Some years ago I read a book called Spazieren in Berlin (“Walking in Berlin”), by Franz Hessel, originally published in 1929. Beautifully written, it was full of telling observation and rounded out with amazingly broad yet lightly applied knowledge of the city. As accounts of Weimar Berlin by Joseph Roth and Robert Walser reached English-language readers, as the figure of the flaneur – so aptly represented by Hessel himself and so extensively analysed by his friend Walter Benjamin – returned to intellectual favour, Hessel’s continued absence from English-language bookshelves was baffling. Spazieren in Berlin soon climbed to somewhere around the giddy peak of a tall, teetering stack of titles labelled “German books James can’t believe have never been translated”.
So the arrival (in Britain and Australia, at least) of Amanda DeMarco’s translation – which I flagged back in January – is extremely gratifying. Even better, said translation is superb, so perfectly capturing the genial flow of Hessel’s prose as it stalks the streets of interwar Berlin that you feel like you’re striding right alongside the author. And it’s already getting great reviews.
I plan to take another look at Walking in Berlin before the US publication date in March, but meanwhile if you’re looking for a gift for that Berlinophile of your acquaintance, that Weimar roué manqué, that decadent denizen of the night’s dark havens, that ambulant urban explorer, anyone, really, interested in brilliant writing about a time and place of deathless fascination – here it is.
Before I leave, please indulge your host in a brief and unaccustomed moment of advocacy, which – remembering that Hessel died in exile having fled his beloved Berlin shortly before Kristallnacht – is not actually all that unrelated.
We are nearing the end of what many of us would agree has hardly been a banner year for our species. Many of us, also, have the horrible sense of being swept along by dark forces beyond our control. But whatever you or I might imagine to constitute a bad 2016 can only ever be relative. For those forced to flee their homes in terror, it has been a journey from hell to, at best, a lesser hell. Please consider giving to this incredibly important appeal that is helping child refugees as the winter closes in – it is difficult to think of a more heartbreaking scenario, and a more urgent cause. Thank you!