Introduction to ‘By The Fireside’
Walter Benjamin’s review of The Old Wives’ Tale (1908) by Arnold Bennett was written in Ibiza in April–May 1933. Benjamin had left Berlin for good three weeks after the Reichstag fire, travelling via Paris and Barcelona. ‘The German atmosphere in which you look first at people’s lapels, and after that usually do not want to look them in the face anymore, is unbearable’, he wrote to Scholem. Sources of remuneration had begun to dry up a few years before; his radio work ended with the dismissal of sympathetic programme heads, though he could still publish short pieces under pseudonyms in parts of the German press. (‘By the Fireside’ appeared in the Frankfurter Zeitung on 23 May 1933, under the name of Detlef Holz.) Benjamin’s response to the Nazi ascendancy moved between the political and the private. In the early thirties he and Brecht were talking of launching a new journal, Krisis und Kritik(potential contributors: Lukács, Korsch, Kracauer, Adorno, Musil, Döblin), and planning ‘to annihilate Heidegger’. ‘Theories of German Fascism’ was written in 1930, the Kraus essay and the attack on social-democratic moderacy, ‘Left-Wing Melancholy’, in 1931, ‘The Author as Producer’ in 1934. Yet he also wrote of his ‘profound fatigue’, his horror and disgust at events in Germany, the ‘hopeless situation of cultural politics’ there. After his first visit to Ibiza in summer 1932, when von Papen had suspended the Prussian government, paving the path for Hitler, Benjamin had gone to Nice, planning suicide. Back on the island in the spring of 1933, he was preoccupied by Arnold Bennett—a striking departure from his career-long dedication to the French and German cultural worlds. Russia was of course his other point d’appui, and Benjamin’s fascination with Bennett would help lay the foundations for the study of Nikolai Leskov, ‘The Storyteller’, first published in Orient und Okzident in 1936. Here the story, rooted in practical and experiential forms of knowledge transmitted through narrative, is again linked to fire: the storyteller ‘is the man who could let the wick of his life be consumed completely by the gentle flame of his story.’ ‘I continue to read Arnold Bennett’, Benjamin wrote to Jula Radt in July 1933, ‘in whom I increasingly come to recognize a man whose stance is very much akin currently to my own and who serves to validate it: that is to say, a man for whom a far-reaching lack of illusion and a fundamental mistrust of where the world is going lead neither to moral fanaticism nor to embitterment but to an extremely cunning clever and subtle way of living. This leads him to wrest from his own wickedness the few respectable ways to conduct himself, that amount to a human life.’
By The Fireside
Oscar Wilde is said to have told a story about finding himself in a group of people talking about boredom.  Everyone had something to say; Wilde was the last to speak, ‘When I am bored’, he said, ‘I take out a good novel, sit down by the fire and gaze into it.’ In fact, the two things go well together: a blazing fire in the hearth and an open novel. And since we have such a novel in our hands—Arnold Bennett’s greatest work has only now been translated into German, twenty-five years after it first appeared—we shall gaze into the fire without closing the book.  No one is so unimaginative as to be able to stare into a fire without some thought occurring to him. We shall see why the spectacle it presents is a metaphor for the novel itself.
The reader of novels differs from those who immerse themselves in a poem or follow the course of a play. Above all, he is alone, unlike the member of an audience, but also unlike someone reading a poem. The former has subsided into the crowd and shares its response, while the latter is willing to turn into a partner and lend his voice to the poem. The novel reader is alone and remains so for a good while. Moreover, in his solitude he takes possession of his material in a more jealous and exclusive way than the other two. He is ready to appropriate wholly what he reads, to consume it down to the very last drop. He destroys and devours its contents as fire consumes the logs in the hearth. The tension that pervades the book resembles the gust of air that causes the fire to flare up and fans the dancing flames.
This metaphor reveals a different picture to the one usually evoked in discussions of the novel as a genre. Such discussions, in Germany at least, begin with Friedrich Schlegel. The fact that Schlegel is alive only to the artistic form of the novel as it is to be found in Cervantes or Goethe, rather than to the broader tradition of epic narrative, is not without its consequences. That the novel shares this tradition with the story is most evident in the writings of the English: Scott, Dickens, Thackeray, Stevenson and Kipling are primarily storytellers in their novels. Through them, stories flow into the book and then flow out as stories once again. In contrast, Flaubert, who represents the opposite principle, was in the habit of reading his sentences out loud to himself. The rhythmic perfection that he constantly tested in this way encloses the reader inside his grandiose works, sealing him within them. Sentence is joined on to sentence here like bricks in a wall. This was all that was needed to create the cult of ‘construction’, with its echo of sonorous ‘prosody’—all very much in furtherance of an ambitious form of impotence. But if the novel is an edifice, it looks less like an architect’s design than the pile of logs the servant girl has heaped up in the grate. The aim is not that it should keep forever but that it should burn brightly.
