Monday, 17 October 2011

House of Exile - an Appreciation

Evelyn Juers – House of Exile

This is what biography should be! This book pushes you deep into the consciousness of the time by its descriptions of the lives of individuals.

The main characters are the writer Heinrich Mann and his wife Nelly Kröger-Mann. [photo of Heinrich and Nelly, courtesy of] Other members of the Mann family put in frequent appearances particularly his brother, the Nobel prize-winning Thomas and his son Klaus, and a host of other writers, including James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Bertolt Brecht, Robert Musil, Walter Benjamin, Lion Feuchtwanger, Jakob Wassermann and many others. It takes us through the thirties and the rise of fascism in Europe, and the war years.

What has often irked me about biographies is a tone that can sometimes slip into the critical or judgemental – how easy I think, to look at another's life, one that, presumably, is admired [why else write about them?] and see 'flaws' in their character or decisions they made. Evelyn Juers has managed very cleverly I think, and after a huge amount of research, to get inside the lives of her main characters. She does this partly by quoting their letters and journals, partly through magnificent writing where she does not signal her presence by waving opinions or interpretations, though does sometimes say things like - I imagine her walking down the Kurfurstendamn etc. So that we feel as if we are experiencing events through the eyes of the people described. And there is no hint of judgement, but rather, great compassion, which is not overtly stated, but in which the whole book is steeped, like a colour, a subtle scent or flavour, the kind of light which is only found in a certain place, whether geographical or psychological.

What sticks in my mind is that boat full of Jewish refugees fleeing Hitler's Germany crossing the Atlantic and being turned away from the USA. Having to go back across the Atlantic and as the author said, probably ending up in the camps. The way that the French collaborationist government helped to seek out German residents in France, who were then sent back to Germany and to the concentration camps. The way all the German resident exiles had to apply for visas to the USA and exit permits from France. And if you knew someone in the USA already, it made it at least more possible. How many writers committed suicide. How Virginia and Leonard Woolf had a suicide plan ready, should the UK succumb. The way Heinrich [then nearly seventy] and the others with him had to climb over the Pyrenees to escape to Spain. And how the Nazis in pursuit reached Cerbère near the French-Spanish border a day later – they were just in time. The relentless pressure, anxiety, fear for oneself and one's loved ones. No wonder people turned to alcohol, and came to rely on morphine, barbiturates and other drugs, as they tried to sleep at nights.

The suicide toll goes on and on. People still in Germany who had been arrested, or knew they were about to be, those who lived in France or Prague or other European cities, after France's capitulation and collaboration with Germany. People who were trying to escape but did not manage it, like Walter Benjamin on the Spanish border, taking the same route that Heinrich and Nelly took. He did not have a French exit visa and was refused entry into Spain. A few weeks earlier he wrote in a letter - the complete uncertainty about what the next day and even the next hour will bring has dominated my existence for many weeks. Like so many of the refugees he carried a lethal dose of morphine tablets with him, and took these rather than return to France.

Thomas Mann's journals and letters are often quoted. It's clear from them that he never liked Nelly, Heinrich's wife, considering her 'common'. After her death – she had problems with alcohol, other health problems, and eventually took her own life – Thomas Mann says 'she caused him [Heinrich] a lot of trouble.' She also cooked for him, looked after him, typed up his manuscripts, went out to work and took on menial jobs in the USA to support both of them, and clearly loved him. She was described by others as 'a ray of sunshine', and 'the kindest person I ever met'. Heinrich was devastated by her death, and particularly remembered her courage and how she helped him when they were escaping over the Pyrenees into Spain.

So relevant to our own times too, as many refugees from various wars and oppressive regimes continue to seek asylum, escaping from horrors quite unimaginable to us, who live in freedom and relative security.

You can find the Guardian review here

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