Walter Benjamin’s Tales


Main Scene from the Ballet “The False Oath”, Paul Klee, 1922

by David Beer

The Storyteller: Tales out of Loneliness,
by Walter Benjamin. Translated and introduced by Sam Dolbear, Esther Leslie and Sebastian Truskolaski. Illustrated by Paul Klee.
London: Verso Books, 240 pp.

Walter Benjamin is full of surprises. This is perhaps why his work seems to have endured so well. He has a knack for carving out unexpected angles on familiar issues. In this collection the surprise is not so much in themes that it covers, many of which are typical of Benjamin’s other work, rather the surprise is in Benjamin’s exploration of different styles. It is a book of experimentation that finds Benjamin in the mode of the storyteller.

The volume gathers together Benjamin’s fiction along with some reviews linking to those fictional themes. Here Benjamin is either writing fiction or writing about fiction. These pieces, like the earlier collection of Benjamin’s radio broadcasts, are a testament to his lifestyle. They show a freelancer at work, trying to eke out a living as a writer. These are the remnants of a peripatetic life of the mind, deployed wherever necessary to make ends meet and to enable his other writings to continue. It was a struggle for Benjamin. But it seems he always liked to produce interesting and creative work, even when it was a necessity of living.

Benjamin probably didn’t mind indulging in some fiction writing or in reviewing fictional works. He always had a soft spot for fiction, particularly detective novels – which he even considered writing himself. This affection is most notable in his short review piece ‘Detective Novels, on Tour’, where he describes the enchantment of finding a detective novel in a station bookstore before a journey. The book then becomes his companion, filling the time and distracting from the anxieties of travel. The novel meshes into the experience of the train journey when, as he puts it ‘for a few hours, snuggled into the passing countryside, as though into a streaming scarf, we feel the shudders of suspense and the rhythms of the wheels running up our spine’. This is not an untypical kind of reflective note for Benjamin in which we see a weaving of the imagined into the material spaces in which we live. Something that Benjamin liked to do in his work was to mix, as Graeme Gilloch put it, myth and the metropolis.

Generally though this is a book to dip into. The stories and reviews are mostly quite short – again, this is a feature likely to be a product of the types of publications they appeared in or, in the unpublished cases, were aimed at. In other cases it is because of the experimental nature of the writing. The book continues something of Benjamin’s other work in that it provides us with a series of fragments of modernity. These are fragmentary stories of fragmentary experiences. Each little fragment is carefully and poetically articulated, yet there remains a limited sense of the whole or of how these stories might fit together. It is left to the reader to piece the picture together out of these small shards of insight. We find a dusting of the strange and obscure, from dreams of student revolts, ageing, Christmas songs through to blouses in the colour schemes of condom packaging. We travel (often we or others are on journeys) through landscapes that are picturesque but which have darkened shadows of crime, exploitation, indulgence and even loneliness.

The difference between these stories and Benjamin’s more well-known writings on the Paris arcades and the like is that the fragments are largely and determinedly fictional in their intent, even if they are extensions of the themes he was already working with (which is a point the editors make clear in their introduction). These are engaging snippets of the experiences of life lived somewhere between the material and the imaginary, and especially in the places where those things melt together. In her book on Benjamin, Susan Buck-Morss calls this the ‘dream world of mass culture’. Benjamin was already working at these joins, in these instances he is simply exploring the side that is more fictional in its orientation. Benjamin’s tales are as much an attempt to grapple with the onset of modernity in both the structures that surrounded him and the flights of the imagination that enchanted and disrupted those spaces as his other non-fiction works.

Perhaps then the reason that these stories are so telling is precisely because Benjamin took the art of storytelling so seriously and understood its import in shaping the cultural and material experience of the day. In his famous essay on the storyteller, published in 1936, Benjamin pointed out that ‘the storyteller joins the ranks of the teachers and sages’. The storyteller is able, he says, to relate their life to others in ways that reveal something of those experiences. These stories are built upon the ‘ruins’ of older stories and bring with them this heritage, the insights of life and, crucially, the teller brings enough aura to hold the audience’s attention. Benjamin always told stories, but in this collection he we see the sharp focus of an energised storyteller weaving together some yarns of life lived during the rapid expansion of modernity.

About the Author:

David Beer is Reader in Sociology at the University of York. His new book is Metric Power. His earlier book Popular Culture and New Media: The Politics of Circulation has recently been published in paperback.