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Klaus Modick
translation by Rachel McNicholl

 

Sunset

 

Arnold Zweig’s letter is over there on the desk. He didn’t know, Zweig wrote, to which angel he should promise a candle so that it would guide Feuchtwanger back to Europe. Ah, Zweig! Angels are no good to him. Could an angel put this house on its back and carry it to Europe, like a giant winged snail? You would need to charter a cargo vessel for the 30,000 volumes in the library alone. Do angels get rid of skunks? He can’t even leave his own house because there’s a skunk right outside the door. No false moves and nothing that would annoy the watchdogs: that’s what he’s condemned to. There are plenty of skunks out there already; they’ve been there for years, waiting for him, wanting to mark him with their spray, to keep him imprisoned forever in his magnificent villa overlooking the stillness of the ocean. Ridiculous, he thinks. What a ridiculous metaphor. Even Brecht wouldn’t have bought it.

Not long after he and Marta – after much hesitation – had applied for US citizenship, a letter came informing him that, before the application could be approved, he would have to attend an interview to answer some questions. At least he didn’t have to face one of those public witch trials run by the McCarthy inquisition, the kind Brecht and Eisler had been dragged through a year earlier. He wasn’t being subpoenaed to appear before the Commission in Washington, just to the local immigration office, which was a good sign. No doubt he owed that to friends and admirers in the Roosevelt administration who still had a certain influence, even if they were no longer in power. Besides, he persuaded himself, what could they possibly accuse him of, what could they do to him? The hearing would be a mere formality. And yet, ever since the subpoena had arrived, he had been sleeping badly, waking from nightmares soaked in sweat, and barely eating because of the niggling pains in his stomach.

Marta hadn’t been summoned but was allowed to accompany him, so on a mild autumn day in 1948 she drove him to the Santa Monica Federal Building on Wilshire Boulevard. They parked the car under palm trees that poked their dusty heads straight up into the blue sky, like tattered sisal brooms up-ended. They showed the subpoena to a uniformed porter, who flicked indifferently through a sheaf of papers and instructed them to go to Room 613 on the sixth floor. Feuchtwanger found it hard to breathe in the cramped wooden elevator compartment. Marta dabbed the beads of sweat from his brow and nose with a handkerchief drenched in eau de cologne.

At the end of a white-walled corridor, with closed doors left and right and harsh neon lighting above, a door was open. Room 613. Three men and a woman were standing at a window, looking down at Westwood Park, each holding a lit cigarette. The smoke hung almost motionless in the air like blue-grey fog. Marta flapped her hand, Feuchtwanger gave a slight cough. A man with a military-style crew cut welcomed them with the usual breezy patter and a firm handshake, introducing himself and then the others. Feuchtwanger barely understood their names or forgot them as quickly as he heard them. The man who had greeted them was the chairman, the other two gentlemen – though Feuchtwanger wasn’t too sure about this either – his assistants or committee members. One of them was rather stout, the other very slight. Laurel and Hardy, thought Feuchtwanger to himself. The woman, an enormously overweight blonde, was a secretary whose job was to record the proceedings. Opposite the window there was a large boardroom table with files on it. And a black telephone. On one side of the table a single chair awaited Feuchtwanger. Between the other side of the table and the wall, three chairs for the committee; a fourth chair to the left, at the far end of the table, for the secretary. The American flag hung limply from a head-high pole. On the wall, a large gilt-framed portrait of George Washington; next to it a smaller black-and-white photo of the sitting President, Harry S. Truman, smiling benignly through the haze of tobacco smoke. Clearly, no one had expected Marta to accompany him, so another chair was quickly produced and set down in the far corner of the room, well away from the meeting table.

The chairman opened one of the files and leafed through it. The secretary sat poised with pencil and shorthand pad at the ready.

“Dr Feuchtwanger,” the chairman began, nearly tying his tongue in knots as he pronounced the name. He looked up and pointedly pushed the file a few centimetres away from him, as if there were no need for such bureaucratic formalities. “We do appreciate that you have taken the trouble to answer some questions before we can reach a decision on your application for US citizenship.”

“And your wife’s application,” added Laurel. “No offence to Mrs Feuchtwanger,” he went on, crooking an apologetic smile in her direction, “but your testimony should suffice, Doctor.” Like his colleagues, he seemed relieved that he could avoid the surname by using his title instead.

The chairman adjusted his spectacles and peered at the file again. “You entered the USA in 1940, initially on a temporary visitor visa issued by the US Consulate in Marseilles.” He turned the page with a rustle and continued: “You then entered a second time via Mexico with an indefinite visa and the required residence permit.”

“That is correct. It is all in my application. The process was rather roundabout, but completely legal and–”

“Of course, Doctor, of course. We have all the relevant documentation, and everything seems to be in order. But we would like to know why you are only now applying for US citizenship. After eight years? Couldn’t you have applied much sooner?”

