Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life is not only the first full-length English-language biography, but far the most comprehensive survey of its subject in any language, superseding all predecessors. Its authors have devoted much of their careers to Benjamin. Jennings, the general editor of the four-volume Harvard selection of Benjamin’s writings, specializes in Weimar culture, particularly the avant-garde, at Princeton; Eiland, who teaches literature at mit, is co-editor of three of the volumes, and currently working on a book about Benjamin’s Jewishness. The strategy of the authoritative biography at which they aim takes the form of a combination of detailed narrative of Benjamin’s personal life with intellectual exposition of his major writings. Interpretation of Benjamin’s work has been famously controversial since Theodor and Gretel Adorno co-edited the first two-volume German collection of his writings in 1955, followed by Adorno and Scholem’s selection of a single volume of his letters in 1966—each anthology coming under attack from the student movement for misrepresenting, in different ways, Benjamin’s thought—and Hannah Arendt’s first English-language selection, Illuminations, in 1968, presenting a view of Benjamin at variance with that of both Adorno and Scholem. Sharp disagreements over his legacy have persisted to the present.

In their introduction, Eiland and Jennings set out the governing principle of their enterprise: ‘Previous studies of this writer, whether biographical or critical, have tended to proceed in a relatively selective manner, imposing a thematic order that usually eliminates whole regions of his work. The result has all too often been a partial, or worse, mythologized and distorted portrait. This biography aims for a more comprehensive treatment by proceeding in a rigorously chronological manner, focusing on the everyday reality out of which Benjamin’s writings emerged, and providing an intellectual-historical context for his major works.’ The result will therefore not be partisan: here the many conflicting aspects of Benjamin’s personality—the ‘fire-breathing Communist’, ‘Frankfurt School neo-Hegelian’, ‘messianic Jewish mystic’, ‘cosmopolitan assimilated Jew’ and ‘literary deconstructionist avant la lettre’—can hopefully coexist. The motto of their study is taken from one of Benjamin’s own descriptions of his thought. It formed, he said, a ‘contradictory and mobile whole’—a phrasing that becomes the leitmotif of their interpretation of his corpus: ‘Coming generations of readers will undoubtedly find their own Benjamins in the encounter with the “mobile and contradictory whole” that is his lifework.’

With this credo in place, the biography is open to assessment, corresponding to its structure, in two registers. Firstly, what does it tell us about Benjamin’s life that is not by now already well known: his early involvement in the romantic Schwärmerei of the Youth Movement of pre-First World War Germany; his early marriage, friendship with Scholem, and refuge from the draft in Switzerland; the rejection of his doctorate on the Trauerspiel; encounter with Asja Lacis in Capri, turn to Marxism, trip to Moscow; belles-lettres, journalism, divorce; relations with Adorno and Brecht; poverty and exile in Paris; Arcades Project; flight across Pyrenees, suicide—a via crucis rehearsed many times? Secondly, what fresh light does it cast on the trajectory of Benjamin’s thinking, and its complexities? These are not exhaustive of the questions posed by this biography. But they are obviously the most immediate ones.

On the first score, the sheer empirical density of the reconstruction by Eiland and Jennings of Benjamin’s career is such that we learn a great deal from it. If few of their findings are entirely new, the picture that emerges from them should lay to rest a still popular image of Benjamin as a ‘marginal, disregarded genius whose radical insights only posterity has been able to appreciate’, impractical and poverty-stricken, unlucky in love and letters, a ‘wanderer who buried himself in books’, an ‘outsider for all times’. In reality, after his early failure to secure a habilitation for his work on the Trauerspiel—scarcely surprising, given its difficulty—Benjamin was a far from inconspicuous figure in late Weimar culture, never short of admirers and not often of commissions: a prolific contributor to a wide range of publications, whose One-Way Street had enthusiastic reviews, and even whose Trauerspiel—once it appeared as a book—was discussed at length in scholarly journals, not to mention one of the leading literary periodicals of the time. Nor was he in any sense socially or intellectually isolated. In fact, across the pages of Eiland and Jennings, little is more striking than the number of notabilities of one kind or another who were friends, contacts, acquaintances or well-wishers. In his years in Germany, they included Scholem, Bloch, Kracauer, Hofmannsthal, Auerbach, Adorno, Horkheimer, Anders, Arendt, Brecht, Korsch, Döblin, Moholy-Nagy, Curtius and Leo Strauss, not to speak of the companions of his youth. An exile in France, in much more difficult circumstances, he consorted or was on terms with Bataille, Klossowski, Monnier, Aron, Wahl, Gide, Paulhan, Malraux, Kojève, Leiris and Caillois. There too, his writing was not simply ignored, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction—translation corrected by Aron—attracting the attention of Malraux, among others.

