Life Sentences, Day 155: Irony and Lion Fuechtwanger

March 3rd, 2011

In the 1920s and early 30s, Lion Feuchtwanger was the top-selling writer in Germany.  But then Hitler came to power.

Feuchtwanger was the son of a wealthy and cultured Jewish family.  He studied philosophy and literature in two German universities and became a central figure in the literary circles of  1920s Berlin.

His first novel, The Ugly Duchess (1923), told the story of the Countess Margarete of Tryol, a woman of almost legendary unattractiveness who governed a state that had substantial strategic value in the power struggles of the 14th century.  Deprived of the feminine allure that was often the first weapon of a noblewoman of the time, Margarete developed instead a genuine talent for statecraft that allowed her to maintain her rule almost to the end of her life.  Feuchtwanger saw her as an isolated outsider, a position not unlike that of the Jews of medieval times, and his portrait is compassionate and clear-eyed.

In 1925, he wrote his first really popular book, Jew Suss, a novel based on the life of a financier who befriended the Duke of Wurttemburg in the 18th century and helped him build a thriving, if corrupt, state that made both of them extraordinarily rich.  When (in the novel) the Duke tries to seduce Suss’s unwordly daughter, she leaps to her death. Suss bides his time, ensnares the Duke in a plan to subvert the constitution of the state, and then betrays him. The Duke, terrified and enraged, dies of a stroke. Deprived of his protector’s influence, Suss is executed.

Although Feuchtwanger was a powerful writer, his political prognostications were fatally flawed.  In 1930, he published Success, in which he mercilessly described the rise of Hitler — and his imagined fall.  As a result, the Nazis, upon coming to power, confiscated his house and money. In 1933, he was declared “Enemy of the State Number One.”  He lived in France until it fell and was thrown into a concentration camp, from which he escaped dressed as a woman.  Ultimately, he wound up in Santa Monica, the center of a glittering community of expats that included Thomas Mann, Bertolt Brecht, Sasha Viertel, and Garbo.

But in a way, the Nazis won.  Under Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi film industry made a film of Jew Suss, distorting the story to create what has been called “the most anti-Semitic movie of all time.”  Suss is transformed into a vile caricature of a Jew, evil incarnate, a man who defiles a young virgin and tortures her father and her fiance.  Feuchtwanger continued to write, but what had been done to his book haunted him.

He died in 1958, and his papers are in the possession of the University of Southern California.  He’s also a character in Joseph Kanon’s dazzling 2009 Hollywood novel Stardust, which I think should have been nominated for the Edgar.

7 Responses to “Life Sentences, Day 155: Irony and Lion Fuechtwanger”

  1. EverettK Says:

    I’d never heard of Fuechtwanger. Human society can be a real meat-grinder.

  2. Laren Bright Says:

    Tim takes us on a fascinating walk through history and proves that, apparently all roads lead to Santa Monica.

  3. Lil Gluckstern Says:

    From what I remember, Santa Monica was a multi layered piece of heaven with some thing for everyone. (70’s) I have a question-the books you recommend -I’ve actually read when I was young and now own Kristin Lavransdatter-are usually of door stop size. Do you feel these develop enough story, characters, etc? Or do you just like them that way? I bet you read way faster than I do, and I’m not slow. Also, my TBR house is groaning…

  4. Suzanna Says:

    I would think that LF had a lot of experiences that would haunt him as a Holocaust survivor alone. This coupled with the fact that the Nazis went to such lengths to discredit him and turn his story into something twisted and ugly could have been fodder for a really interesting book for LF to write. Do you know if he was working on anything related to these experiences before he died?

  5. Larissa Says:

    It’s crazy that a book with a title that I think equals “Sweet Jew” in German or something like that, could be turned into such a violent, anti-semitic piece…oh the power of propaganda! I’m sure there’s some colloquial phrase that I’m missing in that title translation but still, pretty astounding what “spin” can do…

  6. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Everett, Feuchtwanger was an international name, but it’s been a long time. He was very well served in English, though, by Willa and Edwin Muir, who translated THE UGLY DUCHESS, SUCCESS, and THE OPPERMANS, probably his three best novels. I haven’t read SUCCESS, but I love UGLY DUCHESS and THE OPPERMANS.

    Laren, H.L. Mencken once said that the United States slopes downhill to the West and everything that’s loose rolls to San Francisco. I think he meant Santa Monica. Remember, we also had Aldous Huxley, Chritopher Isherwood, Igor Stravinsky. and many other artists, writers, and thinkers who left Europe behind in the 1940s.

    Lil, I’m not actually recommending all these books, just talking about them, Feuchwanger and Undset create fully human characters and also great narratives. I’ve always personally liked long books – the first I ever read on my Kindle was the Pevear and Vokholonsky translation of WAR AND PEACE — but I like short books, too.

    Suzanna, as concentration camps go, the one he was in wasn’t so bad — it was a French camp, for detention, rather than a death camp. He wrote novels about Goya and the French revolution while in Santa Monica, and his last novel (I think) was a retelling of the old-testament story of Jephtha, who in gratitude for a victory in battle vows to sacrifice to God the first person to greet him on his return from the wars, and is met by his daughter whom, with much wailing and ripping of robes, he sacrifices. I haven’t read it, and don’t think it’s likely that I will.

    Hey Riss. “Suss” is the first name of the historical figure on whom the novel was based. I don’t know what language it’s from or exactly what it means.

  7. Bonnie Says:

    Süss does mean sweet in German, but if it’s a person’s family name, then that’s another matter, and it may or may not bear any etymological relationship.

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