Every now and then a museum will present an exhibit of a famous artist’s sketches, some unfinished; these sketches reveal the creative process that went into the final paintings. Similar insight is given by the short stories and excerpts by philosopher Walter Benjamin collected in The Storyteller—many of which were unpublished during his lifetime.
Like the Swiss artist Paul Klee, whose work is used to illustrate each chapter, Walter Benjamin was influenced by dreams and mythology, especially in his early work. One fragment entitled “In a Big Old City,” reads like a fairy tale. It begins, “There once lived a merchant in a big old city,” and goes on to describe the mansion and its two occupants, the old merchant and an eight-year-old girl who is not his daughter. As the merchant has to travel a few times a year, he trains the girl to housekeep. When she is about eleven, he gives her the keys to the house and tells her to do as she pleases, but never to go to the upper floors. Then he leaves the girl by the stairs, standing with the ancient keys in her hand. Because the story is unfinished, we are left to imagine what the girl will do. Will she go upstairs, and if so, what will she find there?
“In a Big Old City” can be interpreted on many levels. What kind of man leaves an undeage girl alone to care for a mansion? Why should she be submissive? Although he kisses her goodbye, he is stern with her and expects his rules to be followed without question. The story can also be read as an allegory. Is the underlying theme about the relationship between God and mankind? Early in this unfinished novella, Benjamin points out that the mansion is in a “pious town” where many of the houses “had beautiful carvings of the holy virgin or some other saint above their doorways.” Only the merchant’s house did not. Do we have the “keys” to enlightenment on “the upper floors” but don’t use them?
Memorable lines also give us insights into Walter Benjamin’s own life. His deep feelings about one woman are conveyed in a powerful metaphor in the brief “Letter to Toet Blaupot ten Cate”: “The flood of this sleep, which forcefully broke against the day,is moved by the power of your image, like the lake is by the pull of the moon. I miss your presence more than I can say — and, what’s more — more than I could believe.” A statement worthy of Shakespeare.
His thoughts range from those of love to why people buy detective novels at airports or train stations when they have unread books at home. In “Review: Detective Novels on Tour,” Benjamin tells us that in order to numb one fear, we need to create another, “artificially induced danger.” This explains the popularity of phenomena as diverse as gambling, horror films, roller coaster rides, and Stephen King novels.
The fragments of dreams and self-exploration of Walter Benjamin in The Storyteller, subtitled Tales Out of Loneliness, will provoke unexpected memories of dreams in the reader.