Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life

Recently I finished reading this wonderful biography of Walter Benjamin.  I was inspired to contribute a review to the Amazon website.  Here it is:

I have long been fascinated by the life story and the writings of Walter Benjamin. Benjamin's life and works have taken on mythical powers over the past decades. This book combines a painstakingly detailed account of his life with deep critical analyses of his works, richly contextualized within the framework of his life story. It is a stunning work of scholarship, which reconstructs his life through his own letters and other documents as well as those of his friends and others in the circles in which he traveled.

The book traces the odyssey of Walter Benjamin, including all of the places he lived in or visited, his relations with other writers and artists, his love affairs, his broken marriage, and his long phase of exile in Paris, leading to his final moment in Port Bou, where he took his own life in 1940. Of particular interest to me was his relationship with Bertolt Brecht and the long periods they spent together.

Benjamin comes across as an intellectual vagabond, constantly seeking but never finding a permanent home in this world. He stubbornly maintains his integrity, refusing to take on any work outside of his calling as an intellectual and a writer, even though he is snubbed repeatedly by academia. His desperate efforts to sustain his own lifestyle, particularly in his later years, make him resemble his own figure of the "ragpicker"--hunting for scraps to support himself, and left to the largesse of his friends and associates, particularly those who recognized his genius.

As the progression towards WWII picks up, the story becomes a Gravity's Rainbowesque tale full of picaresque characters who hinder or aid Benjamin in his quest to survive long enough to publish his greatest works. This book thus reads as much like a novel as a biography. No stone is left unturned--the authors even recreate the interior decor of the apartments he inhabited, including the artworks that he lovingly fixed to their walls. Among them is the famous Angel of Paul Klee, which he carried around almost to the end of his life, and which becomes the allegorical figure in one of his most chilling passages on history--the angel who is blown forward in time by the winds, but always looking back to the wreckage of history as it accumulates before him. This metaphor well describes Benjamin's own precarious existence as he hurtles towards his demise, pursued by Hitler's Furies.

Paul Klee's Angelus Novus, which Benjamin hung on his walls for many years.  Found this image on this website which has passages from Benjamin's "On the Concept of History"