Although Charles Baudelaire may not have invented the term flâneur, he certainly popularized the concept in his 1863 essay “The Painter of Modern Life”. Baudelaire’s flâneur, is a ‘passionate spectator’ of city life, a wanderer who strolls without purpose, is at home in the crowd yet remains detached from it, and who loves to observe the life around him without becoming a part of it. In German literature, the concept of the flâneur, is most closely allied with Walter Benjamin’s unfinished Passagenwerk (Arcades Project explored urban life in Paris. However, another German writer was hugely influential on Benjamin: Franz Hessel, whose Walking in Berlin: A Flaneur in the Capital was originally published in 1929.)
A popular success when first published, Walking in Berlin was forgotten in the tumult of World War II. It was rediscovered in the ’80s after it was revealed that Hessel was the model for Jules in Henri-Pierre Roché’s novel Jules et Jim (Jules and Jim), while Roché’ and his wife Helen Gund were the other two-thirds of the love triangle featured in the novel and subsequent film. Walking in Berlin is now available for the first time in English, published by MIT Press in a fine translation by Amanda DeMarco.
Walking in Berlin consists of a series of essays of varying length (from 4 to 82 pages) describing various parts of Berlin and Hesse’s experiences there. Some of the essays focus on specific locations — Kreuzberg, Tempelhof, Friedrichstadt, and Hasenheide among them — while others are more general ruminations on life in Berlin, and on flâneurie itself. The somewhat random nature of some of the essays is entirely appropriate to the flâneur’s approach to life, and Hessel clearly did not intend to write a conventional guidebook or a comprehensive survey of Berlin. Instead, he provided his very personal view of that city.
Hessel sets the tone for the entire book in the first essay, which begins: “Walking slowly down bustling streets is a particular pleasure. Awash in the haste of others, it’s a dip in the surf. But my dear fellow citizens of Berlin don’t make it easy, no matter how nimbly you weave out of their way. I attract wary glances whenever I try to play the flaneur among the industrious; I believe they take me for a pickpocket.” Elsewhere he notes that some people, caught up in their daily routine and uncomprehending of anyone less conventional than themselves, mistake him for a government inspector.
Hessel isn’t a strict flâneur in the sense of a purposeless stroller. For one thing, he’s quite willing to join friends on their errands. For another, he often has a companion when he partakes of the city’s night life. In this book’s longest essay, titled simply “The Tour”, Hessel takes a sightseeing tour with a pack of tourists and provides witty commentary on the guide and his fellow passengers as on the sights he is being shown.
Although viewing the world as a man of leisure, Hessel doesn’t turn his nose up at the more commercial aspects of life, noting that “As the market of Baghdad has its bazaars, so Berlin has districts for its various enterprises.” He then goes on to detail some of them: “Besides the large carpentry and metalworking districts, cottage industries, wool wares and ready-to-wear areas, there are other specialties: for example a street where lighting fixtures have been manufactured for many decades” while others specialize in even more varied goods, including “rocking horses, doll tea cozies, combs, Jesus figurines, tin soldiers, and rubber horsemen…”. Lest this essay become too much of a conventional catalogue of merchandise and the locations where they may be purchased, he spices things up with more personalized commentary, noting as he passes shop windows that “It’s interesting the sorts of faces the wax-headed mannequins make! They challenge you with pursed lips, they squint, and their gaze drips out like poison.”
Some of the most interesting commentary, particularly if you’re a fan of Weimar Republic popular culture, come from Hessel’s observations of Berlin’s entertainment options. There are the “Grand Cafés”, coffee houses seating a thousand or more, with varied entertainment offered on different floors. There are the Karneval celebrations, which can go on for weeks. And there are the establishments catering to same-sex couples as well, where “Sometimes the girls are dressed, in a more or less pleasant manner, as men, and the lads as ladies.”
Berlin has changed a lot since Hessel penned these lines in 1929, and Walking in Berlin provides a useful, if somewhat eccentric, record of aspects of the city that are now long gone. DeMarco provides useful contextual information in footnotes that provide historical context (for instance, Scheunenviertel was home to a large population of Jews from Eastern Europe at the time Hessel was writing) as well as cultural tidbits (if you didn’t know the difference between a canopy bed à la duchess and a canopy bed à tombeau, before reading this book, you will by the time you complete it). DeMarco also includes an introduction that provides some background on Hessel, while Walter Benjamin’s essay, “The Flaneur’s Return”, originally published as a review of Walking in Berlin, offers a contemporary take Hessel and this book.
Walking in Berlin is a genial and generous book that celebrates urban life and contains no foreshadowing of what was in store for Berlin’s Jewish community. Sadly, Hessel, who was born Jewish, became a victim of forces beyond his control. He fled to France in 1938 and died there in 1941, shortly after his release from an internment camp.