Feuchtwanger smiled. Almost triumphantly. He was prepared for this question, and the nature of his response was sure to take the committee by surprise. From the briefcase he had put down beside his chair on the cold, shiny linoleum floor he produced a book and placed it on the table. “That’s why,” he said.

“What is that?”

“A book.”

“A book?” The chairman picked the book up with the tips of his fingers, as if it were an explosive object. “Proud Destiny,” he read, half aloud. “A novel by Lion…” His halting voice tailed off, giving the surname a wide berth.

“Oh, sir, sir!” said Hardy, all excited. “Look here.” He was pointing at the cover image, across which the title and author’s name were set. “Isn’t that, um, Ben, uh–”

“Right, right,” nodded the chairman. “It is Benjamin Franklin…isn’t it?” He gave Feuchtwanger a puzzled look.

“I am happy to explain it to you, gentlemen,” said Feuchtwanger, still smiling, somewhat indulgently now. “What you have in your hands is one of the first copies of my new novel, hot off the press. The English translation, that is. The Literary Guild is about to launch 600,000 copies of this first edition on the mark–”

“Indeed, Doctor, thank you,” interrupted the chairman. “We know of course that you are a very successful writer. We have even been informed,” he thumbed through the file, “yes, here it is, that you are considered one of the greatest novelists in the world. But what does that,” he tapped the book with his index finger, “have to do with the fact that you are only now applying for citizenship?”

“This book,” said Feuchtwanger, trying to assume a solemn tone despite his squeaky voice, “is my gift to America, my expression of gratitude to your wonderful country for taking me in.”

“I see, I see,” nodded the chairman. He opened the book, leafed through it, studied a few pages, and looked up, baffled. “What is your novel about, then?”

“It is about Benjamin Franklin’s term as special envoy at the court of Versailles. He was seeking French aid for the American colonists in their struggle for independence from England and was instrumental in arranging shipments of arms to America. The resulting political developments ultimately led, after the American Revolution, to the French Revolution.”

“Aha, aha,” said the chairman, suppressing a yawn.

“So…revolution?” asked Laurel rhetorically, “Do you believe or have you ever considered that a Marxist revolution might be possible here in America?”

“No, never. Although I do have the impression that many Americans believe it or fear it. My book is about bourgeois revolutions.”

“Mh-hm, mh-hm,” went the chairman.

“I had been working on the concept for this book for twenty years,” said Feuchtwanger, who had spoken falteringly at first but was warming to his topic now, as if dictating to his secretary. “But it was not until Roosevelt’s America entered the wa–”

“Roosevelt?” asked Laurel, even more rhetorically.

Feuchtwanger nodded. “It was not until America entered the war against Hitler in support of the Soviet Union–”

“Soviet Union?” Laurel scribbled a note.

Feuchtwanger continued undeterred. “It was only then that I fully understood the events in eighteenth-century France and how they influenced the course of history into the present. This alliance between East and West was the only way Europe could rid itself of Hitler’s fascism. Just as the historical bond between–”

“That’s fine, Doctor, thank you. It’s obviously a long book, so maybe we can leave it for the moment and move on to–”

Hardy whispered something to the chairman, but the latter muttered a dismissive “no, no”, leafed through the file again, stopped short, shook his head, and looked at Feuchtwanger half doubtfully, half sternly. “When you were evacuated from France, with the aid of the Emergency Rescue Committee, the papers you were carrying were not in your name but that of a certain J.L. Wetcheek, an American citizen. How did you come to have these papers, Doctor? And why were you travelling under an alias?”

“It is the literal translation of my name, Feuchtwanger. Feuchte Wange in German means ‘wet cheek’.”

“Really.” The chairman cracked a thin smile. “That’s very amusing, but why–”

“I published a book under the pseudonym Wetcheek back in the twenties, while I was still in Germany, so it seemed obvious–”

“What’s the book called?” interrupted Hardy eagerly. “And why did you write it under a pseudonym? Is it a piece of political propaganda or agitation?”

“It is poetry.”

“Poetry?” Hardy looked stunned.

Feuchtwanger nodded. “And the title of the book is Pep.”

“Pep. What does ‘pep’ mean?”

“I thought ‘pep’ was an American expression,” said Feuchtwanger. “As far as I know it is a bit like ‘chin up’ or ‘bravo’, that sort of thing. Is that not right?”

“Yes, that’s right,” said Hardy, “though the word is a little out of fashion these days.”

“My mother still says it sometimes,” grinned Laurel.

A slight titter broke the silence at the secretary’s end of the table.

“Miss O’Brian – please! Gentlemen!” said the chairman impatiently. “How come you used this pseudonym on an official United States document, Doctor?”

“It was Mr Fry of the Rescue Committee who suggested it, in Marseilles, when–”

“Mr Varian Fry?” asked Laurel.

