City Writes

Miniature Metropolis: Literature in an Age of Photography and Film BY Andreas Huyssen. Harvard University Press. Hardcover, 368 pages. $39.

“Properly written texts are like spiders’ webs,” remarked Theodor Adorno in his renowned compendium of aphoristic observations Minima Moralia: Reflections on a Damaged Life (1951). “Tight, concentric, transparent, well-spun and firm. They draw into themselves all the creatures of the air. Metaphors flitting hastily through them become their nourishing prey.” For the literary scholar and cultural critic Andreas Huyssen, this evocative passage largely sums up the modernist miniature as he conceives it in his bold new study, Miniature Metropolis. Buttressed by uncommon erudition and far-reaching interpretive insight throughout, the book proposes a critical taxonomy of this highly compressed, elliptical, largely urban form of writing, which was employed by luminaries ranging from Baudelaire, Rilke, and Kafka through Siegfried Kracauer, Walter Benjamin, Louis Aragon, and Robert Musil and on to Adorno.

Huyssen, whose previous books include After the Great Divide (1986) and Present Pasts (2003), continues to advance along and refine his analytic trajectory in Miniature Metropolis, charting what he sees as a key literary development that emerged in tandem with the wider currents of European modernism. “Akin to the snapshot, the faits divers, and the news flash,” he notes early on in his study, “the miniature took its cue from the new media. As a deliberately short form, it found its privileged venue in the feuilletons of large urban newspapers and magazines serving a rushed and distracted readership.” The writers who were drawn to the miniature were often inspired by photography and film, incorporating facets of the new media into their work while pushing the limits of classical reportage. Surveying the historical sweep of this literary mode in its manifold guises—texts published for close to a century in Paris, Berlin, Prague, and Vienna, in newspapers, literary magazines, and books—Huyssen excavates some of the same fertile ground that Inka Mülder-Bach has termed the “production site of a fragmentary theory of modernity.”

In a letter to Kracauer written in the summer of 1926, the philosopher Ernst Bloch, who had written prose miniatures of his own, observed: “If only we had a name for the new form, which is no longer a form.” Kafka called them “my little prevarications,” while Benjamin employed such diverse terms as “aphorisms, witticisms, dreams,” and “thought images.” Baudelaire’s early prose poems of the 1860s came to be regarded as a “modèle d’écriture,” not only setting the standard for the urban miniature but also introducing some of its recurrent figures such as the flaneur, that big-city wanderer.

Unsurprisingly, metropolitan experience finds expression, by turns lyrical and philosophical, in much of the writing that Huyssen examines, while the borders between subjectivity and the outside world often blur. As the title character of Rilke’s Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge (1910) comments, in seeming anticipation of the opening scene of Karl Grune’s silent film Die Straße (The Street, 1923): “Electric trolleys speed clattering through my room. Cars drive over me. A door slams. Somewhere a window pane shatters on the pavement: I can hear its large fragments laugh and its small ones giggle.” The central protagonists of both Grune’s film and Rilke’s Notebooks can no longer keep the psychological force of the city—the stray sounds, images, and sensations—at bay from domestic life.

As Huyssen convincingly shows, there exists a deep affinity between these literary modes and cinema. Not only does the principle of montage, so fundamental to movies, help define these compressed discursive forms, but the structural features of the texts themselves often bear connections to the new medium. There’s an especially strong case to be made in the chapter on Kafka, himself a devoted moviegoer, whose miniatures frequently contain filmic images, with their recurrent focus on traffic and trains, on speed, and on urban spectators. In his analysis of Kafka, Benjamin went so far as to claim that Chaplin and silent film might help unlock the meaning of his work; Adorno, too, saw Kafka’s novels as “the last and disappearing texts connecting us to silent film.”

Perhaps the most imaginative chapter of Miniature Metropolis is “Double Exposure Berlin: Photomontage and Narrative,” about the work of the Dada artist Hannah Höch and the Berlin writer Irmgard Keun. Huyssen places Höch’s work within the contemporary debates concerning the New Woman and Weimar Girlkultur, arguing ultimately that her photomontages “resonate with the miniature as form in that they focus intensely on just one aspect of metropolitan life: the photographic transformation of women’s images into fashionable commodity images as products of the male imagination.” Likewise, Huyssen presents the observations of everyday life in Weimar-era Berlin by Doris, the narrator of Keun’s novel The Artificial Silk Girl, who moves to the capital in a stolen fur coat, as exemplary of the form. “But I want to write like a movie,” Doris notes at the start of the book, “because my life is like that. . . . And when I read it later on, everything will be like at the movies—I’m looking at myself in pictures.” Doris’s poignant commentary, not far removed from such early film-theoretical writings as Dziga Vertov’s Kino-Eye, couldn’t be any timelier in our age of YouTube and the selfie.

Never dull, frequently illuminating, and always elegant in its argumentation, Miniature Metropolis is apt to spark debate among scholars and to become a standard work in disciplines as diverse as media studies, urban studies, and comparative literature. Although some of the writers Huyssen addresses—the poet-physician Gottfried Benn, Ernst Jünger, and others—may be fairly obscure to American readers, his approach offers ample rewards, and many new discoveries, to all who continue to take an interest in compressed forms of writing, those spiders’ webs that still hold us in their grip.

Noah Isenberg is the book-review editor at Film Quarterly magazine.