Literature and War Readalong: The Oppermanns

Lion Feuchtwanger’s The Oppermanns was Caroline’s November pick for her Literature and War Readalong. I started out reading an English translation, and it was slow going. I’m not sure if that was me or the translation, but after the first 75 pages or so, I luckily found my German copy, and after I switched books, it was a breeze. Quite an emotional breeze…

I was very surprised when the book started with a note stating that shortly before publication, a German family had objected to the name Oppermann, as it is “a good German name,” not an inherently Jewish one. The Germans did not want to appear connected to the book in any way, but it was noted that the objection came too late to change the name of the novel’s family. It took me a while to realize that this note was real and not part of Feuchtwanger’s writing. In fact, I only figured it out when I saw that the book was first published in 1933. For some reason, I had thought it was written much later. With the publication date in mind, the story took on much more immediacy. Much like with Irène Nemirovsky’s Suite Française, this is pretty much a recording of events as they happen, and once I had gotten into the story, I couldn’t help but wonder why no one saw the terror coming.

The Oppermanns are an established, well-off family with a flourishing furniture business, whose headquarters are in Berlin. Martin runs the business, with the help of Gustav, who is at the same time working on a biography of Lessing. Their brother Edgar is a successful surgeon. Their sister Klara is married to an American citizen, though they live in Berlin. With the exception of Gustav, they all have children. At the beginning of the story, Martin is considering partnering with an Aryan competitor to keep the business safe in Germany’s changing climate. For the family, this is the first wake-up call that maybe the situation is a bit more serious than they assumed. The feeling is compounded when other family members begin to be personally affected by the growing anti-Semitism; I felt perhaps most strongly for Martin’s son Berthold who suddenly has to deal with a fanatic new teacher who is determined to humiliate him. The overall unease becomes stronger and stronger as the novel progresses, and it was becoming harder and harder for me to put the book aside.

Aside from it being simply a well-told, emotional story, for me, the strength of it lays in the fact that I could both understand and not understand why not more was done to either stop the fanaticism or leave the country (though this is always easier said than done). I could completely understand why people could not comprehend or didn’t want to think about how things could get worse for the Jewish population in Germany. As long as one is not personally affected, it is easy to push unease aside. Without an immediate concern for one’s safety, there’s no need for alarm; why overreact? One the other hand, if one is on the verge of handing over a family business steeped in tradition to a competitor, if one’s career is threatened, and if one’s child is harassed, isn’t it time to overreact? And to think that all this happened as early as 1933…

I’m so glad that I pushed myself to continue reading, and I’m grateful that Caroline picked this novel. By the way, I might have enjoyed the German text more, but I like the cover of my English edition much better. I wish that big read circle announcing “a PBS masterpiece” weren’t on there, but it begs the question… have you watched it? If yes, what did you think?

 

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26 comments

  1. This sounds good, but now I’m a little worried that I won’t like it as much in English. I’ll have to brush up a bit on my German! 😉

    Hmm… both Matterhorn and the Gert Ledig that Caroline mentions are tempting. Matterhorn because I have it here in this house somewhere, and Ledig because it’s shorter. Ha!

  2. Sounds like everyone should be reading this and books like it as a warning to ensure we don’t quietly ignore the very similar things that are happening again today, though to a different racial group in a different country. Pity the translation didn’t grab you – since my German stops at the name of a couple of beers I’m not in a position to read the original!

  3. Having just read Caroline’s review of this, I can understand why both of you likened it to Suite Franciase. It definitely seems to have that documentary feel, a sense of being there in the moment as everything around you is changing.

    • Yes, it definitely has a documentary feel to it. And here, the sense of it creeping up on you is much stronger. In Suite Francaise, you are dropped straight into the chaos of people trying to leave Paris. Here, you meet a lot of people who simply cannot believe that things will get worse, even as it is happening around them.

  4. GLM has introduced me to some terrific books, and this sounds like one of them. Thank you for the review, TJ. 🙂

    Would you host a German-Lit event in February? I read ‘Me and Kaminski’ in 2016. I loved it. If you would host, I so hope to land myself in a job before that to acquire more German lit.

    • I’ve actually been thinking about maybe hosting an event featuring books set in Berlin. There are so many stories set in that city, not only in German literature. I haven’t yet made up my mind, though.
      I haven’t read Me and Kaminski, but I did read Kehlmann’s Measuring the World, which I loved. If you feel comfortable e-mailing me your address, I will send you a copy. 🙂 mybookstrings at gmail dot com

  5. I don’t know this novel but I do agree with what you say about Suite Française. That novel offers a totally different perspective on the war to the one we normally encounter just because Nemirovsky had no idea how the conflict would turn out. I thought it was particularly interesting about the role of the collaborators. Given that you had problems with the English translation I’m rather wary about picking this up. I really hate poor translations. Perhaps if the library has a copy.

  6. I’ve heard the name, so maybe I did know this was a PBS special. It sounds to me like this book takes place in the years leading up to the war. Typically, I see WWII books that are set me weeks before Jewish people are rounded up, so the focus is always brief doubt, travel to the camps, and the camps. This narrative sounds more interesting to me for sheer variety. I did really enjoy the WWII memoir Shhhh by Raymond Federman, who gives a perspective from a Jewish French boy.

  7. I just read Caroline’s review of this book and between you, you have convinced me to read this one day. That note about the name use is a sobering one, really setting the novel in the period in which it was written.

  8. Thanks for joining me again. Yes, that’s how I felt. I could understand it and not understand it and that’s what makes it so good because one can so easily imagine what it was like.
    I was also surprised to find it so readable. I hadn’t read Feuchtwanger before but I could imagine I would. It seems as if Gustav is a lot like Feuchtwanger.
    I found this so fascinating. I knew that Hitler came to power this early but I totally forgot that the camps and the torture started then already. Both this and Némirovsky’s book are so important.

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