Feuchtwanger nodded.

“A Roosevelt man,” Laurel muttered to the chairman, making a note.
“I was in an internment camp in the south of France where the Vichy regime was holding German émigrés. As a prominent anti-Nazi, there was a real danger that I might be handed over to the Gestapo. With the help of my brave wife and Mr Fry, I managed to escape. I dressed in women’s clothing and that is how–”

“You disguised yourself…as a woman?” probed Laurel, making a note and whispering something to the chairman again.

The secretary giggled.

The chairman suppressed a grin. “Please continue, Doctor.”

“In order to cross the Spanish border I needed papers, but because my name was on all the Nazis’ wanted lists, the Consulate, thanks to Mr Fry, issued a visa in the name of Wetcheek. Mrs Roosevelt personally supported this plan, by the way, and it had the President’s express approval.”

“Very unusual,” said the chairman, “very unusual indeed. Women’s clothes, a false name. Not exactly legal, but under the circumstances, perhaps not entirely…” He let the end of his sentence trail off, lit a cigarette and proffered the pack to Feuchtwanger.

“Please, have a cigarette.”

“Thank you, I do not smoke.”

Marta coughed in the background on behalf of her husband.

“Now.” said the chairman, as he leafed through the file again. “We have received information from a reliable source, according to which you stated that you have no intention of becoming an American citizen. Is that so?” His tone had suddenly become sharp.

Feuchtwanger started. He had fielded the questions thus far without resorting to excuses or untruths, but this was one trap he certainly hadn’t expected. It was true; he had said it – once, in a careless moment, and he knew exactly who the “reliable source” was. Shortly after the end of the war, he and Marta had thrown a party and invited Hollywood people, friends and colleagues. Robert Nathan, James Cairn and Irving Stone were among the American writers present. The atmosphere was fabulous: it was almost like a victory celebration to mark the Germans’ capitulation. Breaking with his usual habits, Feuchtwanger had allowed himself a cocktail and then, loosened up by the first one, another in quick succession. At some point Stone had asked him when he intended to apply for US citizenship, and why anyone would voluntarily leave a house such as theirs with its views of the palms, the beach and the ocean. Without even thinking, Feuchtwanger impulsively replied that he wasn’t at all sure he wanted to be an American. Stone frowned and glowered at Feuchtwanger, saying that didn’t surprise him at all, as Feuchtwanger was known to be a personal friend of Stalin’s. Right then, Feuchtwanger knew he had made a mistake, but it was too late; the words were out. He didn’t even attempt to explain his remark to Stone. How could he make him understand that he couldn’t shake off a lingering sense of guilt, the haunting feeling that he was safe whereas so many had been left behind. It was probably the same sort of feeling that made Franz Werfel reluctant to give up his Jewish identity. All the dead, all the dispersed, all those without a home. He was still plagued by nightmares in which endless lines of desperate people queued outside the US Consulate in Marseilles without even the slightest chance of a visa, while his had practically fallen into his lap because of his connections. Could he have done more? Whom could he have rescued? How many? That’s why he had said what he said to Stone. Perhaps also because children and drunks sometimes speak the truth.

“Doctor?” The chairman’s voice called him back; insistent. “Did you not understand the question? Did you in fact–”

“I never said anything like that.”

Uttered quietly but firmly, it was the only lie he ever put on record in that hearing or in any of the others that followed.

 

From Sunset, by Klaus Modick. © Eichborn Verlag, 2011. Translation © Rachel McNicholl.

 

Klaus Modick (b. 1951) is a prize-winning novelist, essayist and translator based in Oldenburg, Germany. He completed his doctorate on Lion Feuchtwanger in 1980 and worked as a part-time lecturer and copywriter before going freelance as a writer and translator (from English). He has held guest lectureships in Germany and the US. Much of his work deals with German-American relations, particularly during the McCarthy era. The theme of exile is also central to the novel Sunset (2010), in which the friendship between émigrés Bertolt Brecht and Lion Feuchtwanger is described.

Sunset was nominated for the German Book Prize and the Wilhelm Raabe Literature Prize in 2011. Modick’s latest novel (2013) is Klack. For further information (in German), see http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Klaus_Modick. The entry is accurate, according to Modick.

Rachel McNicholl is a freelance translator and editor based in Dublin, Ireland. Recent translations include “A Protagonist’s Nemesis” by Lydia Mischkulnig in Best European Fiction 2013 (ed. Aleksandar Hemon; Dalkey Archive Press, 2012) and “The Daily Affront” by Gabriele Wohmann in Trinity Journal of Literary Translation vol. 1, 2013 (www.trinityjolt.com). Other authors she has translated include Gabriele Haefs, Yoko Tawada and Sigrid Weigel.

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MadHat, Issue 14, Spring 2013