The Storyteller

Der Erzähler. Betrachtungen zum Werk Nikolai Lesskows; The Storyteller. Reflections on the Work of Nikolai Leskov (1936)

This essay takes the works of the Russian writer Nikolai Leskov (1831-1895) as a springboard for a more general meditation on the craft of storytelling. Benjamin celebrates the traditional genre of the ‘tale’ or ‘story’ (Erzählung), which he sees as a manual and oral craft, rooted in traditional folk culture and oral storytelling. For Benjamin, this genre is qualitatively different from more modern genres of fiction such as the novel and the ‘short story’ [Benjamin deliberately uses the English term here, in order to oppose it to the Erzählung (story, tale, narrative)]. Benjamin regards the story as a direct relative of the Märchen (fairy tale) and the Schwank (comic tale). In addition to Leskov, Benjamin makes frequent reference to Johann Peter Hebel, the early 19th-century German humourist whose comic tales he greatly admired.

Section 1 asserts that we are becoming less capable of talking about our experiences, and poorer in terms of communicable experiences. One example of this is the silence of war veterans.

Section 2 identifies two ancient types of storyteller: the sedentary farmer who tells local stories; and the seafaring merchant who tells tales of far-away places. Their 19th-century descendants are J. P. Hebel and Jeremias Gotthelf (whose works are rooted in a particular locality), and Sealsfield and Gerstäcker (who specialise in foreign adventure stories). The third type of storyteller derives from the medieval craftsman, who would travel around before settling down.

Section 3 explains that Leskov uses Russian legends in such a way as to avoid mystical exaltation; he combines the fantastical with the practical.

Section 4 defines a storyteller as someone who can give practical advice (Rat, Ratschläge) to his or her listeners; however, the communicability of experience is decreasing.

Section 5 says that the novel is the only form of prose fiction which does not come from an oral tradition or express itself orally. The novel form implies the profound cluelessness (Ratlosigkeit) of the individual.

Section 6 observes that the new dominant form of communication is information, as disseminated by the press and other mass media. Such information is provided in an easily digestible form. This is very different from classic tales (Erzählungen) which do not contain any interpretation, and which avoid psychological explanations.

Section 7 compares mass media information, which can be digested in an instant, with a classic tale, which is inexhaustible and endlessly fascinating.

Section 8 describes a good story as having a chaste and sturdy character which evades psychological analysis. For Benjamin, a good tale takes a long time for the listener or reader to assimilate it. It requires slower, pre-industrial forms of occupation.

Section 9 likens the story to a form of pre-modern craftsmanship, one which is rooted in the life and experience of the storyteller. Benjamin quotes Paul Valéry’s appreciation of the miniaturist’s art, and compares this to the modern Anglo-American ‘short story’, which has become detached from an oral tradition (Benjamin obviously never read the works of the New York-based writer Damon Runyon which are rooted in the oral culture of the Prohibition era).

Section 10 points out that dying used to take place in public, now it takes place in private. Death has become removed from the sphere of everyday experience. This awareness of death as the ultimate leveller lends the story its authority.

Section 11 analyses one of J. P. Hebel’s most celebrated stories: ‘Unverhofftes Wiedersehen’’ ‘An Unhoped-for Reunion’, observing how the events of the story are embedded in a chronicle of the times.

Section 12 remarks that the historian is required to explain each historical event, whereas the chronicler or storyteller can simply show the event and present it to public scrutiny. The storyteller can be regarded as the secular form of the chronicler; the storyteller still remains loyal to what Schiller called naïve poetry.

Section 13 emphasises the way in which stories are embedded into an oral tradition; they are intended to be told and retold as part of a series or a cycle of tales.

Section 14 quotes Georg Lukács’s claim (in The Theory of the Novel) that the novel is a struggle against the power of time. In other words, each novel revolves around the question of the meaning of life. This contrasts with the traditional tale, which contents itself with a simple moral.

Section 15 compares stories and tales, which imply a communal form of enjoyment, with reading novels. The reader of a novel is described as a lonely person who keeps throwing wood onto the fire in order to keep warm, and who warms themselves at the death of the fictional characters.

Section 16 claims that storytelling has an elemental humanity about it, but concedes that storytelling lends itself to very different ideologies. The original form of the story is the fairy tale (Märchen), which offers advice in the most dire straits, suggesting the possibility of harmony between human nature and the natural world.

Section 17 returns to the subject of Leskov, and comments on the affinity between Leskov’s works and the genre of the fairy tale.

Section 18 points out that both Leskov and Hebel, being true storytellers, are pragmatic: they keep their distance from philosophical doctrines and principles. At the same time Hebel knows that any principle has the potential to serve the just cause. However, Leskov’s characters sometimes incarnate elemental passions in a way which is reminiscent of Dostoyevsky.

Section 19 – in contradiction to what Benjamin says about Leskov in Section 3 – draws attention to the mystical aspect of Leskov’s work, using the story ‘The Alexandrite’ as an example. Benjamin quotes Paul Valéry’s statement that artistic contemplation can achieve mystical profundity when the soul, the eye and the hand work together in harmony. The conclusion of the essay alludes to the fireplace metaphor of Section 15. If the novel is like a lonely fireplace, then the story is like a flickering candle. A true storyteller (e.g. Nikolai Leskov, J. P. Hebel, E. A. Poe, Wilhelm Hauff and Robert Louis Stevenson) is a person who could allow the wick of his life to be entirely consumed by the soft flame of his storytelling.

German Edition

Walter Benjamin, Gesammelte Schriften, 7 vols. (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1991), vol. II.2, pp. 438-65

Web Link

Article on The Storyteller at by Leo Hall at Yale University