Über Dichter, Proletarier und Apachen
Walter Benjamin über die Sozialliteratur
It is somewhat surprising that Walter Benjamin, who has been very much involved with French literature, has shown so little interest in the most prestigious social novelists and in the great social romance cycles. Unlike Lukács, Benjamin evaluates the form of the novel negatively: the novel is not, or no longer, the modern epic. The contemporary novelist differs from the epic narrator in that he has lost the collective dimension. Instead of complaining about this loss, Benjamin accepts it and looks critically for authors and works that experiment new narrative means and at the same time explore new social worlds. But most novels to which Benjamin attributes experimental, or even avant-garde, value have met this challenge the least. They betray their breakthrough either by a purely private social criticism (Julien Green), by a kind of “infantile disease” of commitment (Malraux), or by a mere “cry of indignation” (Céline), which at least has the merit of reintroducing the voice of the Lumpenproletariat into the realm of the novel without mobilizing the “mimicry” of belonging to the proletariat. This essay is part of a larger project on Benjamin and the French intelligentsia of the interwar period.