Exiles from a devastated world
BIOGRAPHY: House of Exile: War, Love and Literature, from Berlin to Los Angeles. By Evelyn Juers, Allen Lane, 400pp, £25
AS SOON AS Hitler seized power in 1933 it became clear that a great age of artistic expansion in Germany had come to an end. Art was incompatible with power. The Nazi propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, who had studied literature himself, dismantled the German cultural achievement, beginning with the symbolic book-burning fest on Opernplatz in Berlin.
The German imagination was living on borrowed time. Publishers such as Samuel Fischer came under threat; oppositional writers were murdered; some, including Kurt Tucholsky, killed themselves; and many others, such as Bertolt Brecht and the brothers Thomas and Heinrich Mann, went into exile, ending up in the US. What began with an assault on culture culminated in human devastation across Europe.
The factual chronology of European history is available to us now in vast libraries as well as through fingertip technologies. But what did it feel like for a writer such as Thomas Mann to leave Germany and live in California while his home country smouldered? How did the paranoia of exile impact on those writers and their families?
Perhaps the best insight comes in a new form of life writing that combines the power of fictional speculation with the factual accuracy of biography. House of Exileis a daring book that reads like a novel and is simultaneously grounded with an impressive abundance of panoramic detail, from the fish market in the town of Lübeck, where the Manns grew up, to the effects of reading Theodor Fontane’s Effi Brieston a woman in the 1920s. The result is a Cat scan of the European literary world at a time of great decline.
What did the exiled German community in California miss most in the US? Gooseberries. When these appear at a local market it feels like a piece of home brought all the way out to the US, a kind of physical synopsis of all that has been lost.
It is with her characters’ personal longings that Evelyn Juers begins her imaginative investigation, reliving the countdown to departure with a glimpse of the love Heinrich Mann had for his sister, the actor Carla, who kept a human skull in her possession. The skull contained a small package of poison, which Heinrich found one day and which Carla would eventually use to take her own life.
The facts are always fascinating, but it is the peripheral contextual information that makes the story so interesting. We learn about other great writers who loved their sisters, including Goethe. We imagine a journey in which Carla meets two scientists on a train. We follow Heinrich on his literary journey, writing his sister into his novels, as well as his intimate personal life. The younger Thomas mistrusted Heinrich’s corrupt love and went on to say that he was pathologically oversexualised.
Perhaps the most touching part of this book is about Heinrich’s great life partner, Nelly Kroeger. Working as a Berlin Animierdame,a woman employed to liven up the bar and to encourage more drinking, she became the perfect companion and the inspiration for Heinrich’s novels, even if Thomas considered her beneath the Mann family. Unlike other biographies, this treats Nelly with great affection and empathy, particularly when dealing with the loss of her daughter at a young age, from which she never recovered.
Juers is quite open about her own narrative technique, using words such as “probably” and “must have” to fill in the gaps, as in: “Put on your Zola face, she might have said to Heinrich.” She even steps into the first person with expressions such as “I imagine that” in order to justify the flight of invention beyond the known facts at her disposal. This is an exciting departure into a literary field that has now become known as creative non-fiction, which allows Juers to propose that “the best writing occurs on a narrow ledge between fact and fiction”.
At one point Nelly finds a parcel containing a new slip that Virginia Woolf had bought in Wertheim department store and lost on the street in the snow while on a visit to Berlin. In a cafe Virginia asks the waiter to bring her a Schwarzwälder tart like the one that Heinrich Mann can be seen eating at another table. And later on Nelly is wearing Virginia’s slip as she sits on Heinrich’s knee.
The reader gulps in these imagined connections with great trust in a book that is grounded by such a wealth of true detail. Even if the information is always compelling, however, the narrative at times glides into a comparative study, festooned with random facts across literary timelines. You may ask what Woolf picking flowers in Galway has to do with the Manns escaping from the Nazi grip on Europe, or whether it matters that Hitler, Mussolini and Thomas Mann were plagued at one point by the same strain of mosquitoes.
Juers is asking herself: “How much research, hauled together over months or years, was enough? The drawing of parallels. Allegory. Past and present in one frame . . .”
What this book does with such great skill is the portrayal of exile: the paranoia, the sleeplessness, the uppers that Thomas Mann took after exercising in the nude every morning and the Veronal sleeping tablets taken at night to bring peace, the same Veronal that Nelly used to end her own nightmares. Here we have all those frayed nerves, the concern for family members back home, the coded letters, the fear of Nazi assassins coming to the US; the family jealousies and the fame and the humilities; the heartbreak of Germany out of reach; and the arguments between Thomas Mann and Bertolt Brecht over the culpability of an entire nation in the Nazi disaster.
This may the closest that non-fiction can get to the ambitions of the novel.
Hugo Hamilton is a novelist and memoir writer.