Peter Parker is beguiled by a novel approach to the lives of Europe’s intellectual elite in flight from Nazi Germany
In his time, Heinrich Mann was considered one of Germany’s leading writers and intellectuals. Unlike his rivalrous younger brother Thomas, who always put his literary career before any other consideration, Heinrich was an early and outspoken critic of the Nazis, and so forced to leave Germany in February 1933. He was based for several years in the south of France, while travelling around the world to denounce the regime he had left behind, and he eventually emigrated to America in 1940, settling in Los Angeles. Unlike many European emigrants who thrived in the Californian sun, Mann did not adapt well to transplantation. He was already an old man at 69, with his best work behind him. His wife committed suicide in 1944, and he died six years later, having just booked his passage to Berlin for the opening of East Germany’s new Academy of Arts, which had elected him president.
It is a nice irony that Mann is now chiefly remembered as the author of Professor Unrat (1905), the novel on which Josef von Sternberg’s classic 1930 film The Blue Angel was based. It tells the story of a 57-year-old teacher who becomes infatuated with a much younger cabaret performer, marries her and has his life ruined. The Mann family feared that life was imitating art when in 1929 Heinrich took up with Nelly Kroeger, a nightclub hostess 30 years his junior. The insufferably pompous and self-regarding Thomas in particular was horrified by his brother’s involvement with a woman he thought both coarse and stupid.
In her extraordinary House of Exile, Evelyn Juers persuasively argues that, far from being the stock figure she has often been reduced to in biographical accounts of the Mann brothers, Nelly was in fact a courageous and resourceful young woman who, until overtaken by mental illness, made Heinrich extremely happy. It was largely thanks to Nelly that Mann managed to escape the Nazis: she stayed behind in Berlin when he fled Germany the day before his flat in Fasanenstrasse was raided, and was several times arrested and interrogated. She subsequently joined him in Nice, where the couple married in September 1939. The following year, after the fall of France, she managed to get her by now elderly husband safely over the Pyrenees on foot into Spain, thence to Lisbon and onto a ship for New York.
Heinrich and Nelly are the central figures in House of Exile, which won the Prime Minister’s Literary Award for non-fiction when first published in Australia in 2008. Although Juers’s finely written book may deserve a literary prize, one questions whether this was the right one. The British publisher suggests that it ‘enlarges the bounds of biography’, but it in fact breaks those bounds altogether. This is not simply one of those biographies that uses ‘probably’, ‘must have’ or ‘might have’ to gloss over factual lacunae and blur the line between ascertainable, properly sourced fact and mere speculation: it fills out scenes with all the freedom of fiction and even invents episodes. Evidently based on solid research and making extensive use of quotations from original sources, it nevertheless cannot truthfully be categorised as a biography.
Juers herself is completely frank about her methods. For example, she describes in harrowing detail the death of the child Nelly had before meeting Mann, then adds: ‘Let’s say that’s how it was. We know that Nelly carried a deep sadness with her all her life. We know she lost a child, but not the circumstances.’ Perhaps, like Per Wästberg’s wonderful The Journey of Anders Sparrman, which uses fictional methods to bulk out and illuminate the historically evanescent life of an 18th-century explorer, the book ought simply to have been described as ‘a biographical novel’. Even this is not quite right, because the author is often present in the narrative, sifting evidence, following leads, commenting on earlier books on the subject like any other scholar. The most sensible thing a reader can do is to accept House of Exile as a hybrid, allow constricting categories to fall away, and enjoy the book for what it is: an absorbing, impressionistic and wide-ranging account of the effect of politics, war and exile on a group of leading European writers and intellectuals.
The book’s idiosyncratic nature is part of its point, for Juers is a highly sophisticated author who knows exactly what she is doing. She teasingly notes that ‘discussions about the historical novel were carried on with great intensity throughout the 1930s’ and that ‘the kinship between truth and fiction was the topic of the day’. Mann was working on his two-volume novel based on the life of Henri IV of France, while Joseph Roth was writing his Napoleonic novel Die Hundert Tage and Hermann Kesten his Ferdinand und Isabella. Alfred Döblin, she adds, ‘would have said the historical novel was a contemporary form of fairytale, raising questions about the purity of genre, and about the epic potential of montage’. House of Exile is itself a generically impure montage, in which isolated, often fragmentary scenes build into an overall portrait of deeply troubled times. Occasionally, particularly in the latter part of the book, this method becomes a little too patchwork and loses narrative cohesiveness, but at its best it is brilliantly effective.
Juers clearly owes something here to Virginia Woolf, which may be why this English novelist somewhat unexpectedly takes her place in the narrative among the Manns, the Zweigs, the Brechts, the Döblins and others. Woolf was not of course forced to leave the country of her birth, but she and her husband had decided that if Germany invaded Britain they would commit suicide, which is what many of those who fled or remained in Germany ended up doing. Furthermore, Woolf’s eventual suicide in 1941 was partly attributable to the oppressive and fearful atmosphere generated by the war. These may seem rather tenuous reasons for giving her a major role in the book, as does the incidental fact that she visited Berlin in January 1929 at the urging of Vita Sackville-West, whose husband had been posted to the British embassy there. It is at this point, however, that Juers takes her most daring leap into fiction, for she engineers a glancing and unrecognised encounter between Nelly and Woolf when the latter falls over in a Berlin street and drops a small parcel. As with much of the book, there is something irresistibly playful about this episode: it may not be history, but then no one is pretending that it is.
One also hears an echo of Woolf in some of the writing, as when Juers describes returning from her researches ‘with little more than a clutch of names and dates, cold facts’:
I pick through them like someone looking for coins in the pockets of an old coat, blindly feeling for unexpected details to emerge, blunt or buffed or dented, that will clink together, pay my fare, take me to yet another point of origin.
Cold facts — particularly the dismal catalogue of deaths among her large cast, itemised with chillingly effective brevity — take their place in this oddly beguiling book alongside skilfully embroidered scenes that in their attention to quotidian detail vividly evoke a world that would be brutally swept away.