House of Exile was first published in Australia but has now been taken up by Allen Lane in London, the prestigious hardback arm of Penguin. It’s an account of the lives of a group of German and other writers in the period leading up to, and including, World War II. Its main focus, though, is on Thomas Mann’s novelist brother Heinrich, and his comparatively unliterary wife Nelly.
It’s a strange book from many perspectives. Speculation is set side by side with encyclopedia-like factual entries so that the feeling of amalgamated notes is never far away. The author clearly wants to offer a life of Heinrich, but also to bring in other authors, such as Virginia Woolf and James Joyce, who he never met. Diverse topics are also given capsule treatment — how writing-quills were once made, and the theory that consciousness continues for around seven seconds after a beheading.
Authorial opinions occur occasionally — the early translations of Thomas Mann into English, for instance, are “indeed awful.” There’s no index, and the sources are lumped together in one comprehensive appendix. The end result is a book without a consistent authorial voice that incorporates a rag-bag of facts and impressions.
But it’s a very literary rag-bag for all that. We learn that Joyce wanted to write something short and simple after Finnegans Wake, which was neither of these things, and that Virginia Woolf wanted to equal the concision of Gide’s journals (“The plain truth is I can’t”). Brecht, we hear, almost never drank, and Thomas Mann suffered from painful teeth.
Minor figures are introduced in cameo roles. Thomas’ son Klaus thought that undergoing rehabilitation for his drug addiction was being “exiled from artificial paradises.” After Walter Benjamin’s son Stephan was interned in London in 1940, he was sent to Australia, along with 2,541 other Germans, Austrians and Italians, mostly Jewish, but also including some Nazis. They had no idea where they were going, but after the war many opted to stay. The author mentions the captain’s respect for the Nazis under his command, and his distrust of the others, but characteristically makes no comment on it.
Heinrich Mann was a more popular novelist than Thomas, and also more left-wing. He shut himself away in his Los Angeles study for two days after reading about the short-lived German-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact of 1939 (“Communists baffled,” noted Woolf of the same event), but eventually came round to an understanding of Josef Stalin’s calculating nature.
Heinrich never won the Nobel Prize, unlike Thomas (who wrote “hopeless” in his diary about attempts to get his brother nominated). House of Exile’s author, Evelyn Juers, has seen Heinrich’s FBI file and notes that he and Brecht were regularly suspected of meeting American communists. And it was East Germany that, after the war, claimed Heinrich as one of its own, with his body dug up, cremated, and the ashes sent there from Los Angeles in 1961.
Heinrich’s wife Nelly gets a good deal of sympathy, something she couldn’t manage with many of her husband’s friends. The author takes pains to record her rejection of the hostile view of Nelly in a recent publication as “a poor and promiscuous young woman who marries into a higher social class and is pathetically, embarrassingly, out of her depth.” Again, Juers is generally an enthusiast for Heinrich, but even so the most outrageous moment in the book comes when, after Nelly has written an account of her life, her husband flings it on the fire, only to rewrite it under his own name. When Heinrich’s published version becomes a victim of the Nazi’s 1933 book burnings, Juers comments that Nelly probably saw it as the second time her life story had been committed to the flames. No wonder she took to drink.