Franz Hessel - These two high-spirited essays present a pedestrian's-eye-view of 1920s Berlin, a city that is simultaneously down-on-its-luck and booming

Franz Hessel, In Berlin: Day and Night in 1929, Trans. by Amanda DeMarco, Readux Books, 2013.

These two high-spirited essays present a pedestrian's-eye-view of 1920s Berlin, a city that is simultaneously down-on-its-luck and booming. Francophile writer and translator Franz Hessel brought the role of the flâneur to the streets of Berlin, capturing the rhythm of city life in his perceptive writings, and recording evidence of the seismic shifts shaking German culture. Hessel presents glimpses into the exploits of his bohemian friends, as well as encounters with working people struggling to adjust to the new times. Gently ironic, yet with much affection for his subjects, Hessel's sterling prose is at once classic and fresh. Praised by Walter Benjamin, In Berlin is a dazzlingly complex tapestry of life in the vibrant, turbulent capital of the Weimar Republic.

Franz Hessel’s 1913 novel Der Kramladen des Glücks, whose title might be translated as “The General Store of Happiness” or “The Curiosity Shop of Happiness,” is a gorgeous, light-flooded book. It tells in compellingly nostalgic tones of a childhood in Berlin and an adult’s attempts to recapture the magic of that city as once viewed through the lens of childhood. Hessel is best known as the author of flâneur stories that won him the admiration and later friendship of Walter Benjamin, with whom he collaborated on a translation of Proust, and his novel may have been an inspiration for Benjamin’s own memoir-in-essays A Berlin Childhood. Hessel’s early adult life inspired the novel by Henri-Pierre Roché Jules et Jim, which was later filmed by François Truffaut, but the later life of this Jewish author was far less sunny: after fleeing Nazi Germany he was interned in the Les Milles concentration camp outside Aix-en-Provence and died shortly after his release from illnesses sustained during his internment there. -

And yet another translation from the German, this one originally penned by Franz Hessel who was interesting for more reasons than I can list here. Just quickly, then: he was part of the bohemian tumult of early 20th century Munich, with no less than Fanny zu Reventlow as a roomie (they remembered the experience in tit-for-tat romans à clef), he was a good friend of Walter Benjamin, and in Paris he embarked on a three-way entanglement with a Frenchman and a woman destined to be his wife, an arrangement which endured even after the two men found themselves on opposing sides in the First World War. And if that sounds like the plot to Jules et Jim, that’s because it is, that roman à clef’s author being said Frenchman, Henri-Pierre Roché. A wry, sensitive, occasionally mournful novelist, Hessel was also a wry, sensitive, occasionally mournful observer of his surroundings, producing the definitive flaneur’s account of Weimar Berlin, Spazieren in Berlin (although when it came to the theory of flanerie he left the heavy lifting to Benjamin). Now, an indecent time since its publication in 1929, it is finally to be made available in English as Walking in Berlin, translated by Amanda DeMarco, who also publishes brilliant, small titles under the name Readux Books, whose every instalment will bountifully reward your modest outlay of time and money. -

Franz Hessel was born in 1880 to a Jewish banking family and grew up in Berlin. After studying in Munich, he lived in Paris from 1906 to 1914, moving in artistic circles in both cities. His relationship with the fashion journalist Helen Grund was the inspiration for Henri-Pierre Roche s novel Jules et Jim (later filmed by François Truffaut). Their son Stéphane went on to become a diplomat and author of the world-wide bestselling Time for Outrage! In the 1920s and 1930s, Hessel worked as an editor at Rowohlt Verlag in Berlin. Simultaneously, he wrote novels and essays, which were widely praised for their poetic style. He also translated two volumes of Proust s À la recherche du temps perdu into German together with Walter Benjamin, as well as works by Casanova, Stendhal, and Balzac. In 1938, he fled with his family to Paris, then to Sanary-sur-Mer. In 1940, he and his son Ulrich were sent to the internment camp Les Milles. Franz Hessel died in early 1941, shortly after his release from the camp.


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