Book Review: House of Exile, by Evelyn Juers
Evelyn Juers weaves the story of the Manns and a generation of European artists forced from their homelands by war
One Family: Worlds Apart
In 1940, the famed Mann brothers, twin giants of twentieth-century literature, met again in Los Angeles after a separation of several years. Thomas, the younger, had lived in Princeton for a year before Heinrich finally abandoned Europe to an ugly war and the totalitarianism that had engulfed it. They left behind almost everything, save their families and reputations. Amongst other emigrés, such as Aldous Huxley and Bertold Brecht, they tried to find new footing in a world and a language not their own. It was an escape to a freedom that, they discovered, was also another kind of prison.
At the heart of Evelyn Juers’ new biography of the Manns and their generation is this paradox: America represented freedom, but also emptiness. As novelist Alfred Döblin put it in his seminal Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929), "freedom [is] a fearful state of exile". How does one live worlds apart from oneself?
To recreate the exiled generation of 1930s Europe, and to tell their tale of loss, Juers has taken a novel approach. Rather than rehash biographies from books and documentaries, she has, in her own words, woven a semi-fictionalised "collective biography set in an age of fragmentation and flux". It is to her credit that reflecting this, she has nonetheless arrived at one of the most rounded, affecting portraits yet of Heinrich and Thomas Mann, their families, and friends.
Juers technique is to use the tools of biographers and historians – letters, diaries, eyewitness accounts – to imagine events from the lives of her protagonists, adding an emotional veneer to the narration of facts. In a simple typographic twist, Juers uses italics within sentences to indicate genuine quotes from original sources. In this way, ‘real’ history is unobtrusively mingled with literature.
At the heart of Juers’ story are the complex relationships between the various strands of the great Mann family, in Lübeck, Prague, Berlin, Italy, France, and finally the USA. Juers is thorough yet engaging, creating a brisk narrative abounding with information. Here is the childhood of Thomas Mann and his older brother Heinrich; their first steps as writers; their love affairs; Thomas’ marriage; Heinrich’s condemnation by the Nazis; Thomas’ emigration to the US; Heinrich’s travails in Europe with his partner Nelly Kröger; his eventual dependence upon Thomas in Princeton and Los Angeles; Nelly’s depression and suicide.
The Mann brothers differed in personality and politics: Thomas was aloof, respectable, an individualist pleased at his own success; Heinrich was more sensual, engaged with leftist politics (in post-war Europe he was particularly lauded in the USSR and GDR). Yet their interdependence shines through as much as their frequent conflicts.
Throughout, Juers accumulates a supporting cast of artists, writers, and lovers. In more or less detail, we follow Franz Kafka, Berthold Brecht, André Gide, James Joyce, Albert Einstein, Virginia Woolf; as well as their contemporaries, Josef Goebbels, Heinrich Himmler, and Adolf Hitler. As these famous figures intermingle, the Old World of 1930s Europe begins to resemble a goldfish bowl, where one couldn’t move without stubbing a toe on a persecuted playwright. This was the bustle, the energy of life and a shared culture that America – for all its freedom – lacked.
Particularly impressive is Juers’ portrait of Emma Johanna ‘Nelly’ Kröger, Heinrich’s troubled wife. The traditional image of Nelly is of a lewd girl, out of her social depth in the Mann household, a gaffe-prone drunkard. This image leans on the accounts of Thomas, who found Nelly "unbearable". Juers is at pains to treat Nelly with respect. Here, she speaks directly as biographer, and recounts her efforts to nail down Nelly’s family history armed with "a slim harvest of available facts". To my mind, the chapter detailing Nelly’s immersion in the ‘great sardonic baby’ of Weimar Berlin – responding to its charms "as birds reply to light with song" – is the most affecting of the book. Juers’ Nelly is vibrant, yet tragically worn down by circumstance. What’s more, Hein- rich’s love for her is brought unquestioningly to the fore.
The style of House of Exile takes some acclimatisation. Switches from third-person fictional narration to biographical description, between omniscience and objectivity, are not seamless. The accumulation of contemporary political developments alongside the bewildering array of characters produces a montage-style text that veers towards self-parody: "At the beginning of October, Germany annexed the Czech territory of the Sudetenland. Thomas smoked a cigar called Optimo..."
Juers strains credibility with her ventured responses of characters to books they may not even have read ("If Madame Bovary had fallen into her hands, I imagine what she would have loved most was its intimacy"). Yet on many other counts, the book is excellent: in its forays into the "milk-washed skies" of the Baltic landscapes of Nelly’s and the Manns’ childhoods, for instance.
Above all, Juers’ is a book of loss, where displacement is more meaningful than belonging. Perhaps the most profound message of House of Exile comes in the very first chapter. The young ‘Heini’ and ‘Tommy’ have been squabbling over a violin that ends up damaged. Their mother, Julia, admonishes Heinrich with a phrase that, decades later, might have served as the Old World’s epitaph:
"You see, it no longer matters if it was yours alone, or if it belonged to both of you, now that it’s broken."
House of Exile: War, Love and Literature, from Berlin to Los Angeles by Evelyn Juers
Allen Lane (2011), pp. 400