The ProsenPeople

Lion Feuchtwanger: An Author Never Out of Print But No Longer Known

Wednesday, February 01, 2017 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Alan Judd about the personal encounters with British Jewry that led to his latest novel, The Kaiser’s Last Kiss. Alan is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

The German-Jewish novelist Lion Feuchtwanger (1884 – 1958) was brought to my attention by a friend and colleague in the Foreign Office, himself of Jewish extraction. He gave me a copy of Feuchtwanger’s best known novel, Jew Süss, telling me it was about power and Jewishness and that it could prove a manual for anyone with ambitions to rise in any bureaucracy. I think he was right, although in my own career I tended to float up with the tide rather than achieve distinction through ability and manipulation.

It is a great novel, exotic, sensual and vivid, set in an eighteenth-century German statelet and inspired by the history of Joseph Süss Oppenheimer. It begins:

A network of roads, like veins, was strung over the land, interlacing, branching, dwindling to nothing.

Not a sensational first line, but one that tells you you’re embarking on a story told in a leisurely manner, detailed and visual, leading somewhere. You know you’re in good hands. First published in Germany in 1925, Jew Süss was translated by Willa and Edwin Muir for publication in English in 1926. Helped by an enthusiastic review from Arnold Bennett (“It entertains, it enthrals, and simultaneously it teaches; it enlarges the field of knowledge,”)the book rapidly went through five printings and, by 1931, translation into 17 different languages.

I possess a signed first edition, rough-cut, number 26 of 275 numbered copies, which I picked up for £2. You can still do that with Feuchtwanger because, despite the fact that he has rarely if ever been completely out of print, he is no longer widely known.

I then began collecting and reading others of his works, usually for next-to-nothing in second-hand shops. My favourite after Jew Süss is his Josephus trilogy, a convincing evocation of that equivocal Jewish-Roman historian and general. Again, Feuchtwanger demonstrates his profound insight into the mechanisms and costs of the quest for power. I found an early 1950s book on contemporary German authors in which he was given almost as much space as Thomas Mann.

Next I found a printed script of the 19,34 film of Jew Süss, made in Britain by Lothar Mendes and starring Conrad Veidt. I learned that the Nazis also filmed the book in 1940, predictably as antisemitic propaganda. I’ve never seen either, but it is surely a tribute to the artistry of the book and its author that, with some distortions, it permits of two conflicting interpretations. So why isn’t Feuchtwanger better known?

Feuchtwanger left Germany for a tour of the United States in 1933, already an early and influential opponent of the Nazis and, possibly as a result of his First World War military experience, a proponent of the Left. While he was abroad his citizenship was revoked and he was designated ‘Enemy of the State Number One’. He never returned to Germany, living in the south of France until imprisoned early in the Second World War. He escaped—just—and was given asylum in the United States, settling with other escaping writers in California.

Feuchtwanger fell under suspicion in the McCarthy era, unsurprisingly given the communist sympathies evident in his book, Moscow 1937, an account of his state-sponsored travels in Russia, in which he praises Stalin and defends the show-trials. Although in the foreword he appears uneasily defensive, his text unhappily demonstrates that there are none so blind as those who will not see. He even excused Soviet antisemitism by proclaiming that in Jewish villages “the surprising absence of people between the ages of fifteen and thirty—of young women as well as men—lies in the fact that the whole of Jewish youth goes to the towns to study.”

Could this have tarnished his reputation and played a part in its posthumous disappearance? Maybe. It would be interesting to know whether Feuchtwanger reacted publicly to Kruschev’s 1950s revelations of Stalinist atrocities. Whatever accounts for it, over half a century later Feuchtwanger remains an unjustly neglected writer whose insights into the nature of Jewishness and anti-Jewishness, formed in the crucible of the twentieth century, are still unhappily relevant.

Alan Judd is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and the author of The Kaiser’s Last Kiss, his eleventh novel, and two biographies. He currently writes for The Spectator and The Daily Telegraph.

