House of Exile: War, Love and Literature from Berlin to Los Angeles
Allen Lane; Hardback; 383 pages
House of Exile is a work of extraordinary skill and breadth: an innovative and intuitive portrait of the artists, and intellectuals, who resisted the cultural juggernaut of World War II. This group biography takes Heinrich Mann as its itinerant lead. The writer, activist, and lesser known sibling of Thomas ‘The Magic Mountain’ Mann, Evelyn Juers sidesteps the obvious ‘brother problem’ in favour of other defining relationships in Heinrich’s life: his unorthodox love affair with seamstress Nelly Kroeger; his failed marriage to free spirit Nena Schmied; the formative impact of his sister Carla; and perhaps most poignant of all, his lifelong correspondence with other writers in exile. Along the way we encounter a host of famous faces from Bertolt Brecht and James Joyce, to Walter Benjamin and Franz Kafka: ships-in-the-night of this waltzing narrative, which circumnavigates ‘War, Love and Literature’ as well as the globe. Following Heinrich’s flight from Germany to America, House of Exile is nothing short of necromancy. Shifting between archivist’s shorthand and Woolfian flights of lyricism, Juers revels in an “exiled” position between literary terrains – bringing a time of immense creativity and upheaval, to breathtaking light.
From the outset, House of Exile raises inevitable questions about life writing and the art of collation. ‘The best writing occurs on a narrow ledge between fact and fiction’ writes Juers, addressing the ethical and imaginative conundrum of her biography: how to re-piece eminent lives, and what to do with the fragments they left behind. Rather than treat Heinrich and his coterie as sacred ghosts, to be preserved and revered in memoriam, Juers devises a nomadic prose to reanimate the lives and times of the Thirties. Combining historical information, anecdote, and citation of primary texts, Juers’ novelistic biography steers a happy path between fact and fiction. The peculiar story of Carla Mann echoes Juers’ unique re-appropriation. An aspiring actress, Carla is said to have had one particularly beloved prop: a skull which was ‘sawn in half…[which] had been carefully realigned, with the discreet addition of a set of hinges and an inset base of light-toned polished wood…A [strange] vessel’. House of Exile similarly builds on the bare bones of history, in step with popular fiction of the period (‘the kinship between truth and fiction was the topic of the day’, from Stefan Zweig’s Erasmus of Rotterdam to Heinrich’s own Henry IV).
Juers writes history with remarkable insight and restrained pace. The bonhomie of the early Thirties in Part I – café culture and the relatively free exchange of ideas – grinds to a crisis as the political climate darkens in Part II. Virginia Woolf succumbs to writer’s block; Nelly succumbs to substance abuse; essayist and playwright Erich Mühsam succumbs to death at Oranienburg (murder framed as suicide). Of course we are well versed in the atrocities and cultural suffocation of Nazi Germany, but Juers heralds this change with breathtaking subtlety, using a series of subliminal markers. The recurring image of ripe fruit, for instance, comes to symbolise the diabolical fruition of Fascism (as well as artistic reward: ‘the fruit of the fame tree, the writer’s harvest’), whilst the “death-drive” flickers over Thomas’ growing libido, reportedly enflamed by the onset of war (a nod to Freud, one of Juers’ innumerable cast). Juers commands history not with a bang then, but with a ‘raspy whisper’: pre-shadowing, and reinvigorating, the colossal dates we have restored to memory.
Crucially, Juers never lets “greatness” overshadow her portraits. Her literati are readers as well as writers, no less giddy at the mention of esteemed idols than Juers’ own enthralled audience. The young Heinrich ‘cultivate[s] a Nietschean state of homelessness’ for instance, while Carla affects the tragic mannerisms of her heroine Anna Karenina. Walter Benjamin resolutely avoids literary circles, whilst Virginia worries that she is ‘fundamentally…an outsider’ compared with friends T.S. Eliot and E.M. Forster. The anxiety of influence looms large then, humanising the names and faces that time has given iconicity, without compromising their enigma. Juers’ reverence for objects and pedestrian detail has a similarly grounding effect. From Heinrich’s abandoned writing desk to Nelly’s sewing scissors and Virginia’s blue slip, House of Exile is ‘warmed by the intimac[y]’ of things, silent witnesses to all that has come and gone. A wunderkammer of memories.
Juers handles her vast knowledge with breezy dexterity, projecting a gifted generation of émigrés ‘into new significance’. Rich with scholarly detail and alive with imagination, House of Exile is a dazzling work