‘A Berlin Chronicle’

Text

We had our “summer residences” first at Potsdam, then at Babelsberg. They were outside, from the point of view of the city; but from that of the summer, inside: we were ensconced within it, and I must disengage my memories of it, like moss that one plucks at random in the dark from the walls of a cave, from a sultry, humid glimmer. There are memories that are especially well preserved because, although not themselves affected, they are isolated by a shock from all that followed. They have not been worn away by contact with their successors and remain detached, self-sufficient. The first memory appears when I speak of these summer days: it is an evening in my seventh or eighth year. One of our maidservants stands a long while at the wrought-iron gate, which opens onto I know not what tree-lined walk. The big garden, where I have been roaming in overgrown border regions, is already closed to me. It is time to go to bed. Perhaps I have sated myself with my “Eureka” pistol, somewhere in the bushes by the wire fence, at the wooden birds, which struck by a bolt, fell backward out of the painted foliage to which they were attached by strings. The whole day I had been keeping a secret to myself: the dream of the previous night. It had been an eerie one. A ghost had appeared to me, The site of its operations did not, in exact truth, really exist, but had nevertheless a very strong resemblance to one known, tantalizing, and inaccessible to me, namely the corner of my parents’ bedroom, that was separated from the rest of the chamber by an arch hung with a heavy, faded violet curtain, and in which my mother’s dressing gowns, house dresses and shawls were suspended. The darkness behind the curtain was impenetrable, and this corner was the sinister, nocturnal counterpart of that bright, beatific realm that opened occasionally with my mother’s linen cupboard, in which, piled up on the shelves, edged with white trimming and bearing a blue-embroidered text from Schiller’s “The Bell”, lay the sheets, tablecloths, napkins and pillowcases. A sweet lavender scent came from the brightly colored silk sachets hanging on the inside of the cupboard doors. These were the hell and paradise into which the ancient magic of the hearth and home, which had once been lodged in the spinning wheel, had been sundered. Now my dream had risen from the evil world: a ghost busying itself at a trestle draped with a profusion of silken fabrics, one covering another. These silks the ghost was stealing. It did not snatch them up or carry them away, it did nothing with or to them that was actually visible and distinguishable, and yet I knew it stole them, just as in legends people who discover a spirit’s banquet know that these dead beings are feasting, without seeing them eat or drink. It was this dream that I kept secret. And in the night that followed it I noticed, half asleep, my mother and father coming quietly into my room at an unusual hour. I did not see them lock themselves in; when I got up next morning there was nothing for breakfast. The house had been stripped of everything. At midday my grandmother arrived from Berlin with the bare necessities. A numerous band of burglars had descended on the house in the night. Fortunately the noise they made gave an indication of their number, so that my mother had succeeded in restraining my father, who, armed only with a pocketknife, had wanted to confront them. The dangerous visit has lasted almost until morning. In vain my parents had stood at the window in the first light, signalling to the outside world: the band had departed at their leisure with the baskets. Much later they were caught, and it emerged that their organizer, a murderer and criminal with many previous convictions, was a deaf mute. It made me proud that I was questioned about the events of the previous evening - for a complicity was suspected between the housebreakers and the maidservant who had stood at the gate. What made me even prouder, however, was the question why I have kept silent about my dream, which I now, of course, narrated at length as a prophecy.

Commentary

The seasonal move to a summer-house was usual for upper-middle class European families in the late nineteenth century. Walter Benjamin, the German critic and philosopher, wrote several essays in hindsight that combined autobiographical and fictionalised accounts of his Berlin childhood. In this extended passage, many levels of meaning of the domestic interior are explored, combining feelings of mystery and uncertainty, dreams and reality. The summer-house and garden in Babelsberg provide a location that is both outside the city, yet within nature - interior and exterior are therefore blurred. Becoming the scene of a crime, the house is described through the eyes of a child, who recognises but finds perplexing the thresholds between adult and childhood space and their close co-existence. This also allows Benjamin to reflect on a child’s growing awareness of social class in the domestic environment. The theft of the family’s belongings serves as a premonition of the devastation of German Jewry under National Socialism and the Holocaust.

Themes

Boundaries and Thresholds
Human Relationships
Room Disposition and Function

Dominant Representational Strategies

Dwelling

Type
Residential
Detail
Country House
Historical Terminology
Specified Social Level
Upper Middle

Activities

Type
Intellectual, Cultural and Spritual
Detail
Playing
Remembering

Rooms

Type
Transitional
Historical Terminology
Garden

Inhabitants

Type
People
Detail
Children
Adults
Male
Female

Objects

Type
Coverings and Hangings
Furniture
Detail
Supporting, Storage and Display
Reclining / Sleeping

Bibliography

Direct Cross-References

Indirect Cross-References

The Rings of Saturn

Sebald, W. G. (author); Michael Hulse (translator) 2002

Book, JA1004

Camera Lucida

Barthes, Roland (author); Howard, Richard (translator) 1980

Book, JA1005

Names
Benjamin, Walter (author)
Jephcott, Edmund (translator)
Demetz, Peter (editor)
Date(s)
1932
Country
Germany
Historical Region
Berlin
Description
Format
Book
Type
Genre
Other Fictional Prose
Publication
In Demetz, Peter (ed.), Reflections, New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, Inc., 1979, pp.53-5.
Originally published as Berliner Chronik, Suhrkamp Verlag, 1970
Copyright
Location
Record ID
JA1009