Walter Benjamin (1892-1940) is now generally recognized as one of the most original and influential thinkers of this century. In Britain and the United States in particular, he has acquired a status unlike that of any other German philosopher, as successive generations of readers find their own paths through the endlessly fruitful ambiguities of his work. The conflicts and conjunctions between Benjamin’s Marxism and his messianic Judaism, between his fascination for surrealism and his explorations of the Cabbala, between the philosopher of language and the ever-observant flâneur on the streets of Berlin or Paris—all these have inspired a wealth of interpretations and critical studies.
Widely acclaimed in Germany, Momme Brodersen’s Walter Benjamin is the most comprehensive and illuminating biography of Benjamin ever published. Not only does Brodersen provide a fuller and more coherent account of Benjamin’s nomadic career than has any previous scholar, he also demonstrates the fallacy of the popular, romanticized notion of his life as the sorrowful progression of a melancholic personality. The only real tragedy, he argues, was Benjamin’s suicide at Portbou on the Franco-Spanish border in 1940. Using previously unavailable material, Brodersen pays particular attention to Benjamin’s childhood in Berlin, to his conflicts with his bourgeois, Jewish family, his activities in the German Youth Movement, and the formative, irreconcilable influences of idealism, socialism and Zionism. He gives an exceptionally vivid picture of Benjamin’s life during the Weimar Republic, of his success as a literary critic and his work as a translator and radio journalist, as well as of his friendships and love affairs. Finally, he follows Benjamin’s harrowing journey through exile, internment and flight, and for the first time unravels the mysteries surrounding his death. At the same time, Brodersen provides a fresh and lucid presentation of Benjamin’s written work, and of the extraordinary range of his ideas and enthusiasms.