Bennett has compressed the events of over five decades into a single space. Within that space he loosely builds up the lives of three generations. These three generations rest peacefully on the ashes of those who went before them, tradesmen living in the Five Towns. In the course of these five decades the family line has become concentrated in two sisters, the younger of whom will die without issue, while the elder will leave only one charming but spoilt offspring to inherit the estates of the two women. The Five Towns, where they have their cradles and then later their graves,
are unique and indispensable. From the north of the county right down to the south they alone stand for civilization, applied science, organized manufacture, and the century—until you come to Wolverhampton. They are unique and indispensable because you cannot drink tea out of a teacup without the aid of the Five Towns; because you cannot eat a meal in decency without the aid of the Five Towns. For this the architecture of the Five Towns is an architecture of ovens and chimneys; for this its atmosphere is as black as its mud; for this it burns and smokes all night, so that Longshaw has been compared to hell.
Bennett does not open up this hell in the same way as Dickens exposes the early industrial hell of London in The Old Curiosity Shop. The lives of his two sisters are sealed off from it. If he does not say this in so many words, he does show it metaphorically by making them grow up in a draper’s shop, for which they were both predestined from the outset. At what cost the younger sister avoids this destiny, and how very closely the force that tears her away from the shop resembles the force that ultimately undermines it! For towards the end of the novel, the town in which her ancestors built up their business begins to change its face. The world in which work and pleasure balanced each other out—which made the business profitable and life worth living—is dying out. Big business and the trusts start to cast their shadow over the town. At the beginning of the century competitors come onto the scene, with posters, gramophones and knockdown prices, and force the old shopkeepers onto the defensive. The sisters’ lives are lived in changing times. One, the older one, remains loyal to what was tried and tested, takes over the shop, gives birth to a son and keeps up the house into which she welcomes her sister, who returns home after thirty years.
This house has a story of its own. It is the womb in which the family wealth was incubated. Starting out as three dwellings, it developed over the years and decades into a single labyrinth in which shop front, workshop and living quarters have melted down into a single building, which provides little comfort but offers all the more convenience to habits that have become immutable. This house is the subject of one of the narrative magic tricks in which the novel is so rich. Despite all the blows of fate that await the two women in it, the house is basically nothing but the setting for the lives of two sisters at play, and then of two old women; lives that are strangely intertwined and difficult to disentangle. ‘The sense of the vast-obscure of those regions which began at the top of the kitchen steps and ended in black corners of larders or abruptly in the common dailiness of Brougham Street, a sense which Constance and Sophia had acquired in infancy, remained with them almost unimpaired as they grew old.’ 
This is a dry subject with which to feed the reader’s burning curiosity. What does it mean? Moritz Heimann once remarked that ‘a man who dies at the age of thirty-five is a man who dies at the age of thirty-five at every moment of his life’. I do not know whether he is right; indeed, I hope and believe that he is mistaken. But in this novel it is absolutely spot-on; indeed the nature of the characters in the novel could not be better summed up than by this sentence. It asserts that the meaning of their lives can only be understood by reflecting upon their deaths. Now, the reader meets characters in the novel ‘the meaning of whose lives’ he must be able to grasp. Thus somehow or other he must know in advance that he will learn about their deaths; if need be, only in a metaphorical sense, i.e. the end of the novel—but, even better, in their actual deaths. How do they signal that death awaits them, a specific death, moreover, that will occur at a particular point in the novel? That is the question the reader finds so irresistible and which binds him to the text, just as he is hypnotized by the flames in the hearth. He actually identifies with death and he finds himself licking at the characters in the novel much as the flames lick at the log before it finally catches fire.
It turns to ashes. That is why this novel, which begins with the girls in their youth, is nevertheless called The Old Wives’ Tale. In the preface, which regrettably has been omitted from the otherwise exemplary German translation, Bennett relates how, long before he set to work on the novel, the idea for it had come to him from seeing an old woman who came into his favourite restaurant in Paris. Ideas of the sort that were aroused in him by her wretched appearance can occur to anyone. In his case, such ideas were translated into literature so that nothing was lost.
‘No one’, says Pascal, ‘dies so poor that he does not leave something behind.’ And that includes memories—only memories do not always find an heir. It is the novelist who enters into this inheritance; and seldom without a profound sadness. ‘Hers had not been a life at all.’  The judgement passed by the survivor on her dead sister is more or less the sum total of the inheritance left to the novelist. The dead woman’s entire experience of love had played itself out against a world-historical backcloth. How threadbare it appears, in the memory of it the author creates! Sometimes the character herself has a premonition of this:
Sometimes she would think in an unoccupied moment, ‘How strange it is that I should be here, doing what I am doing!’ But the regular ordinariness of her existence would instantly seize her again. At the end of 1878, the Exhibition Year, her Pension consisted of two floors instead of one. 
The novel is divided into four books; the final book bears the title ‘What Life Is’. And its last two chapters are called ‘End of Sophia’ and ‘End of Constance’. Of all the gifts it brings, this is the most certain: the end. Of course, we have no need of novels to tell us this. However, this novel is not important because it depicts another person’s fate but because this fate, exposed to the flames that consume it, imparts to us something of the warmth that we can never glean from our own. What impels the reader to return to it again and again is its mysterious ability to warm a shivering life through its contact with death.
Translated by Rodney Livingstone
New Left Review