Lion Feuchtwanger (1884-1958), a distinguished member of the post-World War I German literary scene, lived and wrote in political exile for the last quarter-century of his life. His masterwork, Success, is one of the great novels of the 20th century.
Lion Feuchtwanger was born on July 7, 1884, in Munich, Germany, the son of a wealthy Jewish industrialist. At Berlin and Munich universities he studied philosophy, literature, and ancient and modern languages and also developed a working interest in theater; in fact, while still a student he composed three short Old Testament plays—Joel, King Saul, and Uriah's Wife (1905-1906). After graduation he became a drama critic for Die Schaubühne (The Stage) from 1908 to 1911. In 1912 he married Martha Loffler.
Feuchtwanger was an inveterate traveller, and in 1914, shortly after the outbreak of World War I, he was in Tunisia (which was then French) and was arrested as an enemy alien and imprisoned. He escaped after a short internment, returned to Germany, and served in the army. After his discharge he wrote several anti-war plays (one, entitled Peace, was modeled on an Aristophanes anti-war play), but wartime patriotic fervor led to their suppression. Back in Berlin he began graduate work in literature and received a Ph.D. in 1918; his thesis subject was the great 19th-century German-Jewish poet Heinrich Heine.
Feuchtwanger's own early poetry reflected his socialist and pacifist views, and in 1918 he founded a literary newspaper, Der Spiegel (The Mirror), to promote "revolutionary artistic tendencies." His editorship led to the discovery of the experimental radical playwright Bertolt Brecht, whose work Feuchtwanger enthusiastically promoted; they later collaborated on several plays, including Das Leben Eduard des zweiten von England (1928), an adaptation of Christopher Marlowe's Edward II.
Feuchtwanger was an energetic man and a prolific writer: he translated literary classics from the Spanish, the English, and the ancient Greek and worked as an editor and a reviewer, yet still found time for his own plays, novels, and poems. He finished his first novel, Jew Süss (Power), in 1921 but was unable to find a publisher for it until 1925, when it became an international best-seller. Set in the 18th century, it deals with an identity crisis: in order to gain social power, the novel's protagonist renounces his Jewish heritage and becomes assimilated into the mainstream of German culture. In 1928, although he had not yet visited the United States, Feuchtwanger, under the pseudonym J. L. Wetcheek (a literal translation of "Feuchtwanger"), wrote Pep, a book of satirical poems about America.
The Novel Success
Feuchtwanger's reputation was initially as a playwright and later as a historical novelist, but his masterpiece, Erfolg (1930; Success), was a contemporary roman à clef, a novel of a gloriously liberal but doomed Weimar Republic moving inexorably toward fascism. Published just three years before Hitler's rise to power, the novel is not only prophetic of Germany's totalitarianism, but uncanny in its multi-level depiction of the corruptive process.
The narrative scheme of Success was almost certainly influenced by movie techniques. As in John Dos Passos' USA trilogy and Aldous Huxley's Point Counter Point, the main plot line, where it exists at all, is subordinated to multiple parallel sub-plots, so that there is, as in film, frequent "cross-cutting." Dozens of characters are successfully manipulated, and so skillfully that when a character reappears after an absence of 40 or 50 pages he is almost immediately recalled by the reader.
The widely diffuse central story line concerns the futile efforts of a young woman, Johanna Krain, to free her lover, Krüger, from prison. As an art museum curator he has grievously offended the conservative Bavarian folk by exhibiting two unconventional paintings: one is an unusual treatment of "Joseph and His Brothers," and the other is a female nude. With the first painting Feuchtwanger hit upon a sly symbol; the Munich populace is too unimaginative to see the connection between themselves and Joseph's businesslike, short-memoried brothers, but they are nevertheless troubled by the painting. Much less subtle is the second painting, which leads to Krüger's trial for adultery with the painting's nude subject (of which he is actually innocent) and breach of public morality; unfortunately for Krüger, too many marginal matters obtrude, and he is found guilty and languishes in prison for several dispiriting years before dying there. Krüger is, even before Hitler's advent, a victim of Hitlerism, of provincial mentality and rigged justice.
