Sunday, October 19, 2008

Reviews of obscure books:
Lion Feuchtwanger's Raquel: The Jewess of Toledo

Feuchtwanger, Lion. Raquel: The Jewess of Toledo. New York: Messner, 1956. 433pp. Translated from the German by Ernst Kaiser and Eithne Wilkins.

The first hint I got that this novel held any great significance was several years ago. I received an email from a gentleman who was searching through LibraryThing and saw that I owned a copy. He said he’d been trying to find it for years, and would I like to sell it? I did not, and thought it nervy of him to ask! Then, in the comments on one of my blog posts from December 2006, Elena Maria Vidal mentioned she’d read Raquel: The Jewess of Toledo in college. She called it “a great love story between Alfonso King of Castile, who was married to Eleanor of Aquitaine’s daughter, and his Jewish mistress. It was a fascinating look at the Jews in Spain... a tremendous book."

Given the author’s stature and popularity during his lifetime, it’s perhaps surprising that his novels, at least in English, have fallen into obscurity today. Lion Feuchtwanger (1884-1958) was a German Jew whose religion, Jewish literary themes, and outspoken anti-Nazi sentiments led to his persecution at home. Through the efforts of the Emergency Rescue Committee (an activist group dedicated to providing exit visas to high-profile political refugees in occupied France), Feuchtwanger was rescued from a French concentration camp, disguised in women’s clothing, and brought to the United States with his wife. They settled in southern California, where he continued his literary career. Raquel is one of his later works. While his historical novels have been out of print and hard to find in the United States and Great Britain for decades, they’re still in print in Germany. See the German cover of Raquel at right.

Raquel: The Jewess of Toledo opens in the year 1187 or thereabouts. Alfonso VIII, the very Christian king of Castile, has just failed in his attempt to conquer Seville, in the Muslim-controlled southern half of Spain. His coffers are near bankrupt, and he needs to restore prosperity to his suffering realm. To this end he selects a wealthy merchant, Ibrahim of Seville, as his new Minister of Finance. Although Ibrahim was forced to convert to Islam as a young man and has many connections among high-ranking Muslims in Andalús, he was born a Jew and has never forgotten his origins. When he relocates to Toledo, he reverts to his birth name of Yehuda Ibn Esra and re-establishes himself in his family’s hereditary castillo. He makes it his mission not only to collect taxes for King Alfonso and manage his finances but also to serve as a protector of his fellow Jews in the likely case of another Holy War. With Don Yehuda comes his family friend Musa Ibn Da’ud, a Muslim physician who’s part of his household; his fourteen-year-old son, Alazar; and his seventeen-year-old daughter, Rechya, who adopts the Castilian name of Raquel.

Although Alfonso lives in relative contentment with his wife Doña Leonor, daughter of Henry II of England and Eleanor of Aquitaine, beautiful Raquel quickly attracts his attention. She intrigues him when she forthrightly states she prefers the comfort and Andalusian-influenced décor of her father’s castillo to Alfonso’s cold stone fortress at Burgos. Raquel is presented an intelligent and clever young woman, literate in Arabic and Hebrew yet unused to proclaiming her Jewish faith so openly. When Alfonso asks Yehuda if Raquel will become his mistress, Yehuda faces a tough decision. He knows he must leave Castile for good if he doesn’t agree. Despite the disgrace to her family’s name, Raquel consents. Thus begins a seven-year affair in which King Alfonso, enraptured by Raquel’s charms, neglects his wife and the greater workings of his kingdom, leaving Yehuda to gain influence at court – as well as many enemies.

Despite being the title character, Raquel can’t really be called the protagonist, as we rarely see anything through her eyes. The novel is no feminist re-imaging of historical events. Raquel comes to view Alfonso as her chivalrous knight in shining armor and endeavors to see the best in him, despite his restless nature and occasional anti-Jewish prejudices. Throughout the novel, the point of view shifts between Yehuda, Alfonso, and some of the secondary characters, such as Don Rodrigue, secretary to Toledo’s archbishop and one of Alfonso's privy councillors; Doña Leonor; and Don Ephraim Bar Abba, head of the Aljama, Toledo’s Jewish community. For readers who can’t get enough of Eleanor of Aquitaine, you’ll be pleased to see she makes her appearance three-quarters of the way through. Eleanor steals every scene she’s in, though the advice she gives her jealous daughter feels petty and beneath her.

For the greater part of the novel, as Alfonso grows ever more tempted by the possibility of dissolving Castile’s neutrality -- which would let its men participate in the Pope’s new Crusade -- Yehuda continues urging him towards peace. Unsurprisingly, given the author's background, religious tolerance and mutual understanding is the novel’s strongest theme, best personified by Yehuda, Musa Ibn Da’ud, and Don Rodrigue, who become close friends. In this sense, the novel can be read as a morality tale.

Despite the 50+ years since it was published, the translation still reads smoothly, aside from the occasional distractions of having multiple exchanges of dialog within the same paragraph. This is a novel that demands concentration, especially if you’re unfamiliar with 12th-century Spain. Feuchtwanger throws a lot of historical detail into the first chapter, and there are many characters to track. On the plus side, it rewards readers’ efforts. It’s a worthwhile introduction to the politics and religions of the period, particularly if you appreciate medieval characters whose faith shapes their worldview.

