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 (18841958) 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 the author of eleven nov­els and two biogra­phies. He pre­vi­ous­ly served as a sol­dier in the British army and as a diplo­mat in the For­eign Office. Judd is a Fel­low of the Roy­al Soci­ety of Lit­er­a­ture and has won numer­ous awards includ­ing the Guardian Fic­tion Prize and the Heine­mann Award. He cur­rent­ly writes for The Spec­ta­tor and The Dai­ly Tele­graph. He lives in Sus­sex with his family.