A Survey of French Literature, 1940

In the chilly,
ominous spring of 1940, Walter Benjamin wrote his survey of French
literature in a tiny, unheated Paris apartment. He was supposed to produce one
survey per year for the Institute for the Social Research in New York, which
funded Benjamin’s work on the Arcades Project. Benjamin had been laboring on
the Arcades Project, on and off, for thirteen years. By 1940, however, he had
pretty much given up on writing his ur-history of Western capitalist culture.
Instead, he started work on spin-off projects, most prominently a book on
Baudelaire and the "Theses on the Philosophy of History," the last
major work he completed before his death in September, 1940.

For unknown reasons,
his 1940 survey was never published, nor was it included in any of the
posthumous collections of his work. The survey appears in the New Left Review
for the first time. Not surprisingly, some of the figures Benjamin discusses
have largely been forgotten. Two that haven’t faded completely are Gaston
Bachelard and Roger Caillois. Benjamin
briefly mentions the latest novel by Victor Serge, noting that it "has no
literary value."

Benjamin’s survey of
French literature was among the last snapshots of a literary scene that would
disappear forever. Benjamin seems to realize this, and he’s clearly rushing to
finish his projects before the roof caved in on France. He promises, "One
of these days I shall tackle the rest of Baudelaire"–a promise he would
never live to fulfill.



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