From what I’ve been able to determine, the truth behind Raquel: The Jewess of Toledo fits somewhere in the intersection between history and legend. (Note: clicking on the following link reveals major spoilers!) The Jewish Encyclopedia reports that Alfonso X, in his writings, related his grandfather’s love for a Jewess known as “la Fermosa” (the beautiful) as fact. Another article in Medieval Iberia: An Encyclopedia relegates the tale to legend and traces occurrences of it over the centuries. I wasn’t able to find any historical data on Yehuda Ibn Esra, which leads me to believe he may be fictional. This isn’t my area of expertise, but I did find what might be a historical error relating to Alfonso and Leonor’s daughter, Berengaria (Berenguela), and who she ends up marrying.

If you'd like to get hold of a copy (and don't read German), you might try interlibrary loan, as the prices for used copies in English can be ridiculous. (I bought my copy at a used book sale at least a decade ago.) Raquel: The Jewess of Toledo is well worth reading, and on a timely subject to boot. Maybe if we’re lucky it will be reprinted one day.


  1. Anonymous3:03 PM

    A play by Franz Grillparzer (Austrian poet and playwright, died 1872) predates Feuchtwanger's novel - as far as I remember, the names etc. are the same (the play is called "Die Jüdin von Toledo" as well). I seem to recall that Grillparzer used a play by Lope da Vega as his inspiration, but I might be wrong.... not to say that Feuchtwanger plagiarized, the connection between the two works was always known and admitted. It's an interesting novel (and a great play). Thank you for the review!

  2. The play you mention sounds familiar. I'm not surprised that other, earlier literary works got their inspiration from the legend given that it's been around so long. I did some searching and found a ballet (which appears fairly new) based around the same story too.

    Thanks for your comments!

  3. What a wonderful review. Now I'm so curious to read this book. I love reading about Spain before Ferdinand and Isabella, when the Jews and Muslims lived in relative harmony. I think it's a period of history that is ripe to be re-explored in historical fiction.

  4. Thank you, Sarah, for the background on this novel which I read and enjoyed so much while in college.

  5. Anonymous8:39 PM

    I'd love to read this book! Thanks so much for the detailed discussion. I wrote my doctoral dissertation and first (academic) book on relations between Christians, Muslims and Jews in Castile in the decades just after the events of this book (which were, as you say, at least a legend close to the time of Alfonso VIIIs death) took place. Yehuda ibn Esra sounds like he is based on Judah ibn Ezra, just from the name. The story of his close relationship with Christian rulers is no legend.
    Let's hope you single-handedly revive historical fiction set in Medieval Spain!

  6. Anonymous8:40 PM

    Postscript: I just wanted to say that the story of Spain's Jews at the height of their power and influence captured the imagination of the highly assimilated Jews who lived in Central Europe in the 20th century who saw parallels with Spain's Jews in both their rise --- and their fall.

  7. Lucy, I think you would enjoy this book, especially since it's your area of expertise. It took me a little while to get into it, mostly because he goes into considerable detail on the setting before any characters are introduced. I reread those pages several times, until I felt I'd absorbed it well enough to proceed with the rest of the story.

    I expect you're right about Judah ibn Ezra, from the brief searching I did on his name. I'd been looking for Yehuda's prototype during Alfonso VIII's reign and didn't think to look earlier than that!

    I wish there was an author's note about his characters and influences (it was clear to me too there were meant to be parallels to his own time), but there's nothing. I also wish there was more fiction written about this period!

  8. Anonymous6:58 AM

    The March, 2009 issue of Smithsonian Magazine has an article on how Lion Feuchtwanger was saved from the Nazis by an American Diplomat, who disobeyed orders to do so, and was crucified for it....

  9. Anonymous4:27 PM

    I'm coming to this review rather belatedly, but I thought I might throw in some other info on Feuchtwanger's historical novels and add some mention of the other great German-Jewish historical novelist, Stefan Zweig.
    Note: I read these in German.
    Feuchtwanger wrote 8 historical novels. All of them fabulous. The one that most people know or don't know is Jew Suess. They "don't know" it, as it was an infamous re-rendering as a Nazi propaganda film. The novel is the recounting of the rise and fall of the court Jew Joseph Suess Oppenheim.
    His novel about Goya has to be one of the best renderings of an artist's life (although only a part of it) written.
    And then there is the small quirky "Die häßliche Herzogin", the Ugly Duchess. An amazingly sympathetic portrait of one of the forgotten female actors in early European politics.

    And then there is Stefan Zweig. Although he calls his historical novels biographies, they're perhaps better described as novelistic biographies. Three deserve special mention: Joseph Fouché, Erasmus of Rotterdam, The Right to Heresy: Castellio against Calvin. The first, is essential reading to understand who really enabled Napoleon's rise to power and his success, apart from his key role in the unfolding of the French Revolution. Erasmus is a character who is now largely forgotten, perhaps because we no longer admire polymaths and humanists so much, but Zweig's telling of his life is a great read. Lastly, Castellio and Calvin should be required reading for anyone interesting in the Reformation and an understanding of the rather nasty history of one of the giants of rise of protestantism.
    -J. Sadove

  10. Thanks for commenting. The Ugly Duchess is the only other book by Feuchtwanger I own, and I've yet to read Zweig. Joseph Fouché has intrigued me as a character ever since I read about him in Catherine Delors' For the King. I appreciate all of the recommendations.