Thursday, November 29, 2018

Walter Benjamin in New York with Antonio Muñoz Molina - Insofar as the past has been transmitted as tradition, it possesses authority

Antonio Muñoz Molina, the Spanish novelist, has an 85-page chunk of memoir in the latest Hudson Review (Autumn 2018).  He is writing about a walk, or maybe blending a number of walks, from the southern tip of Manhattan Island all the way to the Bronx, where he is “now,” meaning next to my bookmark (I haven’t finished the piece).  The piece, the walk, is in part inspired by Walter Benjamin, a classic flaneur, who is mentioned occasionally and at one point even encountered on the sidewalk, in Muñoz Molina’s imagination.

Muñoz Molina, up near Columbia University, has been noticing the honorary street names.  Duke Ellington, Isaac Bashevis Singer, and so on.  He imagines Federico García Lorca walking the same streets in 1929.  He remembers that Hannah Arendt lived nearby, and realizes that this is, more or less, where Benjamin would have lived if he had made it out of Spain.

Toward the end, his will and his imagination were focused on New York.  He had started learning English.  He was fond of American films and read Faulkner, Light in August, but found it so hard that he helped himself along with a French translation.  (410)

He read Poe’s “The Man in the Crowd,” which I find it hard to believe such a devotee of Baudelaire had not read, The Turn of the Screw, lots of Melville, The Postman Always Rings Twice.  This was to prepare for living in America, in New York.  He falls in love with Katharine Hepburn.  I am just taking Muñoz Molina’s word for all of this.

But it is true that if he had reached New York, he would have found a city as suited for his signature method – walking, looking, thinking – as Paris or Berlin, enjoying or at least absorbing

the noise, the rush, the general air of commercial vulgarity, the people speaking German or Yiddish or English with a German accent, the Jewish smells and flavors of the delis, the joy and guilt of having fled the apocalypse in Europe. (411)

It is hard to imagine Benjamin ending up in Los Angeles like Schoenberg and Mann, easy to imagine him finding some kind of tenuous university appointment like Nabokov.

So we are missing not only a New York Arcades Project, but full-length essays on Faulkner, Melville’s Pierre, the New York City Poe, and who knows what else.

I have been wondering, reading Illuminations, why this particular configuration of Benjamin has been so powerful.  There is a four-volume Selected Writings in English now, for example, so a different collection would be feasible.  But

Insofar as the past has been transmitted as tradition, it possesses authority; insofar as authority presents itself historically, it becomes tradition.  (Arendt, Introduction, p. 43)

And Illuminations has it from both ends now, authority and tradition.  Plus, poking around in the first two volumes of Selected Writings, I now realize that as far as complete, literary essays, Illuminations has almost everything Benjamin published.  But there are more book reviews, more excerpts from letters and fragments of notebooks.  Some other anthology could work.  I don’t know.  For a critic of this stature, there is just not that much.  What exists is extraordinary and makes me deeply regret that imaginary Faulkner essay.

The Muñoz Molina is titled “Mr. Nobody” and is a chunk of the untranslated Un andar solitario entre la gente (2018).


  1. Great stuff. You reminded me, mentioning Arendt, that I'd read a review the other day of Uwe Johnson's Anniversaries - which I've yet to start reading - which mentioned that he'd lived in Riverside Drive, on the Upper West Side in 1966-68, and that Arendt was another resident there, and also, at other times, Saul Bellow, Damon Runyon, the Gershwins, and many more famous names. The Goethe Institut has a rather nice virtual dérive of key places named in Anniversaries here:
    while Harvard UP blog has a series of posts following Benjamin through his Berlin Childhood around 1900 (a fascinating account, btw):
    That Muñoz Molina essay sounds fascinating.

  2. I assume the entire memoir is on its way. Guillermo Bleichmar is the translator.

    Yes, Uwe Johnson on the UWS, a block from Arendt. Ralph Ellison living a coupel of blocks in the other direction. Etc., etc. What a concentration.

    I hope to read the giant Johnson book someday. One more great Faulknerian.