Tuesday, 2 August 2016

The Storyteller by Walter Benjamin – a master thinker's fiction

Before he had written about the flâneur, or the aura of the artwork, a young Walter Benjamin set out for Italy and Switzerland. He was 19 or so, and he experienced, for that month, his first freedom from the restrictions of school exams and family life. But when he returned to Germany, Benjamin made a curious decision: he composed and recited a sad, psychosexual story for his mother, Pauline, on the occasion of her birthday.

Details of the event are few – we only have the dedication to the story – but perhaps Pauline had thrown one of her soirées. She may, as we learn from Howard Eiland and Michael W Jennings’s Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life, have worn “a ceremonial sash and her most brilliant jewels”. It’s true that she often invited cultured society into the family home. Did Benjamin aim to scandalize this gathering with a dreary fiction? Or did he yearn to impress his mother, who cast “an aura of power and majesty” over him? You can almost see him trembling as he reads aloud (in German):
Two minutes later the tramcar stopped. The lady got off and the conductor reached for her suitcase. This awoke the young man’s jealous fury. He grabbed the suitcase without saying a word, alighted from the tram and began following her.
The somewhat crazed, oversensitive young man in Still Story, a gently disguised Benjamin, is himself returning to university by train from Switzerland, where he spent “a few expensive and rain-filled days” that seemed to have drenched his spirit in listlessness. Alone, he takes care to “summon up a mild sense of boredom”. He finds himself staring, for no obvious reason, at an older couple in the car. Then he sees the lady.

Benjamin’s story is laced with the sexual frustration of youth. Nonetheless, there is poetry at work here: he makes nothing happen. No dramatic arguments erupt on the train; he doesn’t attempt to write Tolstoy’s The Kreutzer Sonata. Even at this tender age, he shows flashes of restraint and composure. And this fiction conjures up themes that would come to fruition in his later criticism. The usefulness of boredom and the loneliness of travel give way to silent observations on culture and fashion (the girl’s travel coat is a “plaid monstrosity”). New technologies transform human experience; you can feel the speed of the express train pressuring the young man’s still-forming thoughts.

It is surprising that, more than a century after he wrote Still Story, Benjamin’s fictions have never been published in a single volume. This makes the arrival of The Storyteller: Tales Out of Loneliness, the first collection of his narrative stories, something of an event, one that will raise familiar questions. A master of the essay, list, theoretical long-take, fragment, aphorism, speech, pedagogical manifesto, and even the book review, Benjamin commanded a variety of prose forms. But could the author of the epigrammatic, digressive Arcades Project produce lasting fiction? Could Benjamin succeed in the realm of plot and character, where more recent critics of similar temperament, such as Susan Sontag, arguably failed? And, more generally: can critics of this stature ever write great fiction?

The new volume, with its dreamscapes, travelogues and pedagogical exercises, reflects Benjamin’s lack of interest in these questions. Or, you might say, his interest in ignoring them. He instead concerns himself with the recovery of the story, which sometimes resembles what we traditionally call fiction, like Still Story. At other times, these works look more like freeform criticism, as in the case of Fantasy Sentences, which appears to reconstruct the gibberish of an 11-year-old girl.

Whatever form it takes, the story, for Benjamin, is nearly sacred; it’s nothing less than a unit of commonality, of shared experience. And he felt that our ability to communicate a shared life had been imperiled by the first world war and its attendant technological upheaval.

“Was it not noticeable at the end of the war that men returned from the battlefield grown silent,” he asked in 1920, “not richer, but poorer in communicable experience?” Even then, Benjamin noted, in language drenched with financial fatalism, that “experience has fallen in value.”

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