I bought House of Exile when it was shortlisted for the 2009 Prime Minister’s Award for Non-Fiction, not knowing anything about its subject matter except that it was indirectly something to do with Thomas Mann. He is one of those writers I’ve heard of, but never got round to reading. It turns out that he was the brother of Heinrich Mann, the primary subject of House of Exile. (When I realised this I toyed with the idea of reading Death in Venice online but the translation is so awkward I gave up after a page or two.)
Ramona Koval interviewed Juers on the RN Book Show and like me, she began with an interest in Thomas Mann because he’s the famous brother, and the one who won the Nobel Prize. Juers explained that she became interested instead in his older brother Heinrich because he is underrated as a writer, and dismissed as insignificant because of his brother’s pre-eminence . His wife Nelly was ridiculed for being coarse and vulgar (she had a drinking problem) but she was actually a very courageous woman, tested to the limit when the couple had to flee Nazi Germany because of Heinrich’s criticism of the regime. Considering Heinrich’s patronising attitude towards her as a writer, her extraordinary efforts to support him seem all the more remarkable, but I suppose they were of their own time and it was not uncommon for men to suppress women’s writing, not at all…
It’s not, however, a straightforward biography. In the Afterword Juers calls it a collective biography set in an age of fragmentation and flux. To depict this reality she has tried to recreate the lives of a group of German intellectuals around Heinrich Mann, all of whom lived a life of exile during and after the War. As Hoffman explains so eloquently in After Such Knowledge, many of those who escaped the Nazi regime could not bring themselves to return to Germany thereafter. The idea of knowingly or unknowingly encountering the perpetrators of mass horror could not be countenanced, and the initial flight to safety thus became a diaspora to America, Australia, Israel and elsewhere. This post-war self-imposed exile diffused the support they might have been able to offer one another had they been together as a community.
The Mann family, however, had its share of tragedy even prior to World War 1. In 1910, Heinrich’s sister Carla suicided over a love affair; like Nelly, she suffered because her social position was judged not good enough and so she used the cyanide she’d been hoarding for years. Juers suggests that Thomas, a rather unlikeable man it seems, was bothered by the social impact of her suicide rather than by grief, and considered it a selfish act. He seems to have been a man who viewed events as they affected him. It took him quite a while to get round to denouncing German atrocities in the 1930s, compared to his heroic brother. In America he refused to extend financial help to his brother’s wife because he found her embarrassing.
Heinrich seems to have been more far-seeing. In the prewar period, in 1911, Heinrich was writing essays warning that ‘without democracy, people would seek salvation from their leaders, would believe in supermen , while their own development would remain dangerously stunted‘. (p68) He was appalled by the declaration of war in 1914 while Thomas on the other hand was in favour of it, leading to conflict between the brothers, expressed by Heinrich in anti-war essays which Thomas rejected as a personal attack. (Both were conveniently exempted from military service.) This rift lasted till well after the Great War.
All this is interesting enough, but it’s not exactly compelling reading. Unlike Brenda Niall’s brilliant biography The Boyds: A Family Biography which I could not put down, House of Exile didn’t really pique my interest in these people or their doings. Perhaps if I had been familiar with the work of more of the intellectuals surveyed, it might have been different; after all, The Boyds is about Australia’s preeminent artistic family, and I am especially fond of Martin Boyd’s Langton Quartet. Maybe I was predisposed to enjoy The Boyds, but it still seems to me that there is a jerkiness about Juers’ writing and a strange reserve about her subjects which is in contrast to Niall’s accomplished style. There are times when Juers’ writing seems disjointed, with references to writers such as Kafka and Virginia Woolf having no apparent connection to the family story, other than to remind us that they were contemporaries. Yet at other times I found the author’s voice intrusive and wished for a little less detail. Who cares if the author has a coffee with someone she’s interviewing? Who cares if Virginia Woolf lost a glove or ate bread with honey?
