Alfred Neumann Introduction

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(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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Alfred Neumann 1895-1952

German novelist, dramatist, short story writer, poet, screenwriter, and biographer.

Neumann is notable for his historical novels that focus on the abuses and danger of ambition and power. Critics maintain that he contributed to the revival of the genre by using past events to symbolize the political situations of his day, such as the rise of the Nazi party in Germany in the 1930s. Although well-respected during his lifetime, he is now often overshadowed by his contemporaries, particularly Herman Hesse, Thomas Mann, and Franz Werfel.

Biographical Information

On October 15, 1895, Neumann was born into a wealthy, Jewish family in Lautenburg, West Prussia, which is now part of Poland. A few years later his family moved to Berlin. Neumann attended schools in Berlin and Rostock before traveling to Munich to study art history and German history. Wounded in 1915 while serving in World War I, he began to write poetry while recuperating from his injuries. He returned to Munich in 1917, publishing his collection of his poems, Die Lieder vom Lächeln und der Not, that same year. He resumed his studies in 1920, receiving a degree in romance languages and literature. In 1926, he published a few collections of short fiction and his first historical novel, Der Teufel,for which he received the Kleist Prize. Neumann left Munich for Italy in 1933 to escape the Nazi regime in Germany. When Europe became untenable, he moved to the United States in 1941. Settling in Los Angeles, he worked as a screenwriter for Warner Bros. Pictures and became an American citizen in 1946. He died in Lugano, Switzerland, on October 3, 1952.

Major Works

Neumann's major themes are the dynamics of power and guilt, in particular the abuse and corruption that can result from absolute power, and the effects of guilt on the individual. In Der Teufel, a barber named Oliver Necker rises to become a trusted advisor and confidant to King Louis XI. Wheb Louis seduces Oliver's wife, Anne, Oliver plots against the monarch, isolating him from his staff and his friends. Eventually, Oliver becomes head of state but is executed after Louis's death. Der Patriot, is also rooted in historical fact. A group of Russian nobles, including the honorable Count Peter von der Pahlen, conspire to overthrow the despotic rule of Tsar Paul. Paul's son, Alexander, agrees to assume the throne as long as his father's life is spared. Yet when Paul is killed, Pahlen kills himself, as he had pledged his life to Alexander that no harm would come to the Russian ruler.

Critical Reception

Most critics agree that Neumann's work has been surpassed by that of his better-known contemporaries. Stylistically, reviewers have found his novels wordy and dull; they have also derided his poor attention to detail and historical fact. Yet most commentators have praised his insightful and perceptive observations of the human condition, particularly his depiction of unscrupulous and ambitious individuals who eventually are corrupted by greed and insecurity.