The story is by now so well known that it barely needs to be retold. The setting is the Franco-Spanish border, the time 1940. Walter Benjamin, fleeing occupied France, presents himself to the wife of a certain Fittko he has met in an internment camp. He understands, he says, that Frau Fittko will be able to guide him and his companions across the Pyrenees to neutral Spain. Frau Fittko takes him along on a trip to scout out the best routes; he brings along a heavy briefcase. Is the briefcase really necessary, she asks? It contains a manuscript, he replies. “I cannot risk losing it. It…must be saved. It is more important than I am.”
The next day they cross the mountains, Benjamin pausing every few minutes because of a weak heart. At the border they are halted. Their papers are not in order, say the Spanish police; they must return to France. In despair, Benjamin takes an overdose of morphine. The police make an inventory of the deceased’s belongings. The inventory shows no record of a manuscript.
What was in the briefcase, and where it disappeared to, we can only guess. Benjamin’s friend Gershom Scholem suggested that it was the last revi-sion of the unfinished Passagen-Werk, known in English as the Arcades Project. (“To great writers,” wrote Benjamin, “finished works weigh lighter than those fragments on which they work throughout their lives.”) By his heroic if futile effort to save his manuscript from the fires of fascism and bear it to what he thinks of as the safety of Spain and, further on, the United States, Benjamin becomes an icon of the scholar for our times.
The story has a happy twist. A copy of the Arcades manuscript left behind in Paris had been secreted in the Bibliothèque Nationale by Benjamin’s friend Georges Bataille. Recovered after the war, it was published in 1982 in its original form, that is to say, in German with huge swathes of French. And now we have Benjamin’s magnum opus in full English translation, by Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin, and are at last in a position to ask the question: Why all the interest in a treatise on shopping in nineteenth-century France?
Benjamin was born in 1892, in Berlin, into an assimilated Jewish family. His father was a successful art auctioneer who branched out into property investments; the Benjamins were, by most standards, well-to-do. After a sickly, sheltered childhood, Benjamin was sent at the age of twelve to a progressive boarding school in the countryside, where he fell under the influence of one of the directors, Gustav Wyneken. For years after leaving school he was active in Wyneken’s anti-authoritarian, back-to-nature youth movement; he broke with it only when Wyneken came out in support of the First World War.
In 1912 Benjamin enrolled as a student in philology at Freiburg University. Finding the intellectual environment not to his taste, he threw himself into activism for educational reform. When …