Friday, 8 September 2017

Book Review: This is the Hour by Lion Feuchtwanger

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There were many historical periods, when having your own mind and views could considerably complicate or even endanger the life of yourself as well as of your family and friends, especially if you were an artist longing to express yourself in all regards and unwilling to make compromises. Certainly, among artists too there always were those who out of conviction, opportunism or just cowardice supported even the most oppressive and cruel regime. Others, however, – and usually the greatest – risked much for their art testing given limits and subtly criticising power. One of the latter was the Spanish romantic painter Francisco de Goya. This is the Hour by Lion Feuchtwanger follows his fictionalised path to understanding and to a new way of painting in the years around 1800, when he lived his infatuation for the Duchess of Alba and rose to be first court painter of King Charles IV. despite disregarding accepted rules as well as challenging the Holy Inquisition.

Lion Feuchtwanger was born in Munich, Germany, in July 1884. Still in high school, he won literary awards and after his studies of History, Philosophy and German Philology at the universities of Munich and Berlin, he wrote articles for magazines and plays. He published his first historical novel, The Ugly Duchess (Die häßliche Herzogin), in 1923 and previously written Jew Süss (Jud Süß) in 1925. His key novel and first part of a trilogy about the rise of National-Socialism, Success (Erfolg), appeared in 1930. Its remaining parts, The Oppermanns (Die Geschwister Oppenheimer: 1933) and Exile (Exil: 1939), followed when the Jewish author already lived in French exile. During the same period he wrote the Josephus Trilogy (comprising Josephus [Der Jüdische Krieg: 1932], The Jew of Rome [Die Söhne: 1935] and Josephus and the Emperor [Der Tag wird kommen: 1945]). In 1941 Lion Feuchtwanger fled to the USA. Most notable among his late novels are This is the Hour (Goya oder Der arge Weg der Erkenntnis: 1951), 'Tis Folly to Be Wise: Or, Death and Transfiguration of Jean Jacques Rousseau (Narrenweisheit oder Tod und Verklärung des Jean-Jacques Rousseau: 1952) and Raquel: The Jewess of Toledo (Die Jüdin von Toledo: 1955). Lion Feuchtwanger died in Los Angeles, California, USA, in December 1958.

In France This is the Hour of revolution already and also of General Napoleon Bonaparte who begins his rise, while across the border in Catholic Spain life still goes its usual course despite the war with Britain and increasingly harsh claims from France. From inside, however, the Bourbon King Charles IV and his Italian wife have little to fear thanks to the Holy Inquisition that keeps repressing new ideas. Through talent and hard work the farmer’s son from Aragón called Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes has become one of their most important court painters. He frequents (and portrays) the rich and the powerful including the royal family, but takes great care not to meddle with politics. Then his friend Don Miguel begs him to ask for ending the banishment of a liberal writer in return for “ceding” his mistress Josefa “Pepa” Tudó to his friend the Prime Minister. Goya feels uncomfortable about the political implications of the bargain and nonetheless makes it because he’s tired of Doña Pepa and already courts Doña Cayetana, the beautiful and capricious Duquesa de Alba. He knows that this new infatuation of his can only bring both of them harm. Alas, desire is stronger than reason. Their affair is passionate, confusing and dangerous. As a painter Goya matures and begins to disregard the established rules for good painting in order to catch the real essence of the people whom he portrays. Thus his pictures get a political dimension. Despite all, he is appointed as first court painter after the death of his brother-in-law. During a quarrel with Doña Cayetana on her Andalusian estate Sanlúcar, Goya loses his hearing and as he gets used to his new condition he as well as his art turn ever more political attracting the attention of the Holy Inquisition…

Rather than a state-of-the-art biography of Francisco de Goya This is the Hour is a character study of a painter on the verge of modernity who develops political conscience and discovers the lengua universal of art as a means to hold up a mirror to his contemporaries, above all to those in power. Despite references to some of Goya’s most important works as well as to different events in the painter’s life and in Spanish history, the three parts of the novel representing three stages of his personal and artistic development seem to follow only loosely the true story. In fact, a glance into the biography of the Duquesa de Alba suffices to see that the author took great liberties describing her relationship to the painter that might or might not have been a sexual affair. Maybe the lack of reliable sources concerning their love accounts for the fact that it took the usually quick writer seven years to complete his novel. However, the historical figures in the book and their machinations as well as the general atmosphere of repression and fear of the Holy Inquisition in Spain around 1800 that the author evokes with great skill feel exceedingly authentic.

All things considered, I must admit that This is the Hour by Lion Feuchtwanger hasn’t been the most intriguing biography of a painter that I ever read, nor would I call it the most reliable one given that the author meticulously described a great number of very private moments, emotions and even thoughts although quite obviously there was and is no way of knowing anything certain about them. Of course, this is a characteristic of all fictionalised biographies that approaches some more, some less to historical fiction. I enjoyed reading the book for acquainting me a little with the Spanish painter and his eventful life during the decisive period when he found his palette, his brushstroke and his (political) voice. At any rate, it was informative enough to inspire me to learn more about the man who is considered today a precursor of modern painting. And also the author’s rich imagination, makes it worthwhile reading.

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1 comment:

  1. Hello, I check your new stuff regularly. Your story-telling style is awesome, keep it up!

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