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JULY 2012

Benjamin in Manchester


Kraut, kike, commie egghead turns up at Eddy's

Yes I have had the odd snipe at my bookdealer Eddy – repeating his assertion to have read only six novels – The Day of the Triffids, Of Mice and Men and four others whose names escape me, and probably escape Eddy too. He was disappointed by Steinbeck but awards The Triffids the palm. Were Eddy a Swede and on the panel John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beynon Harris aka John Wyndham would probably have got the Nobel – if not for literature then for botany.

However Eddy’s humble unit on the corner of High Street opposite the Arndale is becoming an oasis in Central Manchester’s much degraded literary desert. Gibbs, Dillons, Sherrat and Hughes are long gone. Waterstone’s was a brief and promising spring but is now no more than a warehouse of blockbusters – soon it’ll be an ebook download terminal. Even Central Ref (not a bookshop of course, but once a great repository of culture) is now a shrunken vestige where computers and DVDs predominate. The great original building is being done up but already they’re talking about getting rid of 20,000 vols before the collection moves back from Deansgate (to make way for what exactly?).

But Eddy is out there hoovering up all sorts of stuff. He’s guarded about where it comes from – one imagines house clearances and the impatient spouses of some recently dead old fart scholar. “Hmm sorry luv but these first folio Shakespeares are completely out of date – full of misprints. Go on, I’ll give you a tenner for the three”.

When I turn up around noon Eddy has just come back from Bradford with a vanful. It includes a huge canvas backed map of the Western Front in German circa 1916. Then stacked in a heap on top of a box I see the five volumed set of Walter Benjamin’s Selected Writings – a superb edition by the Harvard University Press. Eddy has vague notions that philosophy is valuable – above it on the shelves are Safranski’s biography of Nietzsche and Walter Kaufmann’s Selections from Nietzsche. But once you get off the beaten track – Sartre, Russell, Kant he’s less sure. I recall picking up Dermot Moran’s excellent Introduction to Phenomenology for next to nowt. And now the Benjamin. Eddy’s asking £20 and I snatch his hand off. Checking later on Amazon I find that this set is getting on for £100. Céline, a contemporary, would probably have described Walt as a kraut, kike, commie egghead. Walt was not quite so dismissive and put LFC down as a fascist, an epigone of Baudelaire (also a fascist according to Walt) and further opines that LFC’s pessimistic nihilism was a concomitant of his being a doctor. Like many of Benjamin’s apercus this is strangely illuminating. One thinks of other doctor writers – Chekhov’s opinion of hom sap was quite bleak and Somerset Maugham was a miserable old git. I suppose Rabelais might have been a hoot in the pub but surely that relentless obscenity was a desperate distraction from a too familiar acquaintance with disgusting body parts. Personally I recall two schoolmates who became doctors and both committed suicide before they were thirty. So I look forward to immersing myself in this stuff – particularly The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. I think it was from Eddy’s some years back that I picked up Benjamin’s Arcades Project – a weird ragbag of quotes and extracts illustrating nineteenth century Paris. One reviewer (Jonathan Ree) warns:  

The Arcades Project -which appeared in a separate English translation in 1999 -is a tough assignment for readers as well as editors. No one is likely to persevere through its hundreds of pages for their own sake, rather than from a fixation on their fascinating author. Through an irony he would not have relished, Benjamin has himself become the story.

Where else in this large city would you expect to find these treasures?