Last week, The Bookseller kindly asked me to write a 200-word piece for their Reading for Pleasure section. I chose to write about Walter Benjamin's Berlin Childhood Around 1900. The piece was slightly cut for the magazine, as so often happens, and it isn't online, so here it it is, below, in full:
In Berlin Childhood Around 1900 one of the twentieth century's most incisive literary minds turns to his own earliest memories. Walter Benjamin, the celebrated German translator of In Search of Lost Time, wrote his minor counterpoint to complement Proust's Olympian masterpiece. Benjamin (along with Rilke) was one of the first to recognise the revolutionary nature of Proust's writing, but he was concerned in his own investigation into how memory creates and confounds us not to ape either Proust's unique style nor his philosophy. In beautiful, compact, stand-alone paragraphs, Benjamin becomes again the flaneur of his own bourgeois childhood. He finds a city in which he can lose himself. Losing oneself (as one does when reading) being the beginning of discovery (learning to get lost is a vertiginous skill). And writing, almost in fragments, he disturbs the teleology of autobiography. Today, perhaps more than ever, we need Benjamin's nuanced radicalism. Despite his Marxism, he knew human beings could not be reduced to avatars of their class, but were irreducibly complex. He knew the Messiah would only come to save us if we recognised the social system that is destroying our humanity as surely as it destroyed the Berlin of his childhood.