Hitler is represented in the novel as a character named Rupert Kutzner, leader of a lunatic-fringe right-wing group whose power grows and moves centerward as ministers and industrialists find the group useful. Other important replications are Kaspar Pröckl (Bertolt Brecht), Jacques Tüverlin (Feuchtwanger himself), and Hessreiter (either Krupp or I. G. Farben). Quite probably all of the characters have real-life models, just as the depicted events mirror actual developments in the decline of German democracy. But it's not the historical literalness that accounts for the novel's greatness; rather, it's the wealth and depth of Feuchtwanger's moral imagination. Dotting the book's landscapes are startling ironies and haunting tableaux: the testimony that sinks the decent, civilized Krüger comes from an arrant perjurer, the hooligan chauffeur Ratzenberger, who is not so incidentally a member of Kutzner's party; the liberal defense attorney, Geyer, is mugged by his own cadging, nihilistic son, Erich; the folksy Chaplinesque comic, Balthasar Hierl, secretly fears and detests his adoring public; the once-liberal minister Klenk, swept to the right by the political winds, finds himself strangely and deeply moved by the left-revolutionary film "Orlov" (actually Eisenstein's masterpiece, "Potemkin"); the great painter Landholzer has slyly found "asylum" in a mental institution, which he finds more congenial than the outside world.
Success's approximately 800 pages constitute a conspectus of Germany in the 1920s, brilliantly dissecting the private and public tensions that were building to a national crisis and, ultimately, to a European calamity. Few novels have been as ambitious and fewer still as fulfilling. English language readers are the beneficiaries of an exemplary translation by Willa and Edwin Muir (1930).
Exile in the United States
In 1932 and 1933 Feuchtwanger travelled in America and began writing a trilogy that reached back into Roman antiquity, focusing on the complex figure of Josephus, the Roman-Jewish soldier-historian. Upon his return to Germany Feuchtwanger's Berlin house and his fortune were confiscated by the Nazi government. He fled to France, where he lived and wrote until French capitulation in 1940 led to his confinement in a concentration camp; that incarceration and his escape in female disguise are described in Der Teufel in Frankreich (1941; The Devil in France). Still under a German death sentence for his writings and his avowed politics, Feuchtwanger fled with his wife to Spain, then to Portugal, and in late 1940 reached the United States, which became his permanent home.
Feuchtwanger's political militancy and creative powers were not at all blunted by exile. In addition to his Josephus trilogy, he wrote Die Geschwister Oppenheim (1933; The Oppermanns, 1934), a powerful novel of a wealthy Jewish family cheated of their department store through the connivance of a competitor and the government; an allegorical novel followed, Der Falsche Nero (1936; The Pretender), in which a lowly potter (read "Hitler") is elevated by a capitalist to a position of pseudo emperor, but is finally overthrown and crucified along with his supporters.
After World War II's end, Feuchtwanger reverted to his first fictional love, the historical novel: Die Füchse Im Weinberg (1947; Proud Destiny) documents Benjamin Franklin's role in forging an alliance between France and the American insurrectionists during the revolutionary struggle against England. Goya (1951; This Is the Hour) portrays the tempestuous personality of the great Spanish painter against the background of his times. Spanische Ballade (1955; Raquel) is an intriguing romance of medieval Spain, exploring the interactions of its three central types—the businessman, the adventurer, and the historian.
Feuchtwanger died in Los Angeles, California, on December 21, 1958.
Further Reading on Lion Feuchtwanger
Two English-language studies of Feuchtwanger are Lothar Kahn's Insight and Action (1975) and John M. Spalek's Lion Feuchtwanger: the man, his ideas, his work (1972). Two important works in German are Günther Horst Gottschalk's Die "Verkleidungstrachnik" Lion Feuchtwanger in Waffen für Amerika (1965) and a full-length critical study of Success Egon Bruckener's Lion Feuchtwanger's Roman "Erfolg" (1978).