A Review of Berlin Childhood around 1900 by Walter Benjamin. Trans. Howard Eiland. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006. 192p.
The current edition of Berlin Childhood around 1900 marks the first English version in book form of Walter Benjamin’s (1892-1940) poignant autobiographical vignettes. Originally penned in 1932, this edition, translated by Howard Eiland with a foreword by Peter Szondi, reflects Benjamin’s 1938 revisions, the so-called “final version,” which remained undiscovered until 1982. Though the author added an introductory section to this version, he also made a significant number of abridgements, cutting nine sections. The current edition restores these nine deleted sections at the end, as well as additional passages removed from the earlier version.
In 1932, Walter Benjamin – an upper-class German Jew born in Berlin – fled the emerging Nazi state and relocated temporarily to the Spanish island of Ibiza. Berlin Childhood, written in that same year, serves both as the author’s “long, perhaps lasting farewell” to Berlin, as well as an attempt to “inoculate” himself against the pain of separation (37). In evoking these “images of childhood,” Benjamin aims to harden himself against the pangs of nostalgia by bearing in mind the “irretrievability...of the past” (37). Unique to the writer’s style is a focus on the images of the past – snapshot views of favorite destinations and specific experiences in which people rarely figure. When Benjamin does reference the people in his past, he often does so obliquely or in passing, never fully developing their characters. In the vignette entitled “Tiergarten,” for example, the author mentions specific people only insofar as they are related to the grand park. For instance, when describing his visit there with Franz Hessel, referred to simply as a “Berlin peasant” (we can only discern his identity from the endnote), the author writes only of the path he cuts through the garden and of the echo of his steps. It would seem that the images themselves, more so than the people that figure in them, merit continued reflection. It is thus possible to read Benjamin’s childhood ritual at the Imperial Panorama, or the Kaiserpanorama – “a dome-like apparatus presenting stereoscopic views [that changed every so often] to customers seated around it” – as a metaphor for his aesthetic goals in this text (170). Benjamin explains his numerous visits to the Imperial Panorama: “I formed the conviction that it was impossible to exhaust the splendors of the scene at just one sitting. Hence my intention (which I never realized) of coming by again the following day” (43). The author’s recording of his childhood memories allows for continual revisiting and contemplation.
Benjamin’s depictions of his childhood images alternate between cheery and melancholic. This range of tone is well-illustrated in his piece “Loggia.” The author begins by likening one of these courtyards to his cradle, imagining that the caryatids that support the loggia lulled him to sleep with their song. The conclusion, on the other hand, in which Benjamin compares the loggia to a mausoleum that houses his exiled self, ruptures this otherwise peaceful musing. As evidenced by this example, Benjamin’s consciousness of the omnipresence of death haunts Berlin Childhood. The author makes odd, morbid connections, relating someone on the other end of a telephone line to a “voice...from beyond the grave,” and a teacher’s corrections in his workbooks to inscriptions on tombstones (50, 150). Perhaps responsible, in part, for the specter of death that haunts his work, is that he was frequently besieged by illness as a child. Benjamin considered the twice-daily temperature readings performed by his mother as a measure of “the distance that...separated me from...death” (74). Interestingly, in one of the few allusions to Benjamin’s Jewish roots (he deals very little with his religious background), the author notes that he took strength from the stories of the tenacity of his ancestors told to him by his mother. Benjamin notes that these stories, “conjured up before me as though to make me understand that it was premature for me to give away, by an early death, the splendid trump cards which I held in my hand, thanks to my origins” (74).
Readers of Berlin Childhood will delight in Benjamin’s precise prose, rich in simile and metaphor. Alliteration is often at play: “That there was something special about this maze I could always deduce from the broad and banal esplanade, which gave no hint of the fact that here, just a few steps from the corso of cabs and carriages, sleeps the strangest part of the park” (54).] A Proust devotee and translator, Benjamin will appeal to enthusiasts of the French master. Intensely modern in its treatment of the city, in its unique approach to autobiography, Berlin Childhood, known only to Benjamin admirers for too long and available only recently in English, belongs in the cannon of classic 20th-century texts.