Walter Benjamin, critic, essayist, translator, philosopher - one of the twentieth century’s most influential intellectuals - continues to intrigue today. His work stimulates a profusion of responses in the form of new novels, operas, films and artworks, as well as a never-abating production of academic texts. In this new biography, the first to be written in over a decade, author Esther Leslie uses the recently published entirety of Benjamin's correspondence, drawing on his numerous diaries and autobiographical works, in order to provide a careful account of his circumstances and thoughts.
Benjamin had many interests: he cherished childhood and its trappings; had a passion for the displacement and novelty of travel; toys; cities; trick-books; and ships; all are given due attention as the author weaves Benjamin's wayward apperceptions into the narrative of a life lived. She follows Benjamin as he travels from Berlin to Capri, Ibiza, Riga, Moscow, Paris, and finally the Spanish border where he died in 1940. The author acknowledges Benjamin’s thesis that personal histories can be traced only in the context of social milieus, economic forces, technological shifts, and historical events, and seamlessly interweaves biographical details with an accessible yet concentrated account of Benjamin's intellectual development, drawing a colourful portrait of a capacious intellect trapped in increasingly hostile circumstances.
Leslie’s meticulous attention to Benjamin’s political, intellectual, geographical and cultural journeying challenges the populist depiction of the intellectual as a tragic and lonely figure. Walter Benjamin restores its subject to his proper place as an artistic combatant and a man desirous of and relishing experience.
‘. . . a brilliant digest of Benjamin's life . . . It draws on a mass of texts, including his accounts of a privileged Berlin upbringing and travel diaries. [Leslie] presents a definitive portrait of Benjamin the materialist, lingers on his obsession with children’s books, and makes excellent use of German sources to detail his movements and finances.’ – The Independent
‘Leslie has inhaled the author of The Arcades Project as Kazin inhaled Blake. Benjamin, in fact, seems more coherent in her page than in his own . . . It is as if, by evoking the tactile vitality of all that he touched with his thought, Leslie brings him back alive and kicking from the last border he crossed. Argue if you wish with his idea of “aura,” his “hierarchies of meaning” or whether mechanical reproduction is good for the masses. But the mind that put Kafka and Chaplin into the same conceptual frame is his very own Klee painting, an Angelus Novus - the angel of history.’ – John Leonard, Harper's Magazine
Esther Leslie is Professor of Political Aesthetics in the School of English and Humanities at Birkbeck, University of London. She is the author of Walter Benjamin: Overpowering Conformism (2000), Hollywood Flatlands: Animation, Critical Theory and the Avant Garde (2002), and Synthetic Worlds: Nature, Art and the Chemical Industry (Reaktion Books, 2005).