though possibly I was a little intimidated by his reputation. However, oddly enough, he had a considerable influence on me through his influence on one of my favourite artists, Laurie Anderson. I’ve adored her album “Strange Angels” since it came out in 1995, and a favourite track was “The Dream Before”. In the CD booklet this is dedicated “For Walter Benjamin”, although at that time I probably had little idea of the significance of the dedication. But more of that later…

I’ve amassed a number of Benjamin books since first reading “Unpacking…”, although really all they’ve done is sit on the shelves. “The Storyteller” is a good case in point; I obviously picked it up during one of Verso Books’ regular offers (do sign up for their newsletter – it’s really worth it!), but it had been languishing since along with some other volumes. However, I think it was the Baudelaire connection that spurred me on to this reading (as well as German Lit Month!); particularly when I sent Melissa an image of the contents page of Benjamin’s “Illuminations” collection, pointing out the Kafka content. There is also a Baudelaire essay, and a little bit of online research (always a dangerous thing!) led to the discovery that there is a considerable body of Benjamin writing about Baudelaire. Picking up “The Storyteller” as my next read was a no-brainer, and I’ve been dipping into it alongside a collection of Baudelaire’s selected poems in prose translation, and the two books together make a heady mix. I’m not qualified by a long chalk to ‘review’ Benjamin’s work – that would feel ridiculously presumptious – but I can share my reactions to this excellent book and perhaps encourage you to explore this marvellous writer’s works. I know I’ll be doing just that.

As I mentioned, I’ve always thought of Benjamin primarily in terms of philosophy and cultural writing, particularly in the field of critical theory (“a philosophical approach to culture, and especially to literature, that considers the social, historical, and ideological forces and structures which produce and constrain it.”) Therefore, to discover that he had wandered into fictions as well was intriguing, and this exemplary collection brings together for the first time all of Benjamin’s stories in one volume, along with marvellous illustrations by Swiss German artist Paul Klee and erudite commentary by the translators/editors. It’s a heady collection, which they’ve divided into three themed sections – “Dreamworlds”, “Travel” and “Play and Pedagogy”. I believe the majority of the works haven’t been translated into English before, which makes this book even more valuable; I imagine there must be shed-loads of Benjamin untranslated, and I’ve actually found myself in a bit of a book jungle trying to work out which of his books/collections I should pick up.

Of all those songs, the one I loved the most was a Christmas song that filled me, as only music can, with solace for a sorrow not yet experienced but only sensed now for the first time.

So what of the contents themselves? The translators/editors point out that the stories reflect many of the themes of Benjamin’s theoretical work. I’m not well-versed enough in the latter to really comment but what lingers most from reading these inventive, sparkling and often strange fables, stories and meditations is the sheer sense of playfulness (an element also highlighted in the introduction). Benjamin’s very fertile mind lets itself loose in fabulous ways, ranging far and wide over topics as diverse as children’s primers, dreams (both sleeping and waking), gambling, life in cities (which resonates with the Georg Simmel collection I read recently) and the moon. Many are short, fragmentary pieces but some extend over several pages, and each is beautifully written and memorable. I was reminded in some places of Bruno Schulz; in others of Borges. But each piece warranted the pleasure from slow and thoughtful reading, and I imagine I’ll return to this collection again and again over the years – it’s that good. The introduction reminds us of the importance of our imaginations – “Dreams shape history and are shaped by it” – and Benjamin’s is in full force here.

By Photo d’identité sans auteur, 1928 – Akademie der Künste, Berlin – Walter Benjamin Archiv, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17162035

Each of the 43 chapters has an image by Paul Klee at the start, and ends with the sources of the actual written material, individual translation credits, as well as details of the picture; all books should be this well presented and annotated. I don’t like to pick favourites, but one particular stand out for me was “The Hypochondriac in the Landscape” with its vivid, witty imagery :

At the peak of the landscape we find him again. A ruin stood there, overgrown by the green of nature. Storms and tempests roared more fiercely here than elsewhere. The place was created for the indulgence of every conceivable suffering…

And:

After dinner, physicians and patients organise germ hunts in the park. Oftentimes it happens that a patient is accidentally shot. In such cases a simple bed of moss and forest herbs is prepared as the patient sinks to the ground. Bandages lie ready in the tree hollows.

It’s clever and funny and dark, and sets the tone for much of the collection – I loved it! And a lovely piece entitled “Detective Novels, on tour” is a beautiful paean to the joy of reading a book while travelling by train.

As for Paul Klee and the Laurie Anderson connection, well that realisation was part of what send me down my recent Benjamin-Baudelaire wormhole. There is a Klee print called “Angelus Novus”, which was owned by Benjamin and is now in the collection of the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. It informs one of Benjamin’s last and most important works, as essay called “Theses on the Theory of History”, and that essay is in turn the source of Anderson’s lyrical imagery in her song “The Dream Before”. Bearing in mind that the essay was written while Benjamin was being pursued by the dark forces of history, the song and essay are even more poignant.The Klee painting seems to have been a real touchstone for Benjamin, and it even appears on the back of my copy of “Illuminations”.

Coll IMJ, photo (c) IMJ.
By Paul Klee – The Israel Museum, Jerusalem, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=25188355

So I’m still down the Benjamin-Baudelaire wormhole; as you might have seen from recent posts I’ve been raiding the library for related books (in particular the volume which collects Benjamin’s essays on the poet). Although I’ve finished the Benjamin stories, I’m still savouring the Baudelaire poems and I’ll no doubt share some thoughts later. However, what I would say about them is that I’m finding the prose translations much more satisfying that those put into verse form which have me questioning the translator’s choices…

But I’ll leave you with the great Laurie Anderson, and her wonderful channelling of Benjamin; and I think that while we struggle on through one of our most difficult times, we need once again to be reminded of our past…

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