Success by Lion Feuchtwanger (8/2/2014) ★★★★
It’s hard to find anything written about this book. It’s been out of print a long time. What you do find describes it as being about the rise and fall of the Nazi party. That is part of what it’s about. It was published in 1930 and the author eventually found to his surprise that, to paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of the fall of the Nazis were premature. Feuchtwanger was imprisoned in France, first by the French because he was a German, and then by the Vichy government because he was wanted by the Nazis. It’s sometimes hard to please anyone. He escaped with the aid of an American diplomat aided by Eleanor Roosevelt. That sounds like the idea for a pretty good novel.
On the surface, Success is mostly about Martin Krüger, who is convicted and jailed unjustly in post World War I Bavaria, and Johanna Krain, who spends the better part of two years trying to free him. This story segues into an extremely thinly veiled, novelized version of the beer hall putsch of 1923. Success was published in 1930, and at that point it appeared that the Nazi party was disappearing into insignificance. It wasn’t until the Reichstag elections of September 1930 that the party polled a significant percentage of the vote. While the novel is a damning account of the early rise of the Nazi party, that doesn’t appear to me to be the actual point of the story.
I won’t tell you about Krüger’s fate in case you decide to find and read the book. In my (humble) opinion though, what Success is really about can be summed up by the quote from its final pages,
Now the voice was speaking of the Market of Justice…Martin Krüger…found himself in one of the worst booths in that market. Do not tell me that he is dead and his fate is finished with. The market still goes on, and you are all doomed to be its customers.
Success is about injustice and the breakdown of law and order, which are two different things. It is set in Bavaria in the early 1920’s, but the story is more universal than that. There are a few people who are dead set against Martin Krüger being freed, a few people who want to free him, and a lot of people who don’t really care. Throughout the book, this single injustice is shrugged away as just one example in a society that doesn’t appear to value justice since the end of the Great War (WWI). As the True Germans (Nazis) begin to rise and become more and more violent, they become the obstacle to Krüger’s freedom. But even when the putsch fails embarrassingly (as did the real one) and their leader Rupert Kutzner (aka Adolf Hitler) flees the field leaving his supporters to the guns of the Army, and it appears that the True Germans are being swept away from power (temporarily as it turned out in real life), the injustice rolls on.
Finally, the novel is also about how little anyone can actually do to help someone else when society turns its back on him. There is a great quote in this book. “Life is a primitive jungle through which everyone had to hack his own path.” That is a realization most parents are forced to accept in some form as their children become adults, and the conclusion that Johanna Krain ultimately comes to.
I can’t honestly say that I was impressed by the actual prose. It’s hard to know whether the issues were with the writing or the translation, but it drags in parts and the characters flip emotionally with a speed that can give whiplash to a reader trying to keep up. There are also a lot of superfluous characters who don’t have any real role in the story. Having said that though, I was never tempted to give up on it and the second half picked up a great deal from the first. It’s worth getting ahold of a copy. It is an ambitious and important story. I’ll certainly be looking for some of Feuchtwanger’s other works.