Related Content:

A Traveler Without a Ticket

Monday, January 30, 2017 | Permalink

Alan Judd is the author of The Kaiser’s Last Kiss, a novel exploring the intricate relationships within the exiled home of Kaiser Wilhelm during World War II. Alan is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

Photo: Colin Bell

I grew up in a village outside London during the years following World War II. What we now call the Holocaust was less widely known then, and I was largely unaware of Jews or Jewishness. The only incident I recall from childhood is a conversation over tea at my grandparents’ house. It must have been a Saturday, because we always had tea with them on Saturdays, and there must have been remarks about Jews which I’ve forgotten. What I do recall is my grandfather’s response, suggesting that the conversation might have been casually antisemitic in the Jews-are-mean-with-money vein that was unremarkable in those days. My grandfather’s job involved walking the streets of East London, checking people’s electricity meters and collecting payments. I remember him intervening with, “No, but I’ll tell you one thing about the Jews: you can trust them. If I call and they haven’t got the money and they promise to pay if I call back later, they always keep their word.”

My school was a state secondary. I remember nothing about Jewishness there except for one boy in our class who was often bullied, mocked, and picked on. His name was Joel; it was only years later that I realized the name had Jewish connotations (unlikely as it seems now, I was so unaware that it never even occurred to me at the time that such names as Abrahams, Moses, Cohen, etc. were Jewish). But I don’t think poor Joel’s presumed Jewish origins were the reason he was picked on, unless we assume some unconscious group impulse. He was small, weak and passive and my classmates were unfortunately like the bantams my grandparents kept at the bottom of their garden: they pecked the weaker ones to death.

The next stage in my unconscionably slow awakening occurred in the army, when a friend rehearsed the (to me, novel) thesis that the creation of a Jewish homeland might paradoxically have weakened the achievements and contributions to human progress of the word-wide Jewish Diaspora by focussing identity on territory rather than on matters of the mind and spirit. This made me more aware of Jewish contributions to learning and the arts, though I remained lamentably uninformed.

Then, when I was at Oxford, I shared a house with a friend of Eastern European Jewish origins. His consciousness of his roots and our late-night discussions awakened me. It helped that I was reading philosophy and theology and was thus aware of the formative influence of Judaism on Christianity and our contemporary secular morality. My friend had a volume of George Steiner’s essays, including one on Kafka which he annotated so aggressively that it got me reading Kafka myself. (My friend later confessed he hadn’t read him at all, but he didn’t see that as a bar to strong opinions).

Gradually, I became aware that a significant number of my friends were of Jewish extraction, a process that accelerated when I joined the Foreign Office. Despite its perceived pro-Arab bias, an internal historian there used to say that the Office was sustained throughout the twentieth century by Jews and Catholics. One colleague, a friend and mentor whose trading ancestors had over centuries been driven westwards from southern Russia by successive pogroms, introduced me more widely to the writings of Jewish authors, beginning with Leon Feuchtwanger.

This process continued after I left the Foreign Office, perhaps unsurprisingly given that I mixed partly in journalistic and literary circles. It has never been a deliberate quest on my part; I have never sought out people because they were Jewish but increasingly I found that many of those I was drawn to, whose humor I shared, whose abilities I respected and whose friendship I valued were wholly or partly Jewish. I have always found it easy to identify with them, especially with those prepared to articulate their Jewishness.

I’ve asked myself why this should be, without any clear conclusion. To ascribe it to an unconscious inclination or yearning merely begs the question. So far as I know, there is no Jewish blood in my ancestry, though for a while I rather hoped there was on the assumption that Judd—my mother’s maiden name—derives from the German Jude. (It’s most likely Scottish.)

So there you have it: a free rider so far as Jewishness is concerned, a traveler without a ticket. But I’m enjoying the journey.

Alan Judd is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and the author of The Kaiser’s Last Kiss, his eleventh novel, and two biographies. He currently writes for The Spectator and The Daily Telegraph.

Related Content: