House of Exile: War, Love and Literature, from Berlin to Los Angeles

This sombre tableau is the subject of Evelyn Juers's enthralling book. Juers, who was born in Germany but now lives in Australia, has chosen to explore the themes of exile, suicide and the cultural catastrophe of Nazism through the lives of the Mann brothers.

Evelyn Juers' extraordinary book is a unique imagining of the unconventional love affair between the writer and political activist Heinrich Mann. Dresden, the European literary community went into a fever of restlessness. The ledge on which Juers has constructed House of Exile is a vertiginous twilight of pre-war Berlin, culminating in the book burning of 10 May Finally settled in Los Angeles, the German refugees began to fall out.

Thomas, author of The Magic Mountain and Nobel laureate, was protected from the worst of Hitler by his fame. Heinrich, his politically active senior, also a writer, had to flee Germany in with nothing but an umbrella and a suitcase of manuscripts.

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The bleaching of European angst by the southern California sun has already inspired drama and biography. Christopher Hampton's Tales from Hollywood and John Russell Taylor's Strangers in Paradise were both animated by the odd juxtaposition of Hollywood frivolity and German intellectual gravitas. Juers makes her telling of these tales new and exciting by immersing herself in the letters and memoirs of her protagonists, reconstituting her research as a quasi-biographical fiction.

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This is a book that makes big demands for correspondingly sublime rewards. The ledge on which Juers has constructed House of Exile is a vertiginous place, without the safety rails of scholarly apparatus no index, for example but with a stunning, rather queasy-making, view. Juers describes what she has done as "a collective biography", though I suspect its secret ambition is rather more exalted. To the dissonant lives of the Mann brothers she has added the interwar wanderings of Leonard and Virginia Woolf, James and Nora Joyce, Aldous and Maria Huxley, plus a cast of peripatetic literati from Benjamin to Isherwood.

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Biography books History books reviews. He enjoyed being told that he was famous. Perhaps the most profound message of House of Exile comes in the very first chapter. She has lived in Hamburg, Sydney, London, and Geneva. Other articles from this issue:

Some moments of exhilarating coincidence in these pages are reminiscent of Stoppard's Travesties. Whatever her method, which will not be to everyone's taste, Juers makes an important point about the exodus of European writers to foreign parts in flight from a real or imagined narrowing of horizons. Waugh, Graves, Maugham, Wodehouse, Coward: If he also had to teach himself English, pacing the deck of a transatlantic steamer with a copy of 1, Worte Englisch , repeating "Ai vont tuh rihd ohl dsihs pehpers maisself!

Collective biography, or meta-fiction, or shape-shifting tour de force, House of Exile begins and ends with the puzzling and strangely touching relationship of Heinrich Mann and Nelly Kroeger.

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He was the meticulous bourgeois writer in his starched collar and bow tie; she the blowsy chatterbox, a former barmaid, 27 years his junior. Thomas and Katia Mann could not stand Nelly and plotted to break up the relationship. Heinrich himself seems to have struggled with his feelings of superiority. On the one occasion Nelly dared to challenge her lover with an account of her life and times, Heinrich declared the manuscript "extraordinary, almost a novel", tossed it into the fire and calmly set about rewriting it as his own, under the title Ein ernstes Leben A Serious Life.

In Berlin, once Hitler came to power, everyday existence was not just serious, it was terrifying. How does one live worlds apart from oneself?

House of Exile: The Lives and Times of Heinrich Mann and Nelly Kroeger-Mann

To recreate the exiled generation of s Europe, and to tell their tale of loss, Juers has taken a novel approach. 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.

Juers is thorough yet engaging, creating a brisk narrative abounding with information.

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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. This was the bustle, the energy of life and a shared culture that America — for all its freedom — lacked.

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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. 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.