Today's Reading

After the war, rumors began to circulate of a manuscript Benjamin was carrying with him at the time of his death that had subsequently vanished. According to a witness who made the border crossing with him, Benjamin had been carrying a leather satchel (his only luggage) over the mountain. When asked what was in it, he'd replied that it contained a manuscript he valued more highly than his own life. As Benjamin's postwar reputation grew, so did speculation about the manuscript and its contents.

I cannot, in good conscience, claim that this book is the lost manuscript of Walter Benjamin. Its provenance is too uncertain, its contents too fantastic. But it purports to be just that—and nothing in it that is verifiable contradicts the claim. Let us proceed on the assumption that it is, in fact, what it appears to be. It cannot be described as anything other than a novel. We know Benjamin was a literary scholar, and that he even anonymously co-wrote a detective novel. We know that his French was impeccable, and certainly up to the task. All the same, to publish the manuscript under his name would be unconscionable. And so, for lack of another name—perhaps also, if I am honest, out of a booklover's vanity—I decided to publish it under my own name, with the caveat that takes the form of this preface. Strictly speaking, I am but the adopted parent of this foundling—still, there are no genetic tests for manuscripts. If the ethics of my decision are suspect, I am confident I at least stand on solid legal ground. As it is now more than seventy years since Benjamin's passing, the book (if it is indeed authentic) is, under French law, beyond the reach of the Benjamin estate.

I am convinced the Baroness never intended to publish her manuscript: she wanted it bound for her own private pleasure. While the story of how Crossings came to be published—and why, and its history—must be reserved for another occasion, publishing it was not a decision taken lightly. For reasons of provenance alone, I don't expect its publication to be uncontroversial, at least in the remoter corners of academia or bibliophilia. Having come to know it intimately, I believe there are at least seven ways Crossings may be interpreted: as an imagined story—an anonymous work, therefore, of fiction; as an elaborate joke, prank, or puzzle inexplicably fabricated by Benjamin himself; as a hoax or forgery concocted by an unknown third party; as the delusions of a man in declining health and under overwhelming psychic pressure; as a complex and subterranean allegory or fable; as some kind of enigmatic code to an unknown recipient; or as thinly veiled memoir. I am by now too close to this tale to have a dispassionate view. I must have entertained each of these possibilities at least once, and some of them several times, and still I am undecided.

Note to the Reader

As related in the preface, this book can be read in two ways: conventionally (that is, from first page to last) or by following the Baroness sequence. Those reading the Baroness sequence will find, at the end of each section, a page number in curly brackets (such as that below this note) indicating which page to turn to next. Readers of the Baroness sequence will thus begin the novel on page 150. For reference, the Baroness sequence's pagination order is outlined below. Readers who decide to read the novel in the conventional manner need only turn the page.

Baroness sequence pagination:



The Education of a Monster
A Disgraceful Episode

As I write these words, it occurs to me that I have never known a tale to be so beyond belief as that which I am about to relate to you, dear girl. Yet nothing I have written has ever been so true. Paradox, all is paradox. Perhaps I have taken leave of my senses once and for all. You see, as a youth, I contracted the pox, no doubt from Jeanne Duval. This scourge is known, in old age, to drive its victims to madness, so that they know not the difference between the real and the unreal. I live in the permanent shadow of my impending lunacy. But as you will learn, it is not the only way in which Jeanne haunts me still. Indeed, if I am writing to you at all, it is because of Jeanne.

We are not strangers, you and I. I am the gentleman you met this afternoon in the Church of Saint-Loup, accompanied by Madame Édmonde. Your name is Mathilde. You are a sullen, bovine sixteen-year-old girl. Despite the assurances of the nuns who discharged you into Madame Édmonde's care, you can barely read. Admittedly, you recognize the letters of the alphabet, but that can hardly be called reading. You can scribble your name, but that can hardly be called writing. Still, I trust that Madame Édmonde knows what she is doing. I have no choice.

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