Walter Benjamin's posthumous influence as philosopher and critic has grown since his suicide in 1940, when it appeared that his escape from France into Spain would end with deportation to a concentration camp. Brodersen's biography, awkwardly and sometimes impenetrably translated and edited, will do Benjamin's established reputation no harm while doing little to make his ideas more accessible. Born in Berlin in 1892, Benjamin outlasted WWI as a graduate student but was denied the essential postdoctoral Habilitation, which would have opened doors to an academic post. He made his way instead as a freelance critic. A working wife (from whom he was later divorced) and an allowance reluctantly continued by his father, a merchant, kept him going when he made little from his writings, which nevertheless brought him increasing respect from his peers, despite the pervasive anti-Semitism of his time. Expecting recognition to come slowly, he wrote wryly of his intellectual ""wine cellar."" In his lifetime, respect for his theories on the interdependence of language, politics and literature arose largely from his periodical contributions, some of them published after his death. Although Brodersen notes in a preface that he was refused access to documents by the writer's estate, the most valuable dimension of his book may be 187 reproductions of documents and pictures (captions alone seen by PW) that illuminate Benjamin's career and flesh out the inadequate text. While the biography furnishes some clues about the rivalries in perceptions and personalities within the German intelligentsia between the wars, extracting them is hard going. (Nov.)
Reviewed on: 12/02/1996 Release date: 12/01/1996 Genre: Fiction
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