The beginning of Points of Origin is bewildering:
‘I was born on June 20, 1887 in Hanover. As a child I had a little garden with roses and strawberries’. Hanover and Hannover, one hen in English, two hens in German, a clever teacher could have told young Kurt Hermann Eduard Karl Julius Schwitters – what a name – who lived with his parents in Veitchenstrasse. Violetland he called it, and called himself Kuwitter, Ku for short, for Kurt of course, but also Kuh a cow, and wittern a foreboding in the cow’s nostrils, Wetter wittern a change in the weather, things to come. When Kurt wet himself as a child he was locked in the bathroom. When he watched other boys destroy his garden, a hill he’d made, a pond, the roses, the strawberries, he was so upset that he had an epileptic fit. He was sick for two years. In 1919 Herwarth Walden published Schwitter’s ‘Anna Blume’ in the magazine Der Sturm: a poem about an ordinary girl, ungezahltes Frauenzimmer, uncounted, untold, Anna-anonymous, who is like a flower. She wears her hat on her feet and walks about on her hands, she has a pet bird, the poet loves her. A heroine. A hero. (p73)
This Schwitters is a writer, ok, and in the next paragraph we learn that he meets another writer called Doblin, but (unless I missed it – there’s no index, to check!) we never do find out anything more about him until he turns up as an artist on p333. This and other fragments about some writers called Moses Joseph Roth and Elizabeth Schuler have been included in this chapter presumably so that the book’s structure mirrors the state of fragmentation and flux. I found it disorienting…
I also found the speculative aspects somewhat bizarre; it was as if Juers were freely embroidering a past for Nelly because so little was known about her life. ‘Let’s say that’s how it was’ she says on p97, alerting us to the fact that most of what we’d just read about the death of Nelly’s baby was invention because ‘we know she lost a child but not the circumstances’. It may indeed be innovative, but I do not agree that ‘the best writing occurs on the ledge between fact and fiction’ (p169). Yes, yes, it is a given in the 21st century that the ‘truth’ is not always to be trusted, but imaginative reconstructions leave me confused and irritated. What is the point, other than to pad out the length of the book?
Like Ramona Koval, I do not want my reservations about it to imply that I did not read the book. I pressed on with it, finding Part 2 very bleak indeed. It chronicles the passage of WW2 year by year, interspersed by a miscellany of apparently unrelated people and events in the UK, US, Europe and even Australia. It’s as if Juers were determined to use every scrap of her painstaking research, right down to someone changing the brand of cigar he used. The overall story about the impact of exile seems to me to be at risk of drowning in the flood of detail, and Juers herself seemed to have more empathy with Virginia Woolf than with her subjects marooned in the intellectual wastelands of an America they did not understand. (An America also deeply suspicious of them, because of Heinrich’s communist sympathies.)
The catalogue of names I didn’t know did make me realise that I haven’t read much German literature…
As to why it’s been nominated for the PM’s Award – well, it’s obviously an important book with scholarly credentials. Giramondo specialise in this type of publication, and it has its place. David Malouf on the back blurb says this:
A large book, both in scale and ambition, sustained by impeccable research, lightly used, full of intelligence, wit, humour, and a deep sense for the oddness of people and the mysteries of the creative life.
All true; can’t argue with a word of it. It’s what Malouf hasn’t said that’s telling.
There’s another review of House of Exile at Reeling and Writhing.
PS 1.45pm, the very day I finish this book and blog it, it is announced as Joint Winner of the PM’s Award for Non-Fiction, along with Drawing the Global Colour Line by Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds. Which proves that you shouldn’t take any notice of anything you read on this blog!
PPS 13.11.09 I sent a congratulatory email to Ivor Indyk of Giramondo Publishing re his successes in recent awards, and received a reply to the effect that he thinks this post about House of Exile is ‘very philistine’…
Update: 23.6.12 When I wrote this review back in 2009 I could find online only the review I refer to, but now there are heaps listed on Evelyn Juers page at Wikipedia. Some of them are locked behind paywalls, but at the time of writing this, these ones are not. See
Author: Evelyn Juers
Title: House of Exile, the Life and Times of Heinrich Mann and Nelly Kroger-Mann
Publisher: Giramondo, 2008 (paperback)
Source: Personal copy. Purchased at Readings. ($32.99)
Fishpond: House of Exile: The Life and Times of Heinrich Mann and Nelly Kroeger-Mann
Book Depository: House of Exile
Or direct from Giramondo.