A Day in Lion Feuchtwanger’s Life – On Klaus Modick’s Sunset (2011)

Sunset

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.

or

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.

37 thoughts on “A Day in Lion Feuchtwanger’s Life – On Klaus Modick’s Sunset (2011)

  1. Beautiful review, Caroline! One of my favourite reviews of yours. It is sad that the book hasn’t been translated into English, but I am glad that you reviewed it. Hope one of the publishers translates it. It is interesting to know that Lion Feuchtwanger helped other German writers who were living in California. I didn’t know that. I liked very much what you said about translation and the German word ‘Eisblume’. I think that sometimes even if a word is translatable, the spirit of it is lost in translation and the translated word doesn’t have the power or doesn’t convey the emotion of the original, even if it does convey the meaning. I remember your description of ‘champagne wetter’ in one of your earlier reviews. Thanks for this wonderful review. I will keep an eye for the translation. I hope it comes out sometime.

    • Thanks, Vishy. I wasn’t even sure at first whether I should review it but then I liked it so much and simply had to. I want to read more of Modick and Feuchtwanger as well.
      I don’t know of a lot of translators who are such good writers. It explains why he’s so attentive.
      The funny thing is that while he was so successful at he time he’s now overshadowed by all the others like Thomasn mann or Bertolt Brecht.
      He helped so many of them, without mentioning it. Truly a kindhearted man. And very courageous. One of the first to accuse the Hitler regime.
      There are some words like Eisblume and expressions like Champagner Wetter that cannot really be translated.
      It would be well worth translating him.

  2. I think this might be my favorite review of yours too, Caroline. So beautifully written! How I wish my German were good enough to read this book. The English translation will be worth waiting for.

    • Thanks so much. Carole. As I just wrote to Vishy, I wasn’t even sure whether I should reviwe it but I think it’s such a beautiful book and touches so many interesting topics.
      It is quite frustrating when I look at my shelves and see how many, very probabaly great, German books I have. I have to read more again.
      It’s not a very difficult book but I don’t know how good your German is. It would be a book which would be read in the US as the US and are such a central topic.

      • I think it’s a wonderful service you’re doing, getting these books the attention they deserve.
        My German is nearly non-existent now. It’s been many years since I lived in Germany, unfortunately.

        • Ok, that might not be enough German. 🙂
          I realized that in neglecting books that haven’t been translated I was doing myself a disservice. It’s not always a sign of quality when something is translated and vice versa, I’m afraid.

  3. Lovely review – this sounds amazing and I wish it was available in translation and my German is non-existent….

  4. I have only read one book by Feuchtwanger, The Oppermans, and in translation. It is a novel about a German Jewish family and how the various members reacted to the coming of Nazism. What is impressive is that Feuchtwanger wrote it in 1933 o4 1934, just after Hitler became chancellor, but before Kristalnacht and the full implementation of the regime’s anti-Jewish policies. The Oppermans were prosperous and well-connected, established in business and the professions, but none of that did them any good. At the end of the book all are outside of Germany and coming to terms with their Jewishness, something they had previously failed to take seriously.

    • I’ve got that and wanted to read it. I think it’s an excellent book and shows the authors strenghts as a writer and as a man who was way ahead of his time.
      Sadly this seems to be the only novel available in English. I don’t think editors will start translating his long, historical novels. But you never know.
      He’s an entirely fascinating writer.

  5. Great commentary Caroline – I am becoming more and more interested in the lives and thoughts of notable writers. Though I have not read Feuchtwanger a quick glance at his Wikipedia entry makes it seem that he is a writer worth reading.

    • Thanks, Brian. I’d say he’s worth reading, yes. The Oppermanns is the only one available in English in print and it shows how very early he was in detecting how bad Hitler was.

  6. Love the cover which of course screams California. The attitudes that incubated McCarthyism are still alive and well in certain pockets of American society.

    It would be very painful to leave one’s book collection behind.

    • The covers looks like a film still, I like it very much.
      The McCarthy era must have been really horrible but I can imgine it’s till alive somewhere.
      It must have been particularl bad to leave those books behind as many were first editions and very rare.

  7. It is a shame it hasn’t been translated – I really want to read it now! I don’t suppose you fancy a small translation project on the side, do you? 😉

    • I’m pretty sure you’d like the way he writes. Litlove, funny you should say that, even jokingly – with the right English speaking counterpart, I wouldn’t mind trying something like that. 🙂

  8. I’d very much like to read this – will it be translated into English, do you know? I’m also fascinated by that colony of Germans who settled in Pacific Palisades (at the end of Sunset Boulevard, certainly one reason the book’s title is in English). Their impact on Southern California culture is still being felt today. Have you seen that great three part documentary about the Mann family? The third part is elusive – I’ve yet to catch it when it comes around – but it apparently deals quite a bit with that expat colony of German geniuses in LA.

    • Sunset Boulevard is mentioned, yes, the title must come from there but the imagery is quite literal too.
      I didn’t know their impact could still be felt. That’s interesting.
      I don’t think there ae any plans for translating him. I haven’t checked whether it’s available in French though. Could be.
      I have the Mann DVDs here but only watched a brief bit which looked very good. Hopefully I get a chnace to watch all of it soon.

  9. I know I often said I like your review…I really do. I know I might never read this because it hasn’t been translated yet and because even if it has been it might not be sold here.

    I can see that you really like this book because you reviewed beautifully. Your closing sentence makes me wonder about the book.

    • Thanks Novia. 🙂 I gues we write the best reviews when we really like a book. I loved it.
      The way it was written is beautiful and the topic is fascinating.

  10. I am always so curious to know what sorts of books are published in other countries that we never hear about here. It’s a pity this one hasn’t been translated. Is it a novel? It sounds like nonfiction (or just a story based on facts?). I didn’t realize there was a large community in California of German writers after the war–imagine 30,000 books! And I thought I had a lot. An author to at least note down in case he does get translated!

    • Yes, it’s a novel. The way he chose to write, focussing on one day is very fictional. Of course he knows the author inside out since he wrote about him.
      I discovered a few more books on the subject. Non-fiction this time. The list of artists and authors is huge. I still have my Vicki Baum biography to read. She was a success in Hollywood. One of the rare. There should be a lot about these writers i the biography as well.

  11. This sounds fantastic Caroline. Alas! out of reach for the anglofone.

    Agree with the praise for your review as well – I almost wish it was less effective, as I keenly want to read this. It reminds me of Visitation – the technique of unfolding, as you say, from a single fixed point; a day here, a house in Erpenbeck’s book.

    • Thanks, Leroy. It’s a wonderful book, it should be translated. I hadn’t thought of comparing it to Erpenbeck but I have still not read it. Sunset is quite fluid, a bit dreamlike. I thought when browsing Erpebeck was more episodic. I need to read it soon.
      Modick has written quite a lot I have no idea why I never read him before.

  12. Pingback: Best Books of 2013 | Beauty is a Sleeping Cat

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