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Notes 60.2 (2003) 460-462

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Jacques Offenbach and the Paris of His Time. By Siegfried Kracauer. Translated by Gwenda David and Eric Moshbacher. New York: Zone Books, 2002. [418 p. ISBN 1-890951-30-7. $45.] Illustrations, bibliography, index.

The career of Siegfried Kracauer (1889- 1966) as litterateur was similar to that of many of his compatriots who had the misfortune of being born Jewish and coming to the height of their intellectual gifts in Germany just as Fascism took power. Deracinated and driven into exile, they had to begin their lives again. Ultimately, as Hitler conquered Europe, they fled across the sea. Separated from their native language, their resources, and even their loved ones, they had to eke out a living, now in foreign tongues. It is nothing less than amazing how well they succeeded in mastering novel and idiomatic means of expression. In turn, they revolutionized ways of thinking, especially in the United States, to an extent that may have surpassed the impact on Europe by the exodus of Christian scholars after the fall of Constantinople.

Adrift in a sea of indifference to his fate, Kracauer saw parallels between the forced exit from his native land and Jacques Offenbach's emigration from a hostile atmosphere in Cologne to Paris about a century earlier. As a sociologist, he also noted the similarities between contemporary twentieth-century mass consumer societies and the commercialization of French culture during the Second Empire under the authoritarian rule of Napoleon III. He aspired to write a biography of the composer's career by interweaving it with sociological commentary that, in attracting a wide audience, would insure his financial independence. Contrary to his expectations, however, the book never achieved popular success, despite the fact that it was published in the original German (Amsterdam: A. de Lange, 1937) as well as in French (Jacques Offenbach, trans. Lucienne Astruc [Paris: B. Grasset, 1937]) and English (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1938) translations soon after.

With such excellent works as Anton Henseler's Jacob Offenbach (Berlin: M. Hesse, 1930) and now Jean-Claude Yon's Jacques Offenbach (Paris: Gallimard, 2000), a new edition of Knopf's English version of Kracauer's discursive volume seems hardly necessary. Moreover, there exist already no fewer than three other reprints, including those by Vienna House (1972), Horizon Press (1983), and the University of Illinois Press (2002), not to mention translations in [End Page 460] French and a new edition of the original German (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1976)!

Perhaps an even greater question about the need for so many reprints arises when one considers the justifiable contemporaneous criticisms of the book by such paragons of cultural history, Kracauer's friends, Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno. According to Benjamin-Adorno correspondence, Kracauer, a stateless refugee in Paris, wrote the book more to exploit his reputation than to make any novel contributions to social and aesthetic history. In addition to its superficiality, they criticize Kracauer's German prose. Benjamin says bluntly, "He has composed a text that only a few years ago would have found its most ruthless critic in the author himself." It was a statement that was made in response to Adorno's earlier letter in which he wrote, "It has far exceeded my worst expectations.... The few passages ... are crassly erroneous ... The social observations are no more than old wives tales ... Indeed, the piece is so irredeemably terrible that it could easily become a best-seller." And finally, Benjamin writes: "I have the rather evil suspicion that the presentiment of the émigré is simply finding an opportunity to express itself at the expense of the German language, and that is no longer an amusing matter" (Theodor W. Adorno and Walter Benjamin, The Complete Correspondence 1928-1940, ed. Henri Lonitz, trans. Nicholas Walker [Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999], 185, 183-84, 186).

It would seem that the current interest in Kracauer is due more to the recent biography (Kracauer zur Einführung [Hamburg: Junius, 1996]; trans. Jeremy Haines, Siegfried Kracauer: An Introduction [Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000]) by Ruhr professor...


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