Apologies for using this misleading title. Sunset is the German title but, unfortunately, it hasn’t been translated yet.
Klaus Modick is a German author whose books regularly win prizes. He is also well-known as a translator of English and American books. John O’Hara and Nathanael West are a few of the authors he has translated. He wrote his PhD on the Jewish German writer Lion Feuchtwanger and frequently returns to him in his writing.
Sunset tells about one day in Lion Feuchtwanger’s life. Using flashbacks and memory tags, we are given insight into his life, an era and his lifelong friendship with Bertolt Brecht.
It’s a day in 1956. Feuchtwanger is alone in his home in Pacific Palisades. His wife is out of the house for the day. In the early morning he receives a telegram. Feuchtwanger is the last of the great German authors who is still living in California. During the war a lot of them stayed here. The Manns, Brecht, Werfel, Baum… Feuchtwanger was the most successful one, the one who made the most money. His house in Pacific Palisades is a huge villa. Unlike most others he doesn’t want to return to Germany. He thinks of his home country, of his childhood, he misses using the language and the snow and many other things but he loves the US and the Germany he once knew, is gone anyway.
The telegram he receives informs him of Brecht’s death. What a shock. Not only does he lose his best and maybe only friend, he is reminded of his own mortality. He is 16 years older than Brecht, it should have been him first.
The book then moves back in time and describes how the two met in Germany, how Feuchtwanger became the young Brecht’s mentor, how he knew immediately that he met a genius.
The beauty of the language struck me from the very first sentence. Modick uses images sparingly but to great effect.
In the inner courtyard the roses wither in tired opulence. It almost looks as if they were bleeding to death.
The smell of paper and dust wafts through the open door of the salon. The ink of the night trickles from the east into the fog.
Modick uses one day in the life of Feuchtwanger to unfold a whole life, exploring various different aspects and themes. Feuchtwanger’s books are infused with stories from his life. The daughter who died barely one year old, things people say, characters, such a lot is taken from his life.
He loves the US but like so many others he is scrutinized by the McCarthy government, suspected to sympathize with Stalin.
An early memory haunts him on the afternoon of the telegram. As a child, on an excursion with the whole family, Lion fell into a swamp. He was scared of drowning, cried for help but nobody came to his assistance, neither his parents, nor any of his eight siblings. They only laughed. This episode points to a recurring theme in Feuchtwanger’s life – being ridiculed. People like Thomas Mann and many others envied him his whole life and tried to mask this with mockery.
The friendship with Brecht is peculiar. They are so different but influence each other. Brecht has ideas, Feuchtwanger money and discipline. They often work together. They share a passion for women; both are adulterous men.
Towards the end of his life, writing is what keeps Feuchtwanger going. He writes one long novel after the other. After his prostate operation there is not much more left, he thinks. Passion is gone. And now Brecht is dead. But he doesn’t despair. He works out, works hard on his novels, enjoys life, loves the US and still hopes for citizenship.
Modick let’s us experience the way Feuchtwanger wrote – collecting ideas, noting down dreams, fleeting thoughts, images, symbols – nothing is lost, everything kept in notebooks. It takes a long time until he captures the perfect sentence, the perfect description. He approaches his work slowly, using information, memories, dreams.
Modick is a translator. It isn’t surprising that language is important in the book.Feuchtwanger mediates on language. On how you can translate things but they still don’t mean the same . The German word “Eisblume” which haunts him on this afternoon is a good example. In English “Eisblume” means “frost pattern” but literally “Eisblume” means “flower of ice”. A world of difference.
Modick paints the portrait of an interesting man. Successful and proud of it, yet modest and incredibly kind and generous. Without Feuchtwanger’s money many an author would have suffered greatly. Yet most of them didn’t even know the money came from him.
I have been fascinated since years by the German writers who escaped Germany and fled to California. The names in the novel are illustrious. Not only the German ones. Feuchtwanger knew them all, the actors, film makers, studio bosses. The German authors were all hoping to make money in Hollywood but that didn’t happen for most. Brecht and many others failed. Feuchtwanger regularly sold the movie rights to his books but they were hardly ever made into movies.
Feuchtwanger was a passionate collector of books. He first collected books when he was still in Germany but those were confiscated and probably burned by the Nazis. In his French exile he started another collection, most got lost when he fled. Finally in the US he started again and when he died he owned far over 30,000 books.
Sunset is a wonderful title for a book which describes the evening of the life of a writer and an era which is long gone. It is infused with the fading light of a dying sun, sinking slowly into the ocean. The title is perfect and so is the German cover with its sepia photo.
Modick is compared to authors like Grass, Lenz and Walser, it’s easy to see why. It is a real shame he hasn’t been translated.