Eilenberger appeals to what he calls “the spirit of the 1920s”, which according to him involved bewilderment at the elusiveness of time, anxiety about the dehumanising effects of science, and amazement at “the birth of an age of global communication”. He must be aware, however, that there is scarcely a decade in the last 500 years that could not be described in the same way. He is therefore reduced to tying his magicians together by means of biographical chatter. He cuts rapidly from one life to another, never shying away from sexual speculation, and summarises his results in breezy chapter headings...
Eilenberger’s account of Benjamin’s increasingly desperate attempts to gain professional recognition (as well as his extravagant gift for self-sabotage) is highly entertaining. His treatment of what was a somewhat chequered decade for Wittgenstein is less original, and the biographical details will be familiar to anyone who has read Ray Monk’s definitive life of the Austrian philosopher.
At the distance of a century it can be hard to relive the intensity of the opaque philosophical disputes of the time. Eilenberger strains every muscle to reconstruct the epoch, its characters and the stakes of their philosophising. Encompassing as difficult a cast of men and ideas in a single narrative is a conjuring act of its own right and one we should be grateful to Eilenberger for even attempting, let alone succeeding. His book is also a chastening reminder of how little the anglophone world knows of the cosmos of German literature and philosophy.
Eilenberger’s book begins in 1919 and ends in 1929, elegantly tracing the life and work of four figures who transformed philosophy in ways that were disparate and not infrequently at odds... Eilenberger is a terrific storyteller, unearthing vivid details that show how the philosophies of these men weren’t the arid products of abstract speculation but vitally connected to their temperaments and experiences. Yet he also points out that as much as they were wrestling with life-and-death philosophical questions, the bigger crisis was still to come.
Time of the Magicians is worthy of the hype that enveloped it in Germany, where it has sold more than 100,000 copies — that is, a hundred times as many as any of Benjamin’s works in their first print run. It is a tremendous feat of scholarship, but more pertinently it is also a technical masterpiece, knitting together the four men’s love lives, money troubles, ontological anxieties and the wider ferment of the Weimar republic with uncommon dexterity.