Materially, too, Benjamin came from a wealthier background than Adorno and was not short of means for most of his life, travelling, collecting and gambling in some style till the end of the twenties. What precipitated him into ultimate penury was his mistreatment of his wife Dora, whom he exploited financially and then divorced in such ugly fashion that the court awarded her his inheritance as a lump sum in compensation. The particulars of this hinge in his life were first brought to light with the publication in 1991 by Hans Puttnies and Gary Smith of Dora’s two anguished, outraged letters to Scholem about her husband’s conduct, together with the court’s verdict, in their Benjaminiana. Dora, whose nobility of character shines across the story of his later years, never ceased to admire Benjamin as a writer and thinker, not only soon forgiving him, but continuing to help him wherever she could. Eiland and Jennings do not follow Scholem or Puttnies and Smith in blaming Asja Lacis for allegedly manipulating Benjamin into the divorce to gain German citizenship by marrying him. They handle the sexual side of Benjamin’s life with sensitivity and discretion, recounting his relations with women without notably speculating about them. Of Lacis herself, or his love for her, they say rather little. Their principal revelation is the likelihood of a passage with Gretel Karplus during her intimacy with Adorno, prior to their marriage. Confining themselves to the observation that the pattern of Benjamin’s erotic involvements was typically triangular, they offer no psychological—or even physical—portrait of him comparable to the remarkable description in the memoirs of a lesbian friend and later sexologist, Charlotte Wolff. The tenor of their biography precludes this. Calm, meticulous and judicious, it rarely dips below the surface. In so far as the effect of such abstention is demystifying, it can be accounted a merit. But it is also a limitation, as a comparison of Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life with Stephen Parker’s virtually simultaneous Bertolt Brecht: A Literary Life brings home. Parker’s work is much more powerful as a psychological study, not simply because it contains a greater amount of startling new material about its subject, but because of a greater ambition: Brecht emerges transformed from his biography in ways that Benjamin does not.

The connexion between the two men has always posed the most contentious issue in studies of Benjamin: the nature of his politics. The two dominant interpretations of his thought, advanced respectively by Scholem and Adorno, are coloured by a common dislike of Brecht and hostility to Communism, imbued in Scholem’s case by his Zionism and in Adorno’s by the Cold War atmospherics of the Federal Republic after 1945. Eiland and Jennings share the bias of neither, though Benjamin’s canonical interlocutors don’t stand on quite the same footing in this account of his life. Tacitly, their sympathy with Scholem is greater, on occasion leading them astray. In the longstanding debate about what Benjamin’s political commitments were prior to his conversion to Marxism in 1924, they argue that the young Benjamin’s thought cannot be easily appropriated by either right or left: ‘So while Benjamin could read approvingly Bakunin and Rosa Luxemburg—he was “deeply moved by [the] unbelievable beauty and significance” of Luxemburg’s letters from prison—he could also establish a deep intellectual relationship with the conservative Florens Christian Rang and subscribe intermittently to the royalist, reactionary, and anti-Semitic newspaper Action Française.’ This, they suggest, is a prime example of the contradictory and mobile whole that is Benjamin’s thought.

It is, however, significant that they give the last word here to Scholem, who in his Story of a Friendship maintained that around this time the two shared the same political outlook, which he labels ‘theocratic anarchism’—an individualistic, anti-socialist Weltanschauung. This is somewhat misleading. The young Benjamin’s convictions are certainly moot; but it is clear that the anti-statist, insurrectionary strain in them—expressed in texts like the Critique of Violence—was alien to Scholem’s Zionist nationalism. Later, in the penultimate chapter of Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life, they remark that ‘Scholem remained, despite their difficulties, the most trustworthy reader of Benjamin’s work’. This judgement is far off the mark. Scholem may have been Benjamin’s most trustworthy friend. But he was certainly not his most trustworthy reader. In fact, as he told Benjamin, he could scarcely bring himself to read through the Marxist texts he was sent from Paris in the thirties. Famous for maintaining that there was a deeply unproductive tension at the heart of Benjamin’s thought between his theological and materialist convictions, he projected—as the Israeli scholar Barukh Kurzweil would point out—his own idiosyncratic version of Zionist ideology into this notion, by way of analogy with the relationship between the Kabbalah and rabbinical Judaism.