For some reason, I don’t seem to be able to get 1929 out of my head! We had such a successful reading week with the #1929Club, but there were so many books I didn’t get to, including a couple which were on the immediate TBR. One of those was “Hill”, which I’ve since read and loved and wrote about here; and another was “Walking in Berlin” by Franz Hessel. I’d actually had the book on my radar for sometime, before stumbling across it serendipitously in the local Oxfam; needless to say, it had sat on my TBR ever since, and if I’d realised it was from 1929 I might well have grabbed it for the club. However, as it happened to fit for German Lit Month AND Non Fiction month, it seemed the ideal title to pick up just now; and an unexpected connection nudged me even more strongly to start reading, as I’ll explain!

My particular edition of “Walking in Berlin” is translated by Amanda DeMarco and published by Scribe Publications; however, when I was noodling about online, I discovered that the same translation had been issued in the US by MIT Press with an additional essay from a friend of Kessel – a certain Walter Benjamin… Although my copy doesn’t have the essay, I was fortunately able to source it online, and it did enhance my reading of the book!

Franz Hessel (1880-1941) was a German author and translator, responsible for bringing three volumes of Proust’s epic work into the German language alongside his friend Benjamin. As far as I can see, “Walking in Berlin” (described as a collection of essays exploring the concept of flanerie) is the only one of his works which has been translated into English. Hessel was of Jewish heritage, fleeing Germany for France in 1940. Unfortunately things were no safer for his family there, and Hessel died in 1941 after a session in a concentration camp.

“Walking in Berlin” records Hessel’s impressions of, and feelings about, his native city; and in a chatty, conversational style he guides the readers around the sight of Berlin, the historical monuments and parks, the outlying areas, the cabarets and night clubs and boulevards. He observes his fellow citizens, reflects on the architecture of the city, the changing landscape and the march of progress. This is a city (and a country) at a mid-point between the two world wars, and although Hessel didn’t know what was to come, there is oddly little reflection of the political landscape (a point picked up in the notes and foreword, and it does seem that Hessel had his head in the sand just a little…)

Although Hessel’s book title contains the word ‘walking’, he does not always go by foot; and in fact in one extended entertaining chapter entitled “A Tour” he is transported around the city with a group of tourists, experiencing Berlin as they would see it, although with sly little mentions of places and attractions he would know about as a resident. But however he goes, he is a flaneur and a wanderer with the randomness that those terms imply; and that drift through the city allows us some wonderful perspectives on the place.

Tauentzienestrasse and Kurfurstendamm have the important cultural task of teaching the Berliner to be a flaneur, unless this urban pastime should at some point become unfashionable. But maybe it’s not too late. The flaneur reads the street, and human faces, displays, window dressings, café terraces, trains, cars, and trees become letters that yield the words, sentences, and pages of a book that is always new. To correctly play the flaneur, you can’t have anything too particular in mind.

Lest you think that Hessel is only mingling with the rich and famous, I can assure you that’s not the case. We are, after all, in Weimar Berlin, and there are all manner of clubs, cabarets and seedy bars where he encounters a wide variety of residents. And although he often expresses a hankering after lost parts of the city and a perhaps more genteel past, he is quick to condemn what he feels is ugly statuary or architecture. He contrasts the rich and poor, noting the shabby conditions in some part of the city. And despite his obvious love of Berlin, I did feel that he was doing his best to look at it as an observer would.

All in all, “Walking…” was a wonderfully engrossing and distracting read; Hessel’s writing is excellent, often lyrical, always entertaining, with an informal and intimate tone which makes him an excellent companion whilst ambling round the city; I found myself thinking what fun it would have been to roam the streets of Berlin beside him. The book is beautifully translated by DeMarco, and comes with useful footnotes which, alas, were often ruefully pointing out the loss of some landmark. I can see why Benjamin rated this book so highly and I’m so glad it was finally translated; a marvellous writer, a life sadly cut short and I do wish there was more available in English by him.