I adore books about flaneurs; I find them absolutely fascinating. Thus, I was thrilled to come across Franz Hessel’s Walking in Berlin: A Flaneur in the Capital whilst browsing in a bookshop, and purchased a copy immediately. First published in Germany in 1929, it was not until 2016 that Walking in Berlin was translated into English by Amanda DeMarco. Hessel grew up in Berlin, and DeMarco is currently based there, which I feel is a nice and considered touch.
The book promises ‘a walk around 1920s Berlin with one of its greatest luminaries’. Since its original publication, Hessel’s ‘timeless guide’ has been highly praised. In her introduction, DeMarco notes that the book was ‘a critical success upon its publication… [but was] largely forgotten after the Second World War.’ Walter Benjamin, a great friend of Hessel’s, declares it ‘an absolutely epic book, a walking remembrance’. The Independent writes that it ‘captures a portrait of a city on the brink of irrevocable change’. The Observer calls it a ‘love letter to the city’, and the Times Literary Supplement states that it is ‘not only an important record of old Berlin; it is a testimony to its enduring spirit.’
Hessel takes his readers on a walk around much of Weimar-era Berlin, splitting his observations into essays relating to particular districts. He takes in ‘some of the most fascinating sights the city has to offer, many of which still exist in some form today’. Many of these sights are seen on foot, as Hessel wove through one street after another, but the odd one was conducted whilst in a car, or on a day-long tour with a lot of Americans. DeMarco writes that ‘Hessel’s knowledge of city history was extensive, gleaned from an art-history education and an avid personal interest in the cultural sediment that had accumulated around him. It is evident in these pages that history was alive and present for him, visible in the architecture. All it took was a glimpse of a statue or bridge or gate to send Hessel conjuring up the figures and era that produced it.’ Despite his knowledge of the city, Hessel wished to present his findings here as though he was coming to Berlin for the first time.
Of course, Berlin, like many other cities, was going through a period of rapid modernisation during the 1920s. Thus, the city which he describes notes the changes which are occurring, as well as the way things used to be when Hessel was a child. Of this, DeMarco writes: ‘… the breathless pace of his descriptions reveals the new heartbeat of a populace that was cathartically shaking off the trauma of the First World War, while frantically grasping for economic stability.’ Of his city, Hessel tells us of Berlin’s ongoing metamorphosis: ‘I’ll have to educate myself in local history, take an interest in both the past and future of this city, a city that’s always on the go, always in the middle of becoming something else.’
The first essay, ‘The Suspect’, begins with Hussel observing people at work, and young girls at play. From his position as a flaneur, he writes of the suspicion which the observed sometimes felt toward him: ‘I attract wary glances whenever I try to play the flaneur among the industrious; I believe they take me for a pickpocket.’ Throughout, Hessel’s voice is chatty, and almost playful. As he continues his journey, he comes across many different people – stocking menders, architects, factory workers, shopkeepers, the rich and the poor, upperclass partygoers, and tour guides, to name but a few. As Hessel makes his way around, he discusses art, literature, culture, and fashion, as well as streets already lost to the annals of time in the 1920s.
Throughout, Hessel’s writing is layered and sumptuous. In the extended essay entitled ‘A Tour’, he joins a sightseeing buggy, intending to try and see Berlin through the eyes of a traveller. During his experience, he weaves his own childhood memories of the city in with what he observes: ‘Now we’re gliding past the long facade of the library, its sunny side. Silks, leathers and metals entice from the marquees of elegant shops. The lace curtains at Restaurant Hiller awaken distant memories of happy hours, the nearly forgotten fragrance of lobster and Chablis, the old porter who led you so discreetly to the cabinets particuliers. I tear myself away – I’m a foreigner here, after all – only to be caught up again. Travel agencies, mesmerising displays of world maps and globes, the magic of the little green books with red notes, seductive names of distant cities. Ah, these blessed departures from Berlin! How callously one leaves our beloved city.’
I love Berlin; when I visited some years ago, I found it a vibrant and hip city, filled with so much history. Hessel’s book has made me want to book plane tickets to explore the city once more, with his notes in hand this time around. Pick up Walking in Berlin, and expect that it will inspire a great wanderlust in you. Hessel describes it, quite rightly, as a city filled with treasures. It was a sheer pleasure to be transported to a Berlin which I half-recognised, and seeing it through the eyes of another brought a delightful freshness.
Walking in Berlin is a lovely and often quite touching rumination on the many things which are needed to make a city, and has wonderful asides which discuss the experience of being a flaneur: ‘The flaneur reads the street, and human faces, displays, window dressings, cafe terraces… [and they] become letters that yield the words, sentences and pages of a book that is always new.’ It seems fitting to end this review with something which Hessel writes in his afterword. ‘Now, dear fellow citizens,’ he says, ‘please don’t reproach me for all of the important and noteworthy things that I’ve overlooked; rather, go out yourselves, aimlessly, just as I have done, on hazard’s little voyages of discovery. You don’t have time? That’s false